The opening line in a Forbes article called Your Brain on Bias: 5 Steps to Keep Unconscious Bias In Check (Corbett, 2022), can hardly be ignored. It says, “If you have a brain, you have bias.” How many times have you heard somebody claim they are not biased? They are wrong, but it might be that the different types of bias lead them to that claim. They are probably comfortable in saying that they do not discriminate against people. They may say things like, “I have a black friend,” or “We have lots of Asians that work at our company.” So, perhaps they don’t have explicit bias–the kind that we’re aware of and act upon, and that is known as discrimination or overt racism. The twist is that we all have another kind of bias, just by being human. We all have, at a minimum, implicit bias, which refers to the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that shape our responses to certain groups or situation.
Implicit bias is hard-wired into our brain. It is “rooted in neuroscience and related to our brain’s efforts to process large amounts of incoming data by using its shortcut we know as sterotyping,” according to author Zaretta Hammond in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2014). It helps us make sense of the world and determine our response, such as fight or flight, in any given situation. Our bias begins in childhood when we learn to sum up situations and label them as safe, possibly unsafe, or definitely unsafe. Within each of those situations, we find “actors,” such as people or animals. For example, if a young child’s experience with dogs has always been frightening, that child’s brain believes all dogs are dangerous. Therefore, when that child encounters a dog, his or her brain instantly makes a decision to either stay and fight or turn and flee. There is no “hey what a cute, sweet doggie” for that child. In terms of humans, implicit bias assesses the humanity, threat, and worth of other human beings. The lightning decisions we make and act upon come from the implicit biases built up in our brain throughout our lives.
Clearly, the down side of implicit bias is that it can shape how we respond to other people, whether or not we realize it. In the world of teaching, it is very common for teachers to make judgments about students from their implicit bias. These run the gammet from boys are better at math than girls, black kids don’t use proper grammar, Latinos are not smart, and so on. Data prove otherwise on those three misconceptions, but because those ideas have been believed collectively and passed along by those in education for many years, it takes conscious effort to undo that thinking. Hammond states that “even educators who have taken an explicit social justice or progressive stance have implicit bias based on their exposure to the dominant culture’s message and memes over a lifetime.” In other words, implicit biases often stand in opposition to a person’s stated beliefs and come out in subtle actions that are true to the hidden biases. In schools, these show up as disproportionality in discipline and special education, teacher mindsets and beliefs, tracking, and the dominant discourse.
The Forbes article poses the quesion, “How do you first become aware of unconscious biases that impact how you perceive others, and then check your biases so they don’t influce your behavior in ways that are unfair or harmful?” The answer is that it is a lifetime journey because biases accumulate in our minds continually, and to beat that, you have to constantly reflect, constantly be on guard and ask yourself questions. It is intentional work. Begin by learning about your own culture, and by this, I don’t necessarily mean the food you eat or the styles of clothes you wear. I mean reflecting on everything from how you’ve been raised to expect children to behave to what holidays you celebrate and how. In other words, you must identify your own cultural frame of reference. Hammond offers questions to help you map your cultural reference points. She suggests you ask yourself surface questions first about your upbringing, such as how your family identified ethnically or racially, where you lived (urban, suburban, or rural), what your economic status was (middle class, upper class, working class, low income) and how this affected your quality of life, and even who the heroes were that were celebrated in your family or community and who the bad guys were that you shunned? Even family stories told regularly affected the development of your implicit bias because they reflected the messages that were important about respect, about displays of emotions (can men cry in front of others?), and about what beauty looks like. How were you taught to respond to authority figures, could you call adults by their first name, what earned you praise as a child, and what got you shunned? In an important TED Talk, diversity advocate Verna Myers defines biases as “the stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are.” She frames our reflective questions like this: “Who is your default? Who do you trust? Who are you afraid of? Who do you implicitly feel connected to? Who do you run away from?” And she offers three things we can do to deal with our implicit biases, but I’ll let you go listen to her talk to learn about those.
Reflecting upon those surface questions is just the start to interrupting your biases. Going further, you would need to upack your deep cultural values about communication, self-motivation, and effort, for example, and then ask yourself how you came to believe those things and what messages they give you about others. This is deep, hard work, and once you decide to begin this journey, you need to commit to your growing awareness by stating your intent. In the Forbes artcile, Corbett gives this example: “I would like to become more aware of my own bias so that I can mitigate bias in me and within my organization.” A teacher can frame it in terms of her classroom, students, and families. Ask: Where do I see implicit biases playing out in 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?
Begin the job today. How? Take the implicit association test, which measures unconscious bias and can be taken online. Five million people have taken it. The Implicit Association Tests from Harvard University is available here, and it will help you uncover unconscious biases you may have in areas including gender, career, race, age, skin tone, weight, disability, sexuality and more. There are also virtual reality tools focused on the experience of unconscious bias, such as the A Mile In My Shoes app. Once you uncover your biases, you may feel uncomfortable, but that is necessary before you can become comfortable again–minus your current implicit biases.
Continue your journey by asking for feedback because you don’t know what you don’t know. Feedback helps bring your implicit bias to the light because you can’t change something you don’t know exists. Admit to your colleagues what is true for all of us (but that they might not be ready to admit yet), and that is that we all have blind spots. Welcome them to dialogue with you when they see you do or say something that could be rooted in bias. Perhaps through feedback, your triggers will be revealed to you. Both Hammand in her book and Corbett in her article describe the importance of knowing your triggers so that you can stop them in their tracks and build new habits in their place. When you know your triggers, you have a plan for how to respond when they’re set off. As a teacher, your trigger plan can be framed as an if/then statement. It may look like this: If I feel the urge to ignore a student and call on one who I think knows the answer to my question, then I’m going to intentionally call on that student, really listen to what they say, and let them finish their thoughts before I call on another someone else.
A final step to uncovering your implicit bias is to understand that it is systemic and intergenerational. If you watch the Ted Talk I referenced above, you’ll hear an example of exactly how bias gets passed along and how we can interrupt that. That example, however, illustrates bias within a family and may be easier for you to see and change. However, institutional and systemic bias is harder to combat. According to the Forbes article, research showed that “bias is carried over generations, not so much from a DNA perspective, but simply because it is rooted in history and passed down through norms, values, and actions.” This is exactly why we need to be so intentional about discovering and interrupting our own personal biases. We want to stop it from being passed down. We want to create a new conversation. We want to see the connection between bias and equity so that systemic and institutional barriers to success for people of color are removed and replaced. Yes, our individual work impacts the collective, one person at a time. When individuals work together, real change can be created.