Jeremy Lin’s Triumph Over Stereotype Threat

Why low expectations based on our race or gender can be so hard to overcome

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin drives to the basket between Dallas Mavericks' Shawn Marion, right, and Vince Carter at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Feb. 19, 2012

One of my favorite parts of the Jeremy Lin story is his victory over stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the idea that we are all aware of the stereotypes that exist about our demographic group and we try to avoid fulfilling those pre-existing notions. We prefer to think of ourselves as individuals and feeling trapped within the limited expectations of our demo is demoralizing. We struggle to define ourselves apart from the expectations for our group, but as we fight to resist falling prey to fulfilling stereotypes our attention is split and thus performance can decline, which can increase anxiety about living down to the expectations we want to destroy. This potentially paralyzing fear is stereotype threat.

For example, black people know that we are stereotyped as intellectually inferior to whites and we know that stereotype is incorrect. But when we do the SAT or the LSAT or the physics final or any sort of pressurized intellectual test that is important to us, we are at risk of having our performance impaired by stereotype threat. We come to the moment wanting to do well for ourselves and to resist performing according to the stereotype and thus we have extra burdens. A white student can do the test without the fear of living down to the stereotype on their back, but the black student comes to the test with added intellectual baggage that can sap needed mental focus.

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Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, told me in an interview, about a scientific test in which black students were given the SAT and then given it again, but this time after being asked to write their race at the top of the test, subtly activating knowledge of their race and thus changing how they see themselves and how they think others see them. They inevitably do worse.

It’s not just a black thing. Gladwell also spoke about testing white teens on how high they can jump. Then a black person enters the room to retest them, subtly activating their self-conception as whites who, they know, are supposed to be athletically inferior. What happens? They jump 15%-20% less high. They probably don’t even understand that a deep-seated fear of fulfilling stereotypes is damaging their performance. Gladwell told me, “Just reminding people activates these kind of unconscious internalized prejudices.”

Claude Steele of Stanford University wrote about stereotype threat in an excellent book called Whistling Vivaldi. “People say, Why not use the stereotype as motivation to disprove it and perform better?” Steele told me. “That’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re trying hard to disprove the stereotype, but then you’re multitasking, and in a lot of situations that will backfire and you’ll perform worse because you’re not multitasking, you’re alternating your attention.”

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Things can get really perilous for anyone doing things outside the traditional script for their race or gender. That’s when they’re apt to feel more stress because they don’t want to embody the stereotype. They may even decide to quit trying because the shame of trying hard and still confirming the stereotype is painful: it wreaks havoc on the need to see themselves as individuals.

When Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters entered their sports they knew they were challenging expected roles, but they also knew that blacks are expected to be athletically superior. They were able to apply that expectation to sports blacks haven’t historically done well in. Asian Americans have not created a rich history of succeeding in American professional sports. Baseball has a history of athletes from Asia getting to the top, and there have been some elite professional Asian-American athletes like Michael Chang in tennis, Michelle Kwan in figure skating and Dat Nguyen in football, but, right or wrong, athletic success still does not fit the expected path for many Asian Americans.

Surely, part of why Lin’s potential went unrecognized by the Warriors and the Rockets (and, until days before they were set to cut him, the Knicks) has to do with the compressed schedule that has followed the NBA lockout. Far fewer practices than normal gave coaches no time to carefully evaluate new players. Lin was also cut from his pre-Knick clubs because he lacked some abilities he’d develop later: coaches have mentioned him lacking explosiveness, balance, decisionmaking and a consistent mid-range jump shot.

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But there’s another variable: Lin was almost certainly underestimated, or misevaluated, because as an Asian American he does not look the way scouts and general managers expect an NBA player to look. If he’d walked into the gym and wowed everyone right away he would’ve stood out, but when he didn’t, it confirmed the societal script that does not expect Asian Americans to be pro-level basketball players. That’s the prejudice Lin had to fight through. Stereotype threat is the potential internalization of that prejudice.

Before his breakout game with the Knicks, when he was struggling to get respect for the ability Lin knew he had and NBA decisionmakers were not giving him much positive feedback, he had to be uncertain if he would ever make it. Within that sea of doubt it’d be natural for him to wonder, even at some deep level of his psyche, if being Asian American would keep him from success either because his talent would not be recognized thanks to myopia or because of something innate. A sliver of self-doubt is all it would take to render Lin’s talent less effective than necessary at the NBA level.

Doubt that comes from a circumstance that is beyond his control could be especially debilitating when he makes mistakes on the court. Lin, with the Knicks, has been turnover-prone and his old coaches have said his shooting wasn’t as good then as it is now. When Lin threw errant passes and missed shots it would’ve been natural for him to wonder if perhaps he did not belong in the NBA because of some innate deficiency. But Lin’s perseverance and his self-confidence prior to his breakout game tell me that he must not have allowed stereotype threat to invade his constellation of thoughts explaining why he wasn’t doing well.

Now that Lin is getting praise from players and decisionmakers there’s no longer a risk of stereotype threat. He has established himself as an individual who has the potential for success and his mistakes or shortcomings are his own and not indicative of some genetic lack and not likely to be judged as such. His victory resonates larger than himself: the next Asian American who dreams of succeeding in the NBA will be at less risk for stereotype threat because Lin’s example proves Asian Americans can make it. Indeed, Lin gives us all hope that others will not judge us based on stereotypes. But more, Lin’s inspirational story suggests we must give ourselves the freedom to push beyond society’s expectations of us.

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PHOTOS: The New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin in Action