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Unconscious Bias in Schools

Strategies for educators to counter their own unconscious biases in schools and classrooms
Unconscious Bias in Schools

Many educators struggle with unconscious bias in their roles at school, and often in ways that can unknowingly perpetuate racism and negatively affect students. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Tracey Benson, Ed.L.D.'16, and Sarah Fiarman, Ed.M.'05, Ed.D.'09, offer ways to address these issues directly, and outline how educators can start this work in their schools. Benson, an assistant professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Fiarman, director of leadership development at EL Education, are authors of the new book, Unconscious Bias in Schools.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. When Sarah Fiarman noticed a group of black students weren't paying attention in her class, she asked friend and fellow educator, Tracey Benson, for advice. He called her out for falling into a trap. Many white educators often do. She went back, looked again, and realized it wasn't just black students not paying attention. There were white students doing the same thing. Sarah and Tracey's conversations inspired the work they're doing today, helping educators recognize unconscious bias and begin to move beyond these patterns that perpetuate racism in schools. I spoke to them about their work, and first, I had to ask them what they mean when they say unconscious bias.

Sarah Fiarman:  We are pretty clear that unconscious bias and racism are the same thing. Unconscious bias is when you're treating someone with preference based on race. Tracey's going to get our definition better.

Tracey Benson: So, a learned set of beliefs about a specific race of people that either causes you to preface that race or to be discriminatory or not preference that race. It's something that we learn over time through society and we have lots of racialized experience throughout our lifetime. We know that kids as young as five from the test from Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the famous doll test where they gave five-year-olds a set of dolls, one white doll and one black doll. Regardless of the race of the child whether it was a black child or a white child, they universally chose the white doll, because the white doll looked pretty and good, and the black doll looked bad and dirty.

And so, we are primed from a very, very young age, often unconsciously primed from a young age all throughout our day to form these biases for one racial group and against another racial group. That's what we talk about unconscious bias. It's absorbed. It's learned over time. It's something that's more automatic. Unless we pay attention, we can enact racial biases towards another group without even consciously paying attention that we're doing it.

Sarah Fiarman: We think the framing of unconscious racial bias is more palatable to white people than racism. Because when we talk about racism, often white educators get defensive and shut down. We talked a lot about, well, is this coddling white educators for us to frame this as unconscious racial bias rather than racism? Then we thought we actually urgently want to reach educators who right now are not engaging in these conversations, and if using a tactical strategy like framing this as unconscious racial bias will help teachers understand that we're not accusing them of not caring about their students of color, we're not accusing them of harboring bad intentions, that we're actually trying to help them grow in awareness of everything that Tracey just said, of all the learned biases that they've absorbed over time, that that will allow them to engage in this conversation long enough to actually investigate their behaviors and change the impact that they have on students of color.

Jill Anderson: Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways unconscious bias is impacting students in schools today?

Tracey Benson: I have a lot of specific examples. One, being a student of color who attended a predominantly white school for the majority of my life. I've developed a very keen sense and a keen eye for, one, being the receiver on the receiving end of biases from either teachers or professors, and also as a principal, I've seen it happen in school. Let me give you an example. There was a teacher, I think it was my second year as principal, and I hired a teacher at our school, a younger teacher to teach one of our classes. I went into her classroom and I observed her for just efficacy in terms of her instructional style, her pedagogy, her classroom management, and things of that sort. But while I was observing the classroom, I had noticed that out of the 25 students she had in her classroom, she had five rows, and at the very end row were sitting all four black students. The only four black students that were in that class were sitting in that row.

As the teacher was teaching, I was noting down which students participated, which students ask questions, just to see the amount of teacher talk time and student talk time. While I was marking down the marks on my page, I noticed that none of the black students were participating. Not only were they not participating, but they weren't being called on. There are no cold calls, they weren't raising their hands, there was no active participation in the classroom. Then I started watching what the teacher was doing. As I watched the teacher, I noticed that she was standing, almost cutting them off. She was standing in a place in the classroom with their back turned away that she was actually not able to see that row at all because her overhead projector, and she was writing on her overhead projector to demonstrate math problems, she was cutting out that half of the room.

