Mitigating the Impact of Stereotypes on Academic Performance: The Effects of Cultural Identity and Attributions for Success among African American College Students

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Differences between African and European Americans' academic and intellectual abilities and performance has been a perennial issue in the social sciences (Guthrie, 1999). Notwithstanding historic explanations that attributed these differences, either implicitly or explicitly, to inferior genetic predispositions and/or environmental conditions among African Americans, more recent research in this area has attempted to account for these differences. This line of research has centered around the notion of not necessarily blaming (stigmatizing) the entire group for what may reflect the product of various intra-personal characteristics of a significant minority of individuals, a consequence of overwhelming social, political, and situational forces (Thompson, 1999), or an interaction of both.

Nevertheless, a growing body of researchers have begun to investigate factors that could enhance African Americans' academic performance (see e.g., Arroyo and Zigler, 1995: Gardner, 1994; Stipek and Weisz, 1981) or that could account for the differences as consequence of a cross-section of individual, situational, and cultural factors (Bandura, 1991; Mischel and Shoda, 1995: Kambon, 2001). One very promising line of theory and research, evolving out of African, Social, and Personality psychology, has focused on the interaction between intra-personal (cognitive-affective) factors (e.g., culture, expectations, motives, attributions, etc.) and situational factors (e.g., social expectations, stereotypes, harassment, etc.). For example, since the seminal 1992 work by Claude Steele, much has been written about the enhancing and debilitating effects stereotypes have on performance. Evidence now show that performance is enhanced for individuals who identify with positively stereotyped groups and weakened for individuals who identify with negatively stereotyped groups (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Crozet & Claire, 1998; Inzlicht & BenZeer, 2000; Steele, 1997), under primed conditions. For African Americans, mounting evidence suggest that their performance is significantly lowered when engaged in activities for which negative stereotypes about their group exist (Major, Spencer, Schmader, Wolfe, & Crocker, 1998; Steele, 1997; Steele and Aronson, 1995).

As an illustration of this phenomenon, Steele and Aronson (1995) investigated this possibility in two slightly varied experiments using black and white undergraduate students as participants. In the first experiment, 114 participants took a test of the most difficult items in the verbal GRE exam. Students were randomly assigned to an ability-diagnostic condition (test presented as a measure of intellectual ability) or ability-nondiagnostic condition (test presented as a laboratory-solving task unrelated to ability). Analysis revealed that for Black students, the condition under which they took the exam had an effect on test performance. Black students who were told the test was a measure of intellectual ability did not do as well as the White students in the same condition. However, black students did perform equally as well as white students when told the test was a laboratory-solving task.

In the second experiment, the researchers varied the design of the first experiment to further examine the effect of stereotype threat on academic performance. Twenty black and 20 white undergraduates were randomly assigned to take the verbal GRE under either the diagnostic or the nondiagnostic condition. The differences in the second experiment were that (a) the test was shortened by 3 problems, (b) time was reduced by 5 minutes, (c) following the test, the participants completed the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory, and (d) participants completed an 11-point scale which measured specific self-perceived reactions associated with taking the test. The findings of the second experiment revealed that the test performance of Black students in the diagnostic condition was impaired not only in accuracy but also in rate. …