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5 Keys to Challenging Implicit Bias

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
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A male teacher in glasses is leaning against a stairway rail, smiling.

In 1999, I was a young history teacher at a diverse urban high school, pushing my students to read and write at pre-collegiate levels. One day, a group of kids came to lodge a complaint: "Why aren't we getting honors credit for this course? We're working so hard!" So I did what any scrappy young teacher who cares about equity might do: I tried to create an honors option within my course. I studied the state requirements, stayed up late to write a proposal, and brought it to the assistant principal in charge of scheduling. He rejected it outright.

"Why?" I implored. "My students are doing the same caliber of work as honors students at the magnet school across town."

"Our students aren't accelerated enough to handle an honors curriculum," he replied in a flat tone, as if to say, "Didn't you get the memo?" I was deeply troubled by this wrong-headed and frankly racialized assumption. My students were brilliant! Didn't he get the memo? But at age 26, as a white teacher learning to become an ally and advocate for students of color, I lacked the language to argue my position.

Implicit Bias: What Is It?

In recent years, I've learned about the powerful and pernicious impact of implicit bias on students' opportunities to learn. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that unconsciously affect people's perceptions, actions, and decisions (Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity). According to Professor John A. Powell of the University of California at Berkeley, only two percent of our emotional cognition is conscious; the remainder lives in our unconscious networks, where implicit racial and other biases reside. Biased messages can be framed to speak to the unconscious. As they stack up, the brain uses rapid cognition to assess the humanity, threat, and worth of other human beings. More concretely, the prefrontal cortex lights up when we see someone as "highly human," but it fails to activate when we dehumanize people (Equal Justice Society).

Implicit biases often stand in opposition to a person's stated beliefs. My assistant principal believed that he was an advocate for our students, but his actions were driven by unconscious assumptions that formed a glass ceiling over their achievements. We can't afford to ignore the far-reaching effects of implicit bias in schools, including:

  • Disproportionality in discipline: Policies that appear racially neutral on their face, but result in the over-representation of students of color -- particularly black boys -- in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals for subjective infractions like "defiance"

  • Disproportionality in special education: Misguided placements that result in the over-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education programs

  • Teacher mindsets and beliefs: Underestimating the intellectual capacity of culturally and linguistically diverse students, and often girls, inside the classroom

  • Tracking: School policies that automatically place students of color in remedial or low-track courses

  • Dominant discourse: Ways of thinking and talking about students and families that diminish, underestimate, or even pathologize them

Challenging Implicit Bias

How can we listen, lead, and teach for equity in the face of implicit bias? Here are five keys:

1. Become aware of your biases so that you can interrupt them.

Before entering a conversation with a student, colleague, or parent who triggers you, takes a ten-second pause to ask yourself: "What are my biases toward this person? How can I disrupt my autopilot thoughts so that I can genuinely see and listen to him or her?" With awareness, you can replace biases with receptive listening and affirming thoughts.

2. Study and teach colleagues about implicit bias.

Here are a few facts that every educator should know:

  • Bias is a universal human condition that must be recognized and managed, not a personal defect.
  • We all carry biases from swimming in the waters of a racialized, inequitable society.
  • According to Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, focusing on individual acts of bias, or weeding out the "bad people," won't solve the fundamental problem.
  • Listening helps us take in a person's multiple stories and disrupts biased thinking.

3. Pay attention to gap-closing teachers.

We all know teachers who connect with and support the success of every child. Consider how those teachers manage their own biases. How do they get to know their students as complex individuals? How do they build trust? What learning routines characterize their classrooms and humanize students? Through conscious reflection, you can isolate and track instructional practices that interrupt bias.

4. Stop tone policing.

Blogger Maisha Johnson defines tone policing in this way: "When marginalized people speak up about our struggles, and people from more dominant groups focus not on what we said, but how we said it." To challenge implicit bias, we must listen to the voices of colleagues who have been underestimated or misjudged. Often, however, when people of color are brave enough to name bias in schools, they hear that they're "too emotional" or "making things up." There's nothing made up about implicit bias. Learn from those who have the courage to speak up.

5. Tune into implicit bias in your school.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where do I see implicit biases playing out in our school?
  • What fear or apprehension do I have about addressing this issue?
  • How can I be an ally to colleagues, students, and families who experience bias in our school?

In a wonderful TED Talk, Verna Myers defines biases as "the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are." She asks, "Who do you trust? Who are you afraid of? . . . How many authentic relationships do you have with young black people. . . or any other major difference from who you are?" A recent study found that 75 percent of white Americans have entirely white social networks -- an experience that results in exaggerated perceptions of difference as well as fear and threat. Knowing this, you can engineer experiences in the classroom and the staffroom that build bridges and challenge misconceptions.

What are your ideas about interrupting implicit bias? I would love to hear.

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The Equitable Classroom
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
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Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

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Mehdi Panahi's picture

I like the concrete steps to "interrupt" biases given in this article.
We should be vigilant about our own biases, even though awareness doesn't mean they will go away, but it is a good start in creating a true multi cultural society.

Nettrice Gaskins's picture
Nettrice Gaskins
Scholar, artist, writer and educator.

My graduate advisor tells people that her job was to get other people out of my way. Her being an ally wasn't necessary. Her recognizing the obstacles I faced as a black student was necessary, as was her commitment to helping to remove them. Because of her (and others higher than her) intervention I was able to reach my academic goal: graduation.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Hi Nettrice, thanks for sharing. So important for people in postions of access and power to interrupt barriers in these ways. Congratulations on reaching your goal!

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Great to hear from you Mehdi. I agree, there's no eradicating bias. But awareness is an important step in the right direction. All young people (and grown-ups!) deserve to be seen in their full humanity, potential, and brilliance.

Catherine Johnson's picture

Thank you for an amazing article Shane.
The five keys are very true for me. I have just completed a M.Ed. Thesis on number 3 'gap closing teachers', or in NZ, what are the conditions that generate successful teacher philosophy: teachers who exemplify Teaching as Inquiry pedagogies. My philosophies now centre on working on the other 4! A crucial area of thinking for educators. Nga mihi nui.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Catherine, thanks so much for the warm response and Maori shout-out. I couldn't agree more on the importance of teaching as inquiry pedagogy. Paolo Freire's work was one of the earliest and strongest influence on my own instruction. I would love to stay in dialogue as your philosophies evolve!

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