Does Race Affect Academic Performance?


It does. And so does gender. Exactly how it effects your test scores totally depends on the thoughts floating around in your head, no matter what color it is. In fact, race and gender aren’t really the culprit; for that we have to look to stereotypes.

In the classic study on stereotype threat researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson looked at the performance of African American and White . The African American ’ performance on the test varied markedly when they were primed to think of the test in two different ways. When the was presented as a measure of African American students performed poorly when compared to White students.  When the GRE was not presented this way, the African American students performance matched that of their White classmates.

Women are also affected by these stereotypes. A study by Sian Beilock and colleagues found that women who were made aware of the stereotype that men do better than women in mathematics actually performed worse on math tests.

And it’s not just in academics. A 1999 joint study between University of Arizona and Princeton researchers found that the golf performance of white males suffered when they were primed with the idea that golf was a test of natural athletic ability and that they did better when it was presented as a test of “sports intelligence.” Performance for black athletes responded in exactly the opposite manner. Presented as a test of athleticism, black golfers did better. If it was supposedly a test of sports intelligence they under-performed.

What that means for you is that you can talk yourself into (or out of) better performance in your academic or athletic career. It’s–at least partially–in your head (in society’s head?)! Here are some concrete ways you can put this knowledge to good use.

  1. Spend some time looking at others like you who have excelled in your field. Are you an Asian trying to dominate the basketball court? Take some time to watch YouTube videos on other Asian-hoop-wunderkind. Are you an African American about to study for that big science ? Spend some time looking at all the other science geniuses who share a similar genetic background.
  2. Refuse to listen to negative stereotypes. I don’t watch TV. I just don’t. It’s too difficult to control the content, not just in the shows, but in the commercials. I try to surround myself with people, books, and situations that bring out my best and help me overcome my worst. For me, that means carefully controlling what I listen to, what I watch, what I read, and where I go.
  3. Mentally rehearse. I know this will sound hokey to some of you, but the is out there. Think about yourself performing well on that upcoming task. Imagine it in as much detail as you can as often as you can. I first learned the power behind this as a football player in high school. Bill Glass, a football Hall-of-Famer, came and talked to our football team and described his regimen of mentally rehearsing his devastating athletic performances. I tried it for myself. Totally works. If you want to see the , I recommend Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E.P. Seligman, or the research on cognitive behavioral therapy.

Next time you have a big academic or athletic performance around the corner take some time to mentally rehearse your performance, avoid negative stereotypes, and take time to look at others you identify with who really excel in that area. You’ll sidestep stereotype threat and perform to your true potential. You might also find this post on Priming Yourself for Success helpful.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.