I am someone who has been leading conversations around equity, diversity, and inclusion for my entire adult life. I think about topics like marginalization, intersectionality, and systemic injustice regularly. I would label myself a progressive social justice educator…and I have implicit biases.
Last spring, I was out for a walk and met a neighbor who was not white. As we were chatting, I asked her, “When did you move here?” and as soon as I said it, I knew that question was rooted in bias. I tried to cover my narrow thinking by adding, “I just moved here a few years ago.” But it was too late. I saw the flash of emotion across her face. I had made her feel like an outsider. I had assumed that because she was not white, she was new to the neighborhood, or maybe not even a part of our neighborhood. When I got home, I reflected on why I made that assumption and realized that I had an implicit bias regarding property ownership.
I grew up in a majority-white, middle-class, suburban neighborhood. When the population began to diversify in the early 2000s–when the school district enrolled its first English language learners and the shopping centers opened their first “ethnic” grocery store–I watched white neighbors move out. I saw nonwhite families move in and I heard the grumbles of “there goes the neighborhood.” I didn’t agree with this prejudice, but I was living among it. I was not taking the time to call out the racism and prejudice. I was just sitting in it and telling myself that I knew better.
My current neighborhood is in this same school district. I love the diversity of my area. I am proud to live in a neighborhood where multiple languages are spoken. I enjoy meeting people in my community who do not look like me. And yet, clearly, the implicit bias was there.
I took time to recognize that my thinking was rooted in the stereotypes and prejudiced ideas that I had absorbed from society. These negative attitudes impacted my behavior. I made myself confront the racism of this thinking. I reminded myself that redlining, discriminatory lending policies, and inequitable school funding were the reasons for my segregated childhood. I acknowledged that the prejudiced statements I had heard for decades were not true, that they were all part of a false narrative sold to me to account for and continue to keep our communities divided and segregated. And I sat with the discomfort of knowing that I had (without even realizing it) believed these lies. I then made a commitment to myself to break these prejudicial habits of thinking.
We all have cultural biases. We are part of a society and an educational system that was designed with the success of some, not all, in mind. By being a part of that society, we breathe the air, swim in the water, and walk in a world of bias. We all have unsaid thoughts (implicit biases) on what is “appropriate” or “right” or “better” regarding a myriad of topics: Who lives in middle-class neighborhoods? What hairstyles are acceptable? How loud should someone talk? What clothes are school-appropriate?
We want to be good people. We don’t want to be close-minded or have unconsciously narrow views of what is right, better, or important. But we each have a singular view of the world based on our limited experience, and with that experience comes an inherent judgment when we are presented with something new and different. That means that sometimes we may say or do something that makes someone else feel left out, not valued, or not seen. These unconscious negative attitudes might impact our behavior. It’s really not a matter of if, but when.
We are not perfect. An administrator recently told me that some of her teachers have expressed concern about “doing it wrong” or “saying the wrong thing” whenever topics of race come up in the classroom. When we’re talking about diversity, equity, or inclusion, many of us fear saying something wrong. But the reality is, none of us are perfect! Because we all have these cultural biases, at some point, we will say the wrong thing, make a negative judgment, or believe a stereotype.
We can grow from moments of discomfort. The important part is what we do when this happens. Do we dig our heels in, make excuses for ourselves, and allow ourselves to continue this thinking? Or do we take a breath, take time to reflect on our behaviors, and focus on growth? If we take a few minutes now to put a process in place for when these moments occur, then we will be ready to learn and grow when it happens. Whether it is brought to our attention by a student or colleague, or a moment of self-awareness, we can’t respond with defensive pride when our biases manifest. Instead, we should reflect on the moment, identify the bias, consider its root, then take mental steps to break these habits of thinking.
Implicit bias: The negative perceptions that we have about specific social groups that we display automatically or unintentionally. We are not consciously aware of these negative attitudes because they are pervasive ideas in society, but they do affect our judgments, decisions, and behaviors.
Steps to Confront Implicit Bias
Reflect: What exactly is this thought? Where does this idea come from? Where have I learned this?
Respond: What is the truth of this idea I have? How can I learn more about the actual realities of this topic? How do I unlearn my prejudiced ideas?
Rectify: I have to interrupt this thinking when I see it coming. I have to remind myself of the realities and my values. And then do better.