Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who recently moved to the Charlotte, N.C., area to be with his fiancée, this month had a horrible car crash. The 24-year-old broke out the back window to escape and walked, injured, to knock on the nearest door for help.
Now, Ferrell is dead. The neighbor he asked for aid called 911 (“He is trying to kick down my door,” she cried on the phone), and one of the responding police officers shot the unarmed Ferrell 10 times.
Ferrell, who was African-American, may have been too hurt, too in shock, to remember to whistle Vivaldi to signal that he was a victim and not a threat.
Social psychologist Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” revolutionized our understanding of the daily context and cognitive effects of stereotypes and bias. The title of Steele’s book alludes to a story his friend New York Times writer Brent Staples once shared.
An African-American man, Staples recounted how his physical presence terrified whites as he moved about Chicago as a free citizen and graduate student. To counter the negative effects of white fear, he took to whistling Vivaldi. It was a signal to the unvictimized victims of his blackness that he was safe. Dangerous black men do not listen to classical music, or so the hope goes.
The incongruence between Staples’ musical choices and the stereotype of him as a predator were meant to disrupt the implicit, unexamined racist assumptions about him. It seems an annoying daily accommodation, perhaps, an attempt to make whites feel at ease to grease the wheels of social interactions — unless we fully recognize the potential consequences on black lives of white unease.
I do not know many black people who do not have some kind of similar coping mechanism. I have been known to wear university-branded clothing when I am shopping for real estate, hopefully drawing on the cultural value of colleges and students to counter any assumptions about me as buyer.
A friend straightens her hair when she is job-seeking. Another friend, a Hispanic male, told me that he shaves all his facial hair when entertaining white clients to signal that he is respectable.
Although stereotype threat — the anxiety that you are conforming to negative assumptions about your social group — can befall any member of any group, it occurs most frequently, and with more dangerous consequences, for groups that have more and stronger negative beliefs attached to them.
Of course, respectability politics will not save you. Just as wearing long johns is not a preventative measure against rape for women, affecting middle-class white behaviors is not a protective measure for people of color.
It is a talisman. In exerting any measure of control in signaling that we are not dangerous or violent or criminal, we are mostly assuaging the cognitive stress caused by constant management of social situations.
That stress has real consequences. Steele’s work led to an entire body of research on those effects.
When the object of a stereotype is aware of the negative perception of her, that awareness constrains all manner of ability and performance. But perhaps more interesting to me is what Steele described as the constant background processing that stereotyped people must perform.
It’s like running too many programs in the background of your computer as you try to play a YouTube video. Just as the extra processing — invisible to the naked eye — affects the video experience, so the cognitive version compromises the functioning of our most sophisticated machines: human bodies.
For all we social scientists like to talk about structural privilege, it might be this social-psychological privilege that is the most valuable. Imagine the productivity of your laptop when all the background programs are closed. Now imagine your life when those background processes are rarely if ever activated, simply because of the social position your genetic characteristics afford you.
The death of Jonathan Ferrell reminds us that stereotyping in daily interactions can be aided and abetted by organizational processes (like the characterization of a police call to 911) and structural legitimacy (like the authority of the police to shoot first and ask questions later).
I am choosing to ignore how that process was set in motion. Perhaps better feminist scholars than myself can explore the historical, cultural, gendered fear that legitimizes the unconscious bias toward black men as sexual and criminal predators. I find I do not have the stomach for it today.
I just read an article that quotes Ferrell’s family at length. His family’s attorney did not just want us to know that Ferrell was a friend and son but that:
“He’s engaged to be married, he has a dog and a cat, he was driving a Toyota Camry, he survived an accident, had 3.7 GPA, a chemistry major. This is not someone who posed a threat to the officers or anyone else, this is an everyday American.”
A 3.7 GPA. They want us to know that their dead friend, son, brother, and cousin had a 3.7 GPA.
Ferrell may have been too hurt, too in shock to whistle Vivaldi to all the people he encountered the night he was shot. It may not have helped if he had, through slammed doors, over police sirens and gunfire.
But even in death his family is whistling Vivaldi on Ferrell’s behalf, signaling to us that he was a student, and, by extension, a human being whose death should matter.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. This piece is adapted from her blog, tressiemc.