Steampunk, Dieselpunk and Stereotype Threats at Anachrocon!
My wife; my seventeen year-old daughter, Yetunde; my eleven year-old, son, Oluade; and my five year-old daughter, Oriyemi, recently participated in Anachrocon 2014.
Yetunde put tremendous thought into her cosplay. She is a stickler for historical accuracy, so she insisted everything from her shoes, to her hairstyle to her fingernails be done as they would have been during the 1940s; to achieve said accuracy, Yetunde devoted weeks of research to the aesthetics of the 1940s. She did this while maintaining the 4.0 grade-point average she has achieved for her entire academic career.
Oluade gave a lot of thought to his cosplay as well. Since this year’s theme for Anachrocon was Dieselpunk, which is set in the Diesel Era of the 1920s through the end of WWII, and he knew, through reading my blogs and my latest novel, The Scythe, that Pulp magazines were popular during most of that era, Oluade decided he wanted to be a two-fisted masked pulp hero. Thus, the Auburn Avenger was born!
His concept of the character is so well-developed and so cool, I have promised Oluade that the Auburn Avenger will feature in a few of my short stories and perhaps even a Middle Grade novella.
Oriyemi was happy to just cosplay a vampire princess and to joyously – and accurately – point out which costumes at Anachrocon were Steampunk and Dieselpunk.
My children were completely comfortable at Anachrocon; much more than I have ever been at any convention.
Because they do not suffer from stereotype threat.
“What is stereotype threat,” you ask?
It is the fear or anxiety of confirming some negative stereotype about your social group; it is the idea that we hold within us that we might accidentally act in ways that confirm stereotypes about ourselves.
These fears are often self-fulfilling, pulling us, like magnets, toward the very stereotypical actions we hope to avoid.
In the Yoruba culture, we call this phenomenon Elenini – the personification of negativity. In western societies the statement “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,” applies.
I have blogged about how the media often portrays Black people and other People of Color, negatively. One of the implications of these negative images is the notion of stereotype threat. A person who is constantly bombarded with negative images of his or her racial or ethnic group, begins to internalize the same social and personal characteristics of these images.
Numerous psychological studies have examined effects of stereotype threat in areas such as standardized tests, and athletic performance.
For example, the commonly held assumption that women are less skilled in mathematics than men has been shown to affect the performance of women on standardized math tests. When women were primed beforehand of this negative stereotype, scores were significantly lower than if the women were led to believe the tests did not reflect these stereotypes.
Channels such as BET and MTV offer blatantly stereotypical images of Black people and of women of all races that greatly affect young viewers who take these images to heart.
The term stereotype threat was first used by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, who, in 1995, conducted several experiments that proved Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students.
The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.
Long-term effects of stereotype threat are shown to contribute to educational and social inequality and affect stereotyped individuals’ performance in a number of domains beyond academics.
Research shows that stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance. For example, stereotype threat has been shown to harm the academic performance of Hispanics, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, girls and women in math, and even white males when faced with the stereotype of Asian superiority in math.
Stereotype threat produces numerous consequences, most of which are negative in nature, such as:
1. Decreased performance
Perhaps the most widely known consequence of stereotype threat is reduced achievement on tests in situations in which the stereotype is relevant. In addition to affecting test performance, stereotype threat has been shown to decrease performance on other kinds of tasks, as varied as white people and women of all races in athletics ; women in negotiation; the elderly in memory performance and women in driving. Stereotype threat, it appears, can harm performance on any task where a stereotype is invoked suggesting that members of some groups will perform more poorly than others.
2. Internal Attributions for Failure
We often try to identify what factors are responsible when we fail to achieve a desired outcome. More often than not, we blame this failure on internal factors; on ourselves. This is especially true for those under stereotype threat. A test in 2008 showed that women under stereotype threat were more likely than men to attribute their failure on a computer task to their internal characteristics. When failure is internalized, stereotypes are reinforced.
Self-handicapping is a defensive strategy in which individuals erect barriers to their own performance to provide something to blame for their failure. They can point fingers at the barriers rather than at any deficiencies in their ability or effort. A test in 2002 showed that girls who performed poorly on a math test under stereotype threat were more likely to blame that performance on stress they experienced before taking the test.
4. Discounting the task
People under stereotype threat often question the validity of a task or the importance of the trait being tested. You might view a task as biased or as being ill-equipped to test your abilities if you expect to struggle with the task or have struggled with it in the past.
I believe this is one of the main reasons many Black people do not cosplay or read speculative fiction, whether it is written by a Black person or not. We are stereotyped as not being into Science Fiction and Fantasy; not possessing the capacity to create, or even understand it. Thus, we say such stuff is for white folks, or that Black people are too busy dealing with reality to deal with escapist hobbies such as reading Science Fiction or engaging in cosplay.
5. Distancing yourself from the stereotyped group
Stereotype threat can also affect the degree that we allow ourselves to enjoy and identify with activities associated with our social group. Steele and Aronson discovered that Black people who experienced stereotype threat expressed weaker preferences for – and performed less well than their White counterparts in – stereotypically “Black” activities such as jazz, hip-hop, and basketball. This identity distancing reflects a desire not to be seen through the lens of a racial stereotype.
To preserve their identity as a competent person in certain circles, stereotyped individuals sometimes distance themselves from an aspect of their social identity, or from people that bear the burden of the negative stereotype. When I first began to push Steamfunk, some Black Steampunks distanced themselves from me for fear that I was going to be the stereotypical angry Black man who happened to infiltrate Steampunk.
The effects of stereotype threat can be reduced or eliminated by several means.
1. Reframing the task
To reduce stereotype threat, you can “reframe” the task – use a different language to describe it. Simply informing Black people that it is cool to cosplay and showing examples of it can alleviate stereotype threat in fandom.
2. Deemphasizing threatened social identities
Interventions that encourage individuals to consider themselves as complex and multi-faceted can reduce vulnerability to stereotype threat.
It is important for Black people to know that we are not monolithic and thus are not confined to some unimaginative, non-creative, non-expressive “Black box.”
3. Encouraging self-affirmation
Affirming your self-worth is an effective means for protecting yourself from stereotype threat and the resulting failure.
Encourage people to think about their important characteristics, skills, values and roles. Black people who are given the opportunity to affirm their commitment to being Steamfunkateers are less likely to respond in a stereotypical fashion and bring great originality, creativity and coolness to Steampunk.
4. Providing role models
Providing role models who demonstrate proficiency in a field can reduce or even eliminate stereotype threat effects.
A Black historian sat in on the Diversity in Steampunk and Alternate History panel that I and the Co-Editor of the Steamfunk anthology, Milton Davis, were panelists on. He said that his interest in Steampunk came through his introduction to it through my blogs about Steamfunk and later, through reading the anthology. He further stated that he would have never participated in Anachrocon, or any other fandom convention, for that matter, if not for my – and Milton Davis’ – work.
In my efforts to help make all eight of my children proud of their Blackness; their intelligence; their wit and their creativity, I have, fortunately, helped to alleviate and maybe even eliminate any stereotype threat they may have been under had I done otherwise.
They have always seen my pride; they have seen me live as an African traditionalist in non-traditional America; they have always seen me embrace my creativity; to admire and model the brilliant and the ingenious; to push myself just as much as I push them and to succeed because of it.
So Yetunde, Oluade and Oriyemi approached Anachrocon with no fears, no worry that they would fall into some stereotype and embarrass themselves, me, or Black people. They weren’t thinking of being Black; they simply were Black, thus at Anachrocon, like everywhere else, they shined.
I pray to be like them one day when I grow up.