People perceive upper-middle class white men to be smarter than they are.

In On Being Good at Seeming Smart, Eric Schwitzgebel writes (bold emphasis mine):

[A]fter a colloquium at which the student had asked a question, one faculty member expressed to me how impressive the student was. I was struck by that remark because I had thought the student’s question had actually been pretty poor. But it occurred to me that the question had seemed, superficially, to be smart. That is, if you didn’t think too much about the content but rather just about the tone and delivery, you probably would get a strong impression of smartness. In fact, my overall view of this student was that he was about average — neither particularly good nor particularly bad — but that he was a master of seeming smart: He had the confidence, the delivery, the style, all the paraphernalia of smartness, without an especially large dose of the actual thing.

Since then, I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as “seeming smart”. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. [...]

Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: Poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody — all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men.

(Via Feminist Philosophers)


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17 Responses to “People perceive upper-middle class white men to be smarter than they are.”

  1. Manju Says:

    This doesn’t ring true. I would assume upper-middle class east-asians are most likely to be stereotyped as smart, as well as jews.

    Those are the two groups Charles Murray claims have the highest IQs in the Bell Curve, so I can see how this stereotype has entered the public consciousness. Reminds me of an episode of “all in the family” when Archie (a famous biogt) needs a lawyer and intentionally picks a firm with a Jewish name, as the progressive Meathead looks on. when a wasp partner at the firms shows up, he rejects him and demands they send a Jew.

  2. Restructure! Says:

    Upper-middle class East Asian men are stereotyped as smart only for things like math and science, not philosophy, since East Asians are stereotyped as lacking critical thinking skills. Also, East Asians are stereotyped as good at number crunching and rote learning, not mathematical creativity, which is required for advanced university-level math.

  3. urbia Says:

    Not only are they perceived as smarter, they don’t have to go out of their way to explain that they were making a joke if they were actually making a joke. It is their privilege to be seen as funny if they choose so.

    I remember a comment on a feminist blog for geeks that went something like… if a guy says he’s bad at math, people will assume he’s just joking or being funny, but if a woman says she’s bad a math, people will take her at her word.

    Now, in my own situation of outsmarting law enforcement, if I’m a bit TOO smart, investigators will assume I was either tipped off (with the assumption I couldn’t have figured it out on my own because Asians supposedly lack creativity), or that I have a mental illness and that I am overly paranoid. They seem to be reluctant to accept that I simply figured out what they were trying to do.

    I think the above is what led them to suspect that I was part of some secret organisation that tipped people off using some kind of code, so panic ensued, and every file or YouTube video I sent to friends had to be examined. That’s one of the few theories I had, anyway.

  4. Link-love is good for one’s soul « Digital immigrant Says:

    [...] being good at seeming smart — The splintered mind via Restructure!. How much does jargon, race and confidence help us to appear smarter than what we really [...]

  5. Manju Says:

    richard feynman should make an appearance in this post b/c he kept his brooklym accent and often displayed working class tastes. in fact, he had a gift for accents and many fellow scientists wondered why he couldn’t lose his thick brooklyn one, while other theorized he actually exaggerated it in a form of reverse snobbism.

    an interesting subtheme to his life is the refusal to adopt affectations, traditions, clothing, etc that was urged on him especially at princeton. European scientists took particular delight in his antics, presumably b/c class distinctions are even greater in the old world, and its customary for top academics to adopt upper-class mannerisms.

  6. Lena Says:

    I think your argument is quite plausible, but I think what you mentioned about poise and confidence, etc. might have more to do with it. It still plays into the same dynamic, but it’s because white males are treated deferentially and raised to speak confidently for themselves that they then do so, and then are perceived to be smart.

  7. Katie Says:

    @Lena- um….nerds? Any white male wearing black frame glasses and a snarky t-shirt is automatically perceived to be a computer genius, even if, and ESPECIALLY IF, they have poor social skills.

  8. Katie Says:

    The point for me is that if white men have good social skills and an outgoing manner, they’re perceived to be smart because of that. If they have poor social skills and are introverted, there’s a positive association for that too! So….it’s really about the whiteness then, isn’t it?!

  9. urbia Says:

    @Katie

    Yeah, I think it’s really about the whiteness. Privilege lends white males the benefit of automatically perceived as smart. How they dress and act only influences the ‘flavour’ of smarts they’re perceived to have. If they want to change careers, they all they need to do is consult an image counsellor. Transferable ‘skill’: credibility and benefit of the doubt.

