Mo (mofic) wrote,

Recent Reading: Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele and Hung by Scott Poulson-Bryant

I'm pairing these books in one post not only because I read them in the same weekend, but also because they have a related theme. The first is a popular treatment of psychological research on stereotypes and how they affect individuals. The second is a more personal book musing on the effect of a particular stereotype in American culture: the belief that black men have larger penises than white men. I was reading Whistling Vivaldi while spending the weekend with friends at their house in East Hampton and when I read bits of it that I thought were particularly interesting out loud to my friend D. he brought out Hung and said he thought I should read that one as well. So I did.

The whole title of the first book is Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The author is a social psychologist and currently provost of Columbia University. His major focus of research is on group identity and the effects stereotypes have on individuals. The book - which is written in a breezy, accessible style - focuses on the concept of "stereotype threat". In short "stereotype threat" is the negative effect on performance that comes from an individual knowing that there is a negative stereotype about their particular group. So, for example, African Americans told that a test is testing intelligence or American women told it's testing mathematical ability will do less well on the test than those told it's testing something about which there is not a negative stereotype for their group.

Much of the book recounts decades of research with multiple researchers showing stereotype threat in action for all manner of identities and stereotypes. He also demonstrates that the solution his parents (and many others) gave - "Well, if that's what they think about you you'll just have to try harder to prove them wrong" - doesn't work. In fact it's the high performing students with more investment in doing well who are more susceptible to stereotype threat.

Steele and his colleagues come up with a lot of clever experiments that really help in understanding just what's going on with stereotype threat - how and why it affects people and when it's worse or better. They are even able to induce it in ephemeral identity groupings by randomly assigning subjects to group A or B and telling them that those in their group do more poorly on certain kinds of exercises. The subjects don't know they were randomly assigned and think it's based on an exercise (unrelated to the test they take) that they do at the onset. The studies show that even without having a stereotype constantly hammered into your head, you get the effect.

The most illuminating part of the book is, I think, the last section. In this chapter the author reviews techniques that work and techniques that don't work to combat the effect. A lot of well-meaning parents and teachers and policy makers are doing things that are ineffective or worse, but there are good empirical data showing pretty simple ways to lessen stereotype effect as well. So the book ends on quite a hopeful note.

The complete title of the second book is Hung: a Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. I should probably say at the outset that reading this book involved a lot more thinking about penises than I generally do in a day, and this is coming from someone who writes and reads slash. The book is an exploration of the myth (or is it a myth? that's one of the questions Poulson-Bryant discusses) that black men have large penises and the effects that has both on black men and on the larger culture. The title alludes to the double-edged sword that the cultural impression of black male penis size has: black men are thought to be better hung, but they were often hanged (hung) for supposed sexual aggression.

The author is a black man who grew up in Long Island, graduated from Brown University, was a successful music critic for a number of years, and is now getting a PhD in American Studies at Harvard. He's often referred to as gay, I notice, in the reviews of the book, although he is one of those people who don't like that label (but do like sex with other men). And he has a dick that's not particularly long, although it's pretty thick.

Yes, one learns a lot about the size and shape of the author's penis and some of the uses it has been put to. He talks about how an article he wrote about penis size for the Brown University student newspaper gave him the nickname "Scott Pulsing-Giant" and how that follows him around still. It's a very personal book, but it's not a self-indulgent or self-absorbed one. He talks to lots of men about how they feel about the size of their (and other men's) penises; he reviews and muses on the image of the Big Black Dick (BBD) in assorted forms of popular culture; he discusses the history - from slavery through Jim Crow to the present - of the fear of black male sexuality in this country and the connection with the penis size myth. He has a really fascinating chapter on a particular kind of porn movie that depicts large black men with BBD's having sex with small white women, talking not only about the imagery and the market and the psychological aspects but also the economics - who's making money off of this.

In general I found the book very accessible and interesting to read, even as someone of the other gender, different race, and sexually oriented towards women. The one chapter I was lost in was the one on hip hop music. The author is a music critic and assumes a certain level of knowledge there that he didn't in the other chapters, and I have none. By the time I was saying to myself "Oh I think maybe this P. Diddy person and the other guy, Puff Daddy, are really the same person" the chapter was almost over.

There were a few other chapters in which I felt Poulson-Bryant missed the mark in his analysis or didn't explore some interesting aspects he might have, but mostly I found the book really engaging and thought-provoking in its analysis of a stereotype generally thought of as positive, but with both positive and negative effects. Claude Steele would probably be able to write an interesting review of this one.

So another couple of books I've read recently. I've read 47 books so far in 2010. I won't be profiling them all, but I like writing up books I recommend.
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