Stereotype Threat

“We believe in elevating the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are women, queer, trans, femmes, gender nonconforming, Muslim.…” There it was, the descriptive characteristic that labeled me as a minority and ultimately bridged the gap between me and the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Muslim myself, I beamed at the fact that marginalized black Muslims are outspokenly included in the platform. I have finally found the tangible thread that defiantly connects me with a movement so dedicated to equality and giving a voice to those who struggle to speak for themselves.

However, let’s get one thing straight. I have never experienced segregated schools. I have never been denied the right to vote. I have never been stopped and frisked. I have never been told by my mother how to act if stopped by a police officer. I have never been questioned by a police officer when I visit black neighborhoods. I have never been judged differently by my peers because of my skin color. Yes, I identify with two marginalized and majorly discriminated groups being a Muslim female and have experienced the devastating impacts of implicit bias in school and in my developing career. Despite that, I will never be able to fully comprehend or grasp what it is like to be black or gain access to that perspective. I have come to recognize and acknowledge this privilege more as I sat through each lecture of that class.

I desired to learn. I planned to educate myself further about the Black Lives Matter movement and really digest what my professor was teaching me throughout the semester. The semester has been rich with information about the struggles of achieving racial justice, from its economic aspects to the exploitation of race, and I’ve gained much more insight than I started off with. Despite my previous expectations, I realized that it is neither a black person’s job nor duty to educate me on their own oppression, but rather I should seek out resources on institutionalized and societal racism against the black community. The readings assigned to us as a part of The Profits of Race class have been nothing but thought-provoking and invigorating, allowing me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn information that I subconsciously was trying to avoid or internalize. The fact that I even have the option to avoid information about an oppressed mass is indicative of the privilege I have but did nothing to earn.

So why, then, was it so hard for me to voice my opinion during our discussion section? Why did I opt to keep my participation to a minimum? Why was it that when the TA asked us how we could work against the American dream that has been so ingrained in our culture, I couldn’t raise my hand and respond, even though I knew very well from what I learned and through personal experience how and why the American dream has devastating impacts? How much did my identity have to do with my reservation to voice my opinions in The Profits of Race? What does it mean to have an identity that evokes devaluation in the very setting that one learns, and how do we combat this?

Stereotype threat has been one of the most studied concepts in academic psychology for the past two decades. Its effects are important because they speak directly to a social issue of immense importance. I am aware that both are stereotypes imposed upon us by society––that only black people have the tools to speak on black oppression and that white people have the open-ended freedom to say whatever, whenever without fear of negative repercussions. Yet as I sat there once a week in my discussion class, the threat of possibly satisfying or confirming a negative stereotype attached to any part of my identity––whether it be cultural, religious, or gender-related––halted my courage to participate and interfered with my academic performance. I disidentified with that class and had lower self-esteem, causing me to underperform in that class according to my personal standards. I allowed myself to be implicitly grouped with an identity stereotype that I did not want to comply with, and I gave in to a stereotype threat.

When a student enters the classroom, they enter as a whole human being. They carry with them their multiple identities, making their backpacks heavier than they appear to be. To strip one’s brain of these identities and the stereotypes that come with each one is a feat much easier said than done. While there are many theoretical solutions published about how to make a classroom more inclusive, I believe part of the solution lies in empowering students through education so to build a community where self-empowerment is not only a teacher’s responsibility but the students’ as well. With the considerable negative impact of stereotype threats on performance, it is obvious to see the implications for efforts to promote an inclusive society. At every level of the educational system, stereotype threat can literally change who we are, who we aspire to be and who we become. I am privileged enough to have several platforms that, when used appropriately, will allow me to help disband the stereotype threat in Barnard classrooms. I should be able to support and even propel the Black Lives Matter movement forward with my classroom contributions, despite my domain identity. In my eyes, the movement does not have an isolated mission. Rather, it gathers a spectrum of minorities within black communities and brings them to the front line of the movement, making it inclusive and liberating. This includes black Muslims. The Black Lives Matter movement is an encouraging movement made to empower all those who are its allies. To be an ally for Black Lives Matter is to be an ally for equality for all––black, white, and everything in between.

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