I thought to myself that this could be a reason why these students aren't participating on this end because the teacher doesn't even see them. I wondered how long has this been going on. And so, I made the decision, and this was a young white female teacher, to talk with the teacher about it, because it's a teacher that I had hired. In sort of calibrating whether or not to have a conversation with the teacher, I also have to think to myself as a black male educator, I don't want to make them feel like I'm accusing them of being racist. This is something that I see in the classroom and you probably don't even know that you're doing it. Luckily at our post observation conference, I let her know what was happening and I showed her the drawing.

I said, "Did you notice that your body faces away from these students, the black and brown students?" She said, "I'd never noticed that before." I was like, "Well, why don't you try changing your position and see what happens as a result, and see if these students will participate a little bit more." She asked me to come back in two days, which I did. I came back in two days for another observation. I could only stay 30 minutes, but I noticed that she'd, one, changed her position, and two, she goes actively cold calling on the students more. Just by being made aware that something could possibly be going on in the classroom, it increases students' level of participation. That's one of many, many ways their unconscious bias plays out in the classroom in a way that a teacher just simply doesn't know until someone points it out.

Jill Anderson: I mean, we know that teachers are predominantly white and female, and I imagine fear is probably an issue for a lot of these educators. They're afraid of being called a racist or maybe, they were raised in a way that they don't talk about race, and that kind of thing. How do you work around this issue as a leader in a school?

Sarah Fiarman: Right. Yeah. I think a lot of the things that you just named are really common. There's research that shows that most white people have majority white friend groups, like majority by an extreme number, in the 90 percentile, and that most white people go through most of their days without interacting with any people of color, mostly people who look like them. All sorts of reasons why white people are not used to thinking about themselves as having a racial identity. And so for a lot of white teachers, for the reasons you've said also, they may associate talking about race with people who are racist. Some of the white people in our society who speak the loudest about race are white supremacists, and so sometimes there can be this association that if you talk about race, you're one of those bad white people. Or people have been taught that if you care about equity, then you don't see race, which of course is a fallacy because we all can see race very easily.

Some of the recommendations that we make that we've found to be really helpful in schools is first, just simply normalizing talking about race and racial identity, helping a lot of white people to just name that they're white and that that makes a difference in how they move through the world and experience the world. We also think that this framing around unconscious racial bias is really helpful because it helps people understand that you may not be waking up in the morning with a desire to treat black kids unfairly, but you are waking up in the morning in a society that is indoctrinating you daily to believe that white is normal and anything else is other, and often less than.

So if we can be alert to that, then know that it's not about our intentions, then we know that this is about being alert to the ways in which we've been indoctrinated and so we need to check ourselves. We need to monitor our behaviors more. That framing can be actually really empowering to people, because we believe that most teachers, including the majority of teachers who are white, really care about their students, want the best for their students, and so if they know that things they're doing without realizing it are hurting their students, they're going to want to figure out how to stop doing that.

Jill Anderson: Do you find a lack of awareness when you're out interacting with educators or talking about the work that you've been doing?

Tracey Benson: Well in my experience, I've been going to different colleges and universities and school districts and having talks with different nonprofits, that I find there's not a lack of will. There's a will to want to be better. There's a will to address the discrepancies in achievement between black and white students, black and brown students, and an understanding that this is a moral imperative. I do find that there's a lack of sort of a deep understanding about the origins of just how deep our racial bias, racism is in our system of education, and also just how normalized, just how deficit-based our thinking is about the abilities of brown students, our abilities of poor students. I find that even in our language that we often equate ability to race and socioeconomic class unknowingly, because it's been so normalized, and so easy for us to say achievement gap, but that's deficit-laden language.

