Tackling Implicit Bias

Editor’s Note: This blog is the first in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research. 

As educators, it may seem overwhelming that, in addition to addressing overt racism in our classrooms and schools, we also need to tackle unconscious racial prejudices, known as “implicit bias,” not only in our students, but in ourselves. However, it is possible to address implicit bias, and the solutions are in our hands.

The recent events in Ferguson came as a dramatic wake-up call for our country. Fifty years after Selma, we still have a racial divide in this country. While overt racism has greatly declined from the days of segregation and lynching, and many laws now seek to protect our citizens from discrimination, pervasive racist attitudes rear their ugly heads in harmful and sometimes deadly ways. For many of us who strive for equity and social justice in our rapidly diversifying country, the next big hurdle in our path is tackling aversive racism and stereotyping—also known as implicit bias. Negative stereotypes feed our minds like a steady drip of toxin; we may not even be aware of as it occurs. Whether toxic attitudes are about other people or ourselves, they are very damaging.

Several research experiments have deepened our understanding of implicit bias:

  • In one experiment, word association was used to identify bias. Study participants were shown words with positive or negative associations like “happy” or awful” and then rapidly shown either black and white faces. Right away, they were told to classify the words as pleasant or unpleasant. White participants classified negative words more quickly if the words were shown after they saw black faces, suggesting a negative association with black people.[1]
  • In another study, research subjects viewed black and white faces so quickly that they didn’t consciously know what they saw. Then a blurred object flashed on the screen. Sometimes the object was a knife or gun. If participants saw black faces, they quickly identified the guns and knives. If they saw white faces, it took more time to discern the object.[2]

Understand the Problem

One of the challenges of changing implicit bias is that, because we are often not conscious of our beliefs, we can take actions based on them without realizing it. These types of reactions have been part of the fabric of humans since our earliest days. Often we fear people and events that surprise us or are unfamiliar to us. To some extent, this type of stereotyping is built into us as a survival mechanism that gets passed on to children. That does not mean implicit bias is “natural” or right. It means we need to be aware that we are capable of holding beliefs that are not based in logic. Once we do that, we can step back and analyze how implicit bias negatively affects us today.

Like the canaries in the gold mine, the unconscious bias that lurks in our minds can indicate the potential for devastating outcomes such as an officer making a split-second decision and killing an unarmed youth. And for educators, implicit bias can cause us to suspend and expel students more rapidly, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan captured when he highlighted statistics on how black students are suspended and expelled at rates three times those of whites, often for lesser offenses. 

Implicit bias does not just belong in the domain of white police officers and educators, though. Jennifer Eberhardt, an implicit bias researcher, says, “A lot of the tests we’ve done, we give them to students, to ordinary citizens and to police officers. We’re finding the results are generally similar.” It can also be harmful when it causes subjective and discriminatory choices in hiring, approving people for loans and many other arenas.

Move Toward Solutions

A growing body of research is emerging on how to counteract implicit bias.[3] We need to become knowledgeable about how unconscious prejudice works in order to begin to change it.  (You can take online Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, to measure unconscious bias.) Beyond this awareness and taking accountability, there are specific ways that educators and others can counteract it.

While thinking about overcoming unconscious attitudes may be overwhelming, the good news is our brains are malleable. Educators can work on countering negative stereotypes and looking at each person as an individual instead of lumping them together. They also can create identity-safe classrooms where everyone feels a sense of belonging and empathy toward others, with opportunities to get to know and befriend others who are different from them.

The next two blogs in this series will show on-the-ground action by teachers using promising practices to address implicit bias. The second blog in the series will show how teachers are countering negative stereotypes by having students learn about ways to reduce stereotyping in class and understand the concept of stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype.[4] The third blog will focus on creating identity-safe classrooms where students and their social identities are assets, rather than barriers, to success in the classroom.[5]

All students deserve to be welcomed, supported and valued as members of the learning community. Before we can truly model empathy for and acceptance of individuals from identity groups different from our own, we must learn to be honest about the biases we hold.

Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.

[1] Woo, 2015

[2] Dreifus, 2015

[3] Devine, 2012

[4] Steele and Aronson, 2002

[5] Cohn-Vargas, Steele, 2013

What We're Reading This Week: March 20

Common Dreams: The Zinn Education Project’s Bill Bigelow explains why it’s important students know Irish-American history—and why wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t enough.

Edutopia: Blogger Rusul Alrubail suggests using blogging as a way to engage English language learners with multiple opportunities to practice communication.

GOOD Magazine: The CNN Films documentary Raising Ryland debuted this week, offering an intimate look at the identity and experiences of a transgender boy.  