    Lack of privilege for people under layers of oppression, on the other hand, has the reverse effect. Affirmative action is presumed, or dumb luck.

  10. urbia Says:

    I just saw this the other day and thought I’d share.

    “White flight? Suburbs lose young whites to cities”
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100509/ap_on_re_us/us_changing_suburbs

    They call the reversal of white flight the ‘bright flight,’ which is young white people flocking to the cities. They’re described as “aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”

    The article equates race and access to intelligence.

  11. X Says:

    “Upper-middle class East Asian men are stereotyped as smart only for things like math and science, not philosophy, since East Asians are stereotyped as lacking critical thinking skills. Also, East Asians are stereotyped as good at number crunching and rote learning, not mathematical creativity, which is required for advanced university-level math.”

    Who holds these stereotypes about East Asians being poor at university-level Math?

    The plebs don’t – they don’t know that Math entails more than number crunching.

    The middle-classes don’t – they’ve got way too much empirical evidence of East Asians being good at Math (SAT scores, Ivy League student composition, etc.)

    The cognitive elites don’t – not when the US International Math Olympiad and Physics Olympiad teams are 60% East Asian, as are the Canadian and Australian ones, as are recent Putnam fellows, as are Math graduate departments in elite schools.

    So the question is, who really does?

  12. Anonymous Says:

    did not white males invent most progress?

  13. Restructure! Says:

    X,

    The people who hold these stereotypes about East Asians lacking creativity are educated, but may not be in the math/science/engineering fields in which East Asians supposedly lack creativity.

    Examples:

    http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/37251.html

    This is a good article that bring to light a problem in Asia that many in the US fail to recognize. Too many college admissions officers, when deciding to admit a chinese student or a national student, look at the chinese students math scores. Yes, they do well in math. But, they do lack the creativity necessary for science and engineering programs. In this aspect, American students are among the best.

    http://piepointonefour.blogspot.com/2010/03/quantitative-advantage.html?showComment=1268161961127#c8003901540377488230

    This is a terribly naive post. Yes, the Chinese may be good at mathematical skills, but has anything truly groundbreaking or creative come from that part of the world (or India, for that matter)? No, and the reason is simple: Chinese and Indians are followers, rather than leaders. Despite their great test scores, they live in a nerdy culture of drills and memorization.

    Etc.

    See also: “Easterners” are not collectivist automatons who are poor at analytical reasoning.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    isnt it true that a potential black student needs a less sat score
    than a white student for admin in some major colleges?

  15. fred Says:

    restructure writes, “The people who hold these stereotypes about East Asians lacking creativity are educated, but may not be in the math/science/engineering fields in which East Asians supposedly lack creativity.

    Not true. Singapore which arguably has the best education system in the world based on its TIMMS math and science scores has actually gone to western countries trying to figure out how to teach their students and tech professionals to be more creative. So even the country with the best math and science scores recognizes there is a problem with creativity. But you can’t teach creativity because it’s tied to individualism and asians have a genetic tendency towards collectivism.

    restructure also links another one of her blog entries arguing that “easterners” are not “collectivist automatons”.

    Actually, there’s a strong genetic basis for the argument that easterners ARE “collectivist automatons”.

    http://www.physorg.com/news175955032.html

  16. Restructure! Says:

    fred,

    You are a much more interesting troll than goaler. At least I learn new things when you post your racial genetics articles. (Sorry, I intend to read the other one you posted, but I have that PDF-aversive laziness problem again. If you have direct links to the papers, can you post them in the appropriate thread?)

    In the blog post “Easterners” are not collectivist automatons who are poor at analytical reasoning., I refer to research that shows the “collectivist” stereotype to be false. Your article shows a correlation between short 5-HTTLPR alleles and East Asian nations, and suggests that the short allele causes collectivism. However, since the premise of East Asian collectivism is shown to be false in the “social sciences” that is supposed to dovetail with “natural sciences” in this new hypothesis, then the short alleles are not a predictor of collectivism.

    (Let’s move this discussion to that thread.)

  17. The Myth of White Male Geek Rationality « Restructure! Says:

    [...] People perceive upper-middle class white men to be smarter than they are. by Restructure! [...]


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