So how do we say something different and I would describe populations not by their least desirable characteristics? We say low SES students. We just define somebody by their least desirable characteristics. So, we leave out low SES. What are the desirable characteristics that we can use to describe this group of students? Maybe aspiring college students. That's more and more asset-laden. Right? I think that, one, that's a lack of awareness brought to our deficit-related language, and two, an understanding about how racism plays out in schools and how it become so accepted. One of the terms that we introduced very early on and that we push people to really grapple with is the good non-racist, bad racist binary, and that we're taught to think about this, just that it's like Sarah talked about before, that if you are and you want to be a non-racist, you must be a good non-racist and you must have no racial bias, not talk about it.

And not only that, if you do think that you may have something that may be a racist belief or thought, you should not bring that up, especially in multiracial settings, because you might reveal your racism. We want to release people from that binary in one, allowing yourself, your personal self to be a learner, that we all have ingested racism. And it's not just white people, it's people of color, also. Because just because people of color have brown skin, it doesn't mean we've been immune to being raised in a white-centric society.

And so to break out of this binary thinking, it just because we aspire to be a non-racist doesn't mean we don't currently have ingested racism. By introducing this concept and allowing people to break out of this binary, we want to one, people don't allow themselves to be learners, but also people to look at others. We're so quick to demonize others and say, "Oh, that's the racist over there," without realizing that they are themselves on the continuum of learning. It may be willful ignorance. It may be something where someone is just not understanding enough about how racism plays out in their lives that it causes this reaction that we might see as defensive. Where if we see it in terms of a continuum, we see this person as a learner on a continuum, and they can learn more, and be better, and be less racially biased.

Jill Anderson: I love that it makes the whole conversation so different, just that approach, that shift to making it being about learning. It seems like school leaders are really at the head of starting these efforts within their school. How do you begin to do that if you're a school leader and you want to start this work in your school?

Sarah Fiarman: We know that school leaders are often action-oriented. They want to check things off their checklist. They want to move fast. They feel a sense of urgency about making change at their schools. One of the things that we really wanted to emphasize was, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down." Before you start supporting other people around understanding unconscious racial bias, you have to understand your own racial identity and you have to understand the ways in which the binary mindset that Tracey was talking about are manifest in your thinking.

For example, as a principal, I was concerned about a pattern that I'd seen of black boys being sent to the office for behaviors that I thought were pretty innocuous behaviors that could have been handled in the classroom that seemed to be escalated way too quickly. There was an article that I wanted people to read. I sat in a small group of people who are discussing the article and one woman started off right away, white woman said, "Well, this article doesn't apply to me because I'm color blind. I don't see color in my students." And in my mind as she continued to talk, I was writing her off as an irredeemable racist, and how could I correct her so that the other people at the table weren't listening to this. I ended up kind of doing a mini-lecture about how, well, we've all absorbed racism and it's impossible to be colorblind, and kind of stood up on my soapbox. I saw these other young white teachers at the table kind of averting their eyes, and everyone was just enduring until the end of the meeting and then sprinted out of there.

I realized that I had really missed a learning opportunity and an opportunity to see this woman, as Tracey has said, to see her on a continuum of learning and to try to be a responsible adult educator and think about what was the skill building that she needed to do and how could I ask questions or engage her further in the article to help her build those skills to help her move along that continuum towards anti-racist behavior. I think one of the most important things that we're encouraging leaders to do is examine themselves so that they can be really strong supporters of the growth and development of their staff so they can truly believe that their role is to support the staff's development along their own racial identity, and also along their understanding of what it means to be an anti-racist. That it's an ongoing journey, it's not a character trait. It's a set of actions that you commit to an ongoing development.

Tracey Benson: Along with what Sarah said, we also want leaders to be prepared that this is a journey, one that you have to allow yourself to be a learner, to have missteps. Something we talk about with our students and I always say to folks who are interested in and pursuing this work as a school leader that you're going to get it wrong nine times to get it right the 10th time. there's just not a roadmap. There's not a manual on how to be an anti-racist leader. It's a learning process in terms of learning about how to do it well yourself. Doing it well means developing a level of comfort with discomfort. It's a lot to talk about. We have to have more discomfort and more uncomfortable conversations. It's another thing to actually do it. The only way to become more comfortable in discomfort is to actually do it.