New Republic: The University of Oklahoma fraternity scandal has shed light on a double standard. If black people misstep, the national conversations center on “blackness,” while white people's actions seem to only represent themselves.

Politico Magazine: Children continue to be needlessly criminalized for behaviors that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office. 

Take Part: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains a loophole that costs low-income schools nine billion dollars every year. 

This American Life: When students at an inner-city school visited a wealthy private school three miles away, the experience resulted in unintended consequences.

The Washington Post: An 11-year-old Virgina boy was suspended from school for one year after an assistant principal caught him with a leaf that looked like (but wasn't) marijuana.

Confronting Students’ Islamophobia

In preparation for reading Farhana Zia’s The Garden of My Imaan, a lovely young adult novel about an American Muslim girl named Aliya, my students and I wrote down what we knew about Muslims. I teach in a public middle school where the majority of students are white and Christian, so I expected a steep learning curve. I encouraged all the students to write down their thoughts and ideas and to be open and honest about their thinking. Sometimes I would chime in and contradict incorrect ideas, but mostly I would just record student thoughts on the whiteboard as they recorded their thoughts on our worksheet.

“I think I learned last year that they pray to Allah,” a student said. 

“They all live in the Middle East,” another student chimed in.

“Well, they don’t speak English,” said another student.

I said, “Well, let’s dive into The Garden of My Imaan and see what we uncover. We’ll come back to this later, look at our ideas and talk about our before-reading thinking. We have some facts here and some stereotypes. So we have to read carefully to figure out what those stereotypes are.”

The Garden of My Imaan portrays how Aliya is working to find her own unique identity. She is comfortable in her school until a Moroccan girl named Marwa begins there. Marwa wears a hijab, fasts for Ramadan and isn’t afraid to stand up for others. Aliya fears that hanging out with Marwa will call attention to herself.

As a Muslim herself, Zia adds authenticity to The Garden of My Imaan and captures a voice that is often missing in young adult literature. And what’s great about the novel is that it breaks down common stereotypes. Through Aliya’s story, Zia captures diversity within Islam, tells readers that Muslims are from all over the world, teaches words and phrases in Arabic and Urdu and describes life in a multi-generational family.

As we were reading scenes from The Garden of my Imaan, I would stop and tell students, “Now, how does this information change our before-reading thoughts?” We would then go back and add new facts that we learned and identify and discuss any initial stereotypes. I’d often remind students that the novel isn’t representative of all Muslims or Muslim Americans and that it would take many more readings to gain a strong understanding of Islam.

Intrusion of Fears

These conversations, I thought, would help prepare my students for a guest visit from Zia. She was in our area to receive the 2014 South Asia Book Award. I thought things were moving along great and felt pretty successful as an anti-bias educator. Then two days prior to Zia’s visit, one of my students who had really been pushing against the text said, “You mean a Muslim is coming here?! They chop people’s heads off. If she’s coming here, I’m not coming to school."

I looked around and saw that another student was nodding his head in agreement. The students who weren’t nodding their heads were looking to me for answers. These were my veteran students who had been involved in nearly a year and a half of my reading class, a class that focused on anti-bias themes in nearly every reading and activity. These students had that look on their faces, as if saying with their eyes, “We know prejudice is wrong, but we don’t know what to say about this one.” 

I felt tremendous pressure and a bit of anger at the statement. I wanted to try to “fix it,” right then and there. I wanted to shout, “But we just learned so much about Marwa and Aliya! How can you say this?” But I looked into my students’ eyes and saw fear. I took a long, deep breath and asked, “Where does this thinking come from?”

“Some students are choosing articles about ISIS for current events,” the boy said.

“How do those articles make you or your peers feel?” I asked.

“Really afraid,” whispered one girl. “I just keep thinking that they are going to come here and do that to us.”

I wanted to take their fear away, but I recalled media events that made me totally afraid when I was a child. I channeled that fear for a moment so that I could meet my students where they were. We were sitting at a small table, so I was able to whisper, “The media focuses on the scary, right? That’s how papers sell. That pulls viewers in. But ISIS is NOT our author. It’s not our main characters, right?” Students nodded. I then looked at the boy who was the most afraid and said, “I’ll honor where you are. I would never force anyone to attend, but meeting Ms. Zia may help reduce some fear.”

A Teachable Moment

I reached out to some parents that night, just to explain the fear I’d witnessed, share aspects of our class discussion, reiterate information about our upcoming author visit and invite any of them to attend with their child. I know that helped, as some students told me, “My mom says I should attend just to get that fear out.” 

