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How Derivative Perceptions Affect our Success

“We need to be treated as special kids in special schools” Shonya (name changed) said to the Cultural Diversity Manager. The Cultural Diversity Group (CDG) had been set in this Big Four Consulting firm and the Manager was in Texas to kickstart one chapter here. We had come together from different backgrounds – Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Indian Americans and Indians, as well as African Americans. Shonya, was an African American Consulting professional with an MBA from a top 15 MBA school in the US.

At that point the rest of us shrugged and looked at each other. Finally, one of us said that we did not want that kind of “treatment”. We were just as normal as others were. Needless to say that the CDG chapter in Texas did not go very far.

Andy (name changed) is a friend of mine. He was born and brought up in the US but is Indian by descent. Most of his friends are Indians or Indian-Americans and, from what I could see, has very Indian outlook in many things mixed with strong American values. “I used to hate EVERYTHING Indian when I was growing up” he told me once. And this sort of a feeling was pretty prevalent in most of his friends. But things changed when he started working in the late 1990’s. Now he had enrolled in Hindi learning classes and wanted to learn Hindi. He also – voluntarily I might add – visited India for only the second time in his life! And loved the experience.

How do people react to their identity is an interesting subject. Why does an African American with the best of credentials that you could get in Corporate America still think that she is a ‘special kid in special school”? And what changed – besides earning – between the 1970-80 period and the late 1990’s that made Andy love being an Indian?

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Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book “Blink” about an experiment that two psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson* carried out amongst African American kids. They gave them 20 questions from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). They first took these questions without any intervention. In a second part, all the students were asked to identify their race. The score was cut by half!! In fact one of the students remarked “You know, I just don’t think I am smart enough to be here.”

The question that becomes obvious is: does the general perception that the world has of us rule our own perception of our identity? It sure seems to be the case for Shonya and Andy! In Andy’s case, by late 1990’s Indians had started swarming the corporations in the IT field and the Silicon Valley boom had brought into focus the entrepreneurial Indians who were doing well. And suddenly, the “uncool” Indians had become the cool, intelligent, and rich community! A brown skinned guy was suddenly perceived to be smart in IT specifically and technology in general!

Another important point that Steele and Aronson’s research reveals is that our ‘derived” perceptions – based as they are on the external factors – do affect our performance which in turn feed into keeping the stereotype alive. So how does one break that cycle?

Affirmative Action has been used as a way to bring the African Americans up in the society. Is that working? From Shonya’s response it did not seem to be! The Affirmative Action has ostensibly ingrained in her sub-conscious that she is inferior in some sense to the normal people!

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I can bet that if the world was as sympathetic to the Indians as the American Government has been to the African Americans and given those from India “special privileges” because they do not have the “background” to succeed, I can bet it that Andy would still be hating his Indian identity as many Indians around the world!

It is not about a race or a group of people then, is it? It is about our sense of perception that is embedded in our sub-conscious! How, then, can re-affirming inferiority of your race/group by offering special exceptions help the kids wire their sub-conscious with the networks of success??

There is a big debate raging in india too. Lower caste people have had seats in jobs reserved for them for last almost 60 years. Very few can take advantage of it because very few of the lower caste people – who are also poor economically – even have the basic education! The same derivative perception spiral is being reinforced in them too for last so many years!

Success of the members of a group is NOT in how many opportunities to “succeed” that group is granted, but in How many odds that group overcomes to beat the rest of the world and how successful that group still is!

* Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson’s “Stereotype Threat and Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, no. 5 (1995): 797-811.

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Desh Kapoor

The panache of a writer is proven by the creative pen he uses to transform the most mundane topic into a thrilling story. Desh - the author, critic and analyst uses the power of his pen to create thought-provoking pieces from ordinary topics of discussion. He writes on myriad interesting themes. Read the articles to know more about his views and "drishtikone".

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