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Claude Steele To Deliver One Book One Northwestern Keynote

Acclaimed author of "Whistling Vivaldi" to discuss the unexpected effects of stereotype threat

“There’s an important subtext to the book: Don’t allow others to limit your potential.” – Harvey Young, One Book One Northwestern faculty chair

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- White people can’t jump, and women perform worse than men in higher math and science. In his One Book One Northwestern keynote address on Feb. 4, social psychologist Claude Steele will shed light on the surprising ways these common stereotypes influence our behavior and lives and how to mitigate the effects.

Steele’s book, “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do,” was chosen as the 2014-2015 One Book selection, the popular university-wide reading program, sponsored by the Office of the President.

His free public lecture takes place at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 4 in Harris Hall, Room 107, 1881 Sheridan Road, on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Steele will sign books following the event.

Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Steele is executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley.

While in town, Steele also will speak to students from Northwestern University School of Law and the Feinberg School of Medicine about how professionals can best navigate stereotype threats. That talk will take place at noon on Feb. 3 at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center's Hughes Auditorium, 303 East Superior in Chicago. (RSVP to Anita Munoz  312-503-4473, amunoz@northwestern.edu.)

“Dr. Steele offers a timely reminder that even less explicit forms of discrimination  -- such as inferences and whispers -- can have profoundly negative effects,” said One Book One Northwestern faculty chair Harvey Young, associate chair and director of graduate studies in the department of theatre. “There’s an important subtext to the book: Don’t allow others to limit your potential.”

The title of Steele’s book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” refers to the story of a young black graduate student walking through Chicago’s Hyde Park at night. After sensing that passersby perceive him as a threat, he begins whistling melodies from Vivaldi or Beatles’ tunes to ease their fears. 

Building on this and other examples from a lifetime of groundbreaking research, Steele argues that pervasive stereotypes can actually influence behavior and performance and, if left unexamined, can perpetuate themselves.

His research suggests the consequences are wide reaching because of what he calls “identity contingencies” or “things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity, because you are old, young, gay, a white male, a woman, Latino, politically conservative or liberal, a cancer patient…and so on,” he writes. “Whistling Vivaldi” details “the experience of living under such a cloud -- an experience we all have -- and the role such clouds have in shaping our lives and society.

An engaging speaker, Steele draws on popular culture to illustrate his points, such as a scene from the hip-hop biopic film “8 Mile” which features a white rapper. The goal of his book, he writes, is to show how stereotype threat “can contribute to some of our most vexing personal and societal problems.” But doing quite feasible things to reduce this threat can lead to dramatic improvements in these problems, he said.

In addition to the Office of the President, other One Book partners include the Block Museum of Art, Women’s Center, Northwestern Athletics, department of African-American studies, Multicultural Student Affairs and The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.

More than 40 One Book-related activities will be held throughout the academic year. The conversations will address issues such as dealing with physical disability, the value of diversifying STEM disciplines, significant contributions of women in the business of sports and the shifting meaning of “race”’ over time, Young said.

To keep apprised of the schedule of book groups, lectures, discussions, film screenings and events, visit the One Book website at http://www.northwestern.edu/onebook/index.html

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