The day of the event, all my students decided to attend. Zia’s presentation was amazing and taught all of us so much. Because I’m not Muslim, because I haven’t faced the challenges of post-9/11 prejudice, her voice and her stories filled the spaces my voice could not.

In our post-unit reflections, each of my students recorded how much their thinking had changed. “I knew it was wrong to feel prejudice and Islamophobia,” one student wrote, “but the ISIS stuff had made me so scared. I now know that I’ve got to really look more deeply at what’s presented about anybody out there. Whenever we chunk anybody together, we’re probably wrong.”

How do you address Islamophobia in your classroom? What do you do when you see that prejudice and stereotypes are linked to in-the-moment fears?

Bintliff is a reading teacher at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Poetry Challenging Privilege

Whenever I select a text to introduce or discuss the concept of privilege, I try to remember the philosophy of the SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum and anti-bias pioneer educator Emily Style—that a text should function as a “window” into another person’s world or a “mirror” for self-reflection. I never quite know how exactly my class will respond to the text, but I’m prepared to go down whatever path they wish to tread.

After a unit of poetry reading and writing, I shared a video of a trio of young poets from Get Lit (an organization with a mission to increase student literacy through poetry) performing their poem “Somewhere in America” on The Queen Latifah Show. I typed up the poem so that students could have the text in hand as they watched the performance.

As a poem, “Somewhere in America” is a dramatic monologue characterizing a young, female student at a public high school. Through the moments captured, the poets eloquently give examples of the privilege of race, socioeconomic class and gender at work in public schools.

There was a long pause before anyone spoke.

I was nervous. I didn’t know how the class would respond, what issue they would bring up, but I was prepared to follow them where they wanted to as long as the conversation remained productive. I could have given them a particular focus—socioeconomic class, censorship in schools, gender and sexuality—but I wanted to leave it up to them.

Caroline spoke first, “It’s powerful. I mean, these are all things that we know, but we don’t think about them at all. We have the privilege of going to a private school where a lot of this doesn’t happen.”

Internally, I leapt that a student had introduced the word privilege into the conversation.

John pointed out how our history classes do not gloss over the terrible and inhumane aspects of U.S. history: “And we’ve all read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye in class. We don’t censor those things here.”

As a teacher, I thought that the distinction between private and public schools would be a “safe” entry point into the discussion for my students. My students often refer to the “bubble” of our suburban, small, college preparatory school and how their experiences are not translatable to most high school students. Now, they acknowledged aspects of their privilege in the most general sense while accepting the premise of the poets as well. I hoped that they would go further than just class privilege before they began to resist.

Quickly, Rachel jumped in with a point of contention, “I’m not trying to take away from the body image discussion, but that line about the ‘slim-fit beauties,’ which is a totally poetic phrase, isn’t fair. She’s stereotyping thin girls. Not every thin girl has an eating disorder!” Earlier in the year Rachel had jumped on “All About That Bass” for perpetuating the same “thin, mean girl stereotype.”

I had expected the girls in class to attack the statement about prom dress shopping at boutiques, but instead we discussed issues surrounding body image.

The text was functioning more as a mirror and not quite as the window I had hoped for, which frustrated me a little. I wasn’t alone. Stu had written an entry about it in his writing journal, which he dropped off at the end of the day. 

Everyone wanted to focus on the unimportant things. How we’re all standing “on the bones of the Hispanics, on the bones of the slaves…” that’s what matters. Why can’t we talk about that? How can I get them to talk about that?

And Stu wasn’t alone in his reaction as well.

The following week, Alana turned in a submission to our literary magazine: a dramatic monologue where a young woman boldly declares how her body has been objectified, how she must conform to the standards of beauty to appease the male gaze, how she must be demure and silent so as to be desirable. The piece floored the editor-in-chief, and we immediately began to discuss how to feature the work. I also shared it with Stu, to let him know that he wasn’t alone.

Though Alana hadn’t commented during the class discussion of “Somewhere in America,” I asked her where this powerful piece came from.

“After seeing that poem, I had to say something. I just had to.”

Even though she kept her thoughts to herself in class, the poem will now speak to the entire student body and perhaps begin a larger conversation about privilege in our school. “Somewhere in America” and other poems from Get Lit will appear again in my class; whether they are mirrors for some or windows for others, the poetry provides a necessary voice and inspires a necessary, if unfinished, conversation.

Elliott teaches high school English and creative writing at an independent, college preparatory school. 

The Poll Results Are In!

Two weeks ago, we polled our newsletter recipients on whether they're teaching about the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights movement in their classrooms. The results are in! See them below in our infographic, and hover over the graphics to see exact percentages. 

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