In my second year of teaching, I had a parent conference that changed my outlook on implicit bias in teaching. The parent’s third-grade son, Shawn,* was frequently having outbursts in my classroom, and she and I had been working together on ways for him to calm down when he became upset. In the comments of Shawn’s report card, I had written something about him being frequently angry—and didn’t think anything of it.
At the conference, Shawn’s mother told me, “Ms. Harris, I want to talk to you about this comment. I’d like you to change it.” She then patiently explained to me how the label of “angry” can follow an African-American boy through his school career, and how it is much more emotionally charged than it would be for a white student. “Putting ‘angry’ in a file that every teacher through 12th grade can read will cause them to jump to conclusions about my black son, and they won’t give him a fair shot, ” she said.
My first instinct, as a young, white, well-meaning teacher, was to insist that race had nothing to do with it. Instead, I listened. I felt defensive, but I listened. That moment was the beginning of my learning how implicit bias can harm students of color.
Shortly thereafter, I started noticing how students of different races and genders were treated, and that across the board, teachers spoke more harshly to African-American boys than they did to anyone else. I even worked with a teacher who would go to the office and bully the administration into transferring the black boys out of his class.
I was recently reminded of what Shawn’s mother had told me when I accompanied a mother to an IEP meeting for her son Jude,* an African-American fifth-grader. An IEP, or individualized education plan, is a legal document that directs the student’s education throughout their K–12 career. In the teacher-report section of the IEP, the teacher—a well-meaning, young, white woman just like I had been—had written down that Jude was defiant, aggressive and disrespectful. Jude was the only black boy in his class.
I could see his mother’s spirits sink as soon as she read those words. The teacher, as well as the special education teacher, school psychologist and principal—all of whom were white—did not seem to notice the emotional toll these terms had taken on the mother. I asked why the teacher thought the child was defiant. She told a story about how Jude kept interrupting her to insist that he wasn’t able to turn in his homework. I knew the story. And I knew Jude was trying to explain that carrying his homework from that class to lunch, to recess and to his other class was too much for him to keep track of.
I tried to explain that sometimes, as white teachers, we react differently to children of color than we do to their white counterparts. I pointed out that if a white girl had tried to have the same conversation with the teacher, she may have reacted very differently, and that implicit bias does not make any of us bad people, but that we need to recognize it.
She looked at me and said flatly, “Race has nothing to do with this.”
I disagree. I think that in a dominant culture where African-American males are often seen as scary and aggressive, a long-standing but false stereotype, race is absolutely relevant. And labeling these students in ways that perpetuate this stereotype is something that educators need to be aware of and actively combat—even within ourselves.
*All names have been changed.
Harris is a teacher, tutor, writer, editor and author of Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom.