“Channel your inner old white man” – Some reflections on stereotype threat

1795 Portrait of Pierre Seriziat by Jacques Louis David

1795 Portrait of Pierre Seriziat by Jacques Louis David

Yesterday, I was studying in the library with a friend of mine, and discussing how power dynamics play out in professional and academic relationships. Too often, women and minorities underestimate their own capacity and potential, which in turn relegates them to lower positions within any organizational hierarchy. To counter this, she hypothesized, perhaps we should ‘channel our inner old white man’.

Though at first, this prescription may sound absurdly and blatantly racist, classist, sexist, ageist and a lot of other terrible things, I think the heart of it exposes a key behavioural pattern that shapes our power dynamics and image, specifically in Western contexts where a certain projection of confidence is half the battle in convincing others of your aptitude for any task or position. The archetypal ‘old white man’, as used in this context invokes an image of entitlement, privilege, confident reassurance coupled with at least the pretence of expertise for any task he sets his mind to.  He can take up space wherever he wants and go wherever he pleases, and associate freely with any member of society and expect to be taken seriously. It is because of the pervasiveness of this archetype, and the stereotypes surrounding it, do we continue to see women and minorities having a hard time imagining themselves in positions of authority not historically associated with their race or gender.

This is obviously a very simplistic model. A person’s sense of confidence, authority or self-worth is not entirely derived from the race or gender with which they identify. However, due to the phenomenon of stereotype threat, many women, for instance, tend to leave STEM fields before reaching top positions, whereas many minorities don’t feel particularly welcome to participate in professional performing arts, especially, TV and film acting.

Currently on my path towards changing careers into social science research, I am feeling a similar kind of mental road block. I was adequately confident in my abilities as an engineering student to know that I would survive through the program and beyond if I only persevered through, despite the stereotype of women not being good enough in STEM fields, but this in part had to do with the fact that my own mother is a renowned scientific researcher and academic in her field, and I had a good role model to follow. I knew my aspirations were within my reach. However, when I steered my direction into serious social science research, I didn’t have anyone similar to look up to.

In class today, another friend was speaking about her experience at a conference this past weekend. In private conversation later, she revealed that she is increasingly unsure if academia is the place for her, given ‘how people have their heads so far up their asses’, and how insular, cliquey, and self-reflexive the whole event felt. Again, I thought this was a manifestation of stereotype threat and additionally, impostor syndrome. She kept mentioning how having a down-to-earth personality, she was probably not a good fit for the ‘pretentious’ air of academia. When did pretentiousness become a prerequisite for success in academia? Are there systemic policies in place that impede the participation and performance of the so-called ‘down-to-earth’?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I feel like many continue to feel left out of their chosen fields because of one aspect of their personality or background that they have no control over, and this is really a shame. I hope one day, we don’t have to ‘channel our inner old white man’ to assert our authority or be taken seriously in life and work.


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