Stereotype Threat: How Fear Led Me to Passion
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Some might say they see a visual representation of their true selves. For me, it depends on the day. Sometimes I see an educated man, other times I simply see a stereotype.
My true fear—the one thing that has paralyzed me for years—is that no matter what I see in the mirror, no matter what I do, how I dress, how I talk, or how I act, I assume that everyone else sees the stereotypes. I'm sure that many of you can relate to this.
You can define it as stereotype threat: A situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group.
Allow me a moment to share my story, my personal struggles, and my triumph as an educated black man trying to find his way in academia.
As you read, consider 2 things: What are the stereotypes about you, and what stereotypes do you have about others?
When I was a kid, I never imagined that I could be a doctor. It was never even a consideration of chance.
By the time I was in middle school I was set on going to West Point, serving in the Marines for some time, as many of the men in my family had done before me, and then maybe I would dye my hair pink, and give law school a shot.
In high school, I was surrounded by gang members, jocks, and people who I had no business emulating. I didn't belong, but I forced it. I found myself gravitating toward them and their behaviors. I had no ambitions of going to college and I was content with doing as the hood did, so to speak. I just wanted to fit in.
It was only by grace and chance that I ended up at the University of Cincinnati (UC). My best friend at the time was going to apply there and urged me to do so as well, so I did, expecting rejection.
After a turbulent freshman year, I went home for the summer, and then something unimaginable happened. A friend lost his life, caught in the crossfire while standing outside a bar.
I now stood at a crossroads.
Do I retaliate as my friends intended to do or walk away? You don't say no to something like that and expect to be invited over to dinner the next day. At that point you were all in or all out.
Personally, I always had 1 foot in and 1 foot out of the circle. I was the good one in the group, the voice of reason, the mediator, the one who was raised by a decent man. There was no reasoning this time. I had to walk away, I couldn't perpetuate foolishness; it's not within me, nor has it ever been. This was the first step of many that led me to where I am today. It also sent me spiraling further into my identity crisis. As I returned to Cincinnati for my sophomore year, an idea sprouted:
I'm too "black" to befriend the white students and too "white" to hang with the black kids. Essentially, I was stuck trying to figure out who to become.
Despite the background noise, my academics improved and I made it through school with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and got a job as a researcher coordinator at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC).
Soon after, I found myself working as a rehab tech in an outpatient sports orthopedic clinic. New place, new role, same identity crisis. I just couldn't get over it. I felt like I was being judged by everyone; like I needed a title in order to be seen through a different mirror. If you would have asked me, I was the physical therapist janitor, the gopher, the lesser.
How do I escape this feeling?
After about 4 months, something amazing happened at CCHMC. At the time I didn't really understand what it was. Tucked between the periods of emotional struggle while in the clinic were the times when I felt alive. I wasn't doubting my identity or my future, instead I was seeing a glimpse of the path ahead of me.
I was beside myself as I watched people enter the clinic mentally broken, only to walk out with tears in their eyes, discharge shirts on their backs, and massive smiles across their faces. This alone sparked my desire to apply to physical therapy school.
I reenrolled full time at UC and began taking prerequisites while still working full time as a tech. I limped through the GRE, admittedly because I didn't study, and finally, after a year and a half of preparation, I was ready to take the plunge.
Treating community members during a recent service trip to Peru with my classmates.
The odds felt stacked
Much like undergrad, I applied to just 1 physical therapy school, Slippery Rock University. This maneuver was by no means arrogant. I simply didn't have all of the prerequisite requirements to apply (just about) anywhere else. As soon as I pressed submit, I became consumed by a thought that began to deteriorate my perception of self—again.
There is no way this school is going to accept some black kid from Columbus, Ohio, with a degree in psychology.
After I was accepted, a new tape with all new thoughts started playing in my mind.
This acceptance is just proof that affirmative action exists. I guess they needed their token minority, but I'll take it.
As I prepared to make the move to this small town in Pennsylvania, I became paralyzed by the fact that I would likely be the only black kid in the room. As far as I knew, I would be the only black kid in the entire town.
I expected to walk in the room and have every eye lock in on me. I was ready to be judged, to be considered the dumbest kid there. "Why did they accept him?" I expected to feel alone. It was then that I chose to believe 1 thing:
No matter what, I will work 10 times harder than everyone around me. This is the only way I can keep at their heels. This is the only way to prove them wrong.
New school in a small town
I finally had my shot to change what I saw in the mirror, to change what other people saw in me. I blame this mentality for my personal struggles in physical therapy school. It was never academic.
Physical therapy school wasn't easy, of course, but I excelled. The hardest part of school, for me, was trying once again to fit in.
I kept to myself for the most part, strayed away from groups and did my own thing. I leaned into involvement early, I was elected class president, volunteered at APTA's House of Delegates in 2016, participated in Shoes4Kids, and ran for the APTA Student Assembly Board of Directors that same year.
I just felt like I had something to prove. I've always felt that way. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't still feel that way, but a mentor and friend introduced me to something powerful:
"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." - Eleanor Roosevelt
Speaking at APTA's National Student Conclave 2017
Fast-forward to today
I still wake up early every day. I overdress for every occasion. I stress about my perception. I speak differently, depending on whom I'm talking to. I hide what's on my mind. And I laugh when I'm uncomfortable.
I do everything in my power to avoid the stereotypes by which I am threatened, I am hyperaware of my race, and quick to assume what others think.
The difference today is that I know how to live with it. I've learned to silence the noise. Yeah, between those mountains of happiness and contention are slivers of fear and stereotype threat, but I'm just as alive as I was when I was at CCHMC. I said something amazing happened that day, back in 2014 while I was cleaning tables and scheduling appointments—I found out who I was supposed to be. When I'm with the #PTFam at APTA conferences like CSM, NEXT, and NSC, I feel at home just being myself.
I've never told anyone any of this. I've just smiled and laughed my way through my education.
No one wants to hear it, they don't believe this kind of thing exists. I'm just being sensitive.
So why tell my story now?
I've had many great mentors and friends who have helped me overcome without even knowing it. It was the confidence they placed in me that gave me the will to keep pushing. I want to encourage others to do the same, to overcome, to rise up and embrace who you are and your place within this profession and your community.
This article is for everyone: minority or majority, black or white, male or female, PT, PTA, or student. We all face an identity crisis at some point in our lives, and we all have stereotypes that we either embrace or reject. We will all come to a crossroads at which there is no road map. A point when a small piece of the road reveals itself to us, but in every direction the distant terrain is concealed by the horizon. Despite that, be encouraged knowing that even though today may seem impossible, it bears fruit to strengthen you for what's to come.
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." –Pablo Picasso
What's that greater purpose for you? What brought you where you are today? Are you facing something that you find difficult to overcome?
We've all struggled, had some bruises, been at a point in life where we've felt that we had nowhere to go, and just wished for someone to help us through. I want to be that light for my patients. I want to be that encouragement for my peers and colleagues. I want to be that for this profession. That's what drives me, and it is much more powerful than the stereotype threat that served as a barrier for so many years.
Ron Peacock Jr, SPT, is a student at Slippery Rock University, and currently serves as the nominating committee chair on the APTA Student Assembly Board of Directors. You can connect with Ron on Twitter at: @RJPeacockDPT.