When you do it, it's scary, because the discover does doesn't last during that conversation. You'll have folks who leave with sometimes hurt feelings. Sometimes they feel implicated. Sometimes there's conversations in a teacher work room about a particular PD session. You're often pushed towards thinking like, "Oh, this is not going well because it's so uncomfortable. Let's just get back to a place of comfort and not talk about it again." I remember when I was a new assistant principal, my very first year, I think it was the second day of freshman development at my new school, and this is my first AP job ever. I had presented some data on the suspension discrepancy between white students, black students, and Latino students at the school. I saw it very black and white. This is the data, so let's have a conversation about it.

I didn't have any language, any framing around how people may feel. I didn't know the binary, the intent over impact. I had none of that language. I just thought it was very like straight forward, who could refute this data. But when I presented it to the staff, and again, it was all white staff, it was not rave and applause, "Thank you for showing that to us." It was like, "Are you calling us racist?" I was not prepared for that type a reception. I also didn't understand that the concept of the binary. I myself was captive to the binary at that time, and for those who weren't receptive, I saw them as non-learners. I saw them as racist that I had to comply with directives rather than take them on this journey of learning. I was less effective because I went straight to compliance rather than taking folks through a journey of learning, and myself through a journey of learning, and understanding that that probably wasn't the best first move to do as a new principal, a new AP. I didn't have the language that we have in the book.

A big reason that we chose to write this book is we wanted to provide a resource for principals and school leaders and even teachers who want to take on this work that we would have wanted at that time, but yet we didn't have.

Sarah Fiarman: I think another important piece that Tracey has really helped me understand as a white leader is this piece about messing up nine times in order to get it right the 10th time. As a white leader, that's terrifying to think that I'm going to talk about race publicly with a group of educators and I'm going to mess up, and I'm going to say something that's biased. I'm going to say something that people will perceive as racist. A big learning for me has been to own that publicly and to say, "I am on a learning journey myself as we all are. As Tracey has said, I have ingested all of these biases myself, and I will mess up, and I want to learn from that."

And so to see those mistakes as sources of learning, as a white person myself, I've seen those mistakes as an indictment of my character, that I'm a bad person because I said something that was exclusionary to a person of color or said something that revealed my ignorance about something regarding racism. We really want to encourage all leaders, and in particular I think white leaders who may share a lot of the fears that I've just named, to be willing to be public learners about their own internalized racism with their staffs, which is very scary. There aren't a lot of models for that and we also think it's one of the most supportive things you could do for your staff in this journey of growing as anti-racists.

Jill Anderson: I mean, it sounds like it's such, for some people, a mindset shift that needs to happen.

Sarah Fiarman:  Exactly.

Jill Anderson: I know you keep mentioning there's a lot of mistakes that you're going to make along the way, but I have to wonder, is there a wrong way to do this work?

Tracey Benson: There are definitely wrong ways to do this work. Not wrong, but ill-informed. Something that I talk about with especially educational organizations is that dichotomy between actually being anti-racist and being seen as anti-racist. A lot of organizations just have this litany of strategies to be seen as anti-racist. One of the strategies is you bring in a consultant for a one-day professional development once a year to talk about diversity, and you pocket it just that one day. It's better than not having it at all. However, if that is the only way, the only method to engage with anti-racism or diversity, equity, or inclusion, whatever word you want to use, that has not been as effective as making it a part of your normal conversation and your normal day. That's something you're about as an organization. So just that one day, fly by professional development where we are uncomfortable one day, maybe we feel guilty, we feel shameful, maybe with some tears, some hugs, but then we go back to work as usual. That is not as effective as being more dedicated to it and doing the work.

Another aspect, which can be actually more problematic in ways, is organizations that are committed to be an anti-racist or hiring people of color into predominantly white spaces. Spaces that were already predominantly went to begin with, just by bringing black and brown people into this space, doesn't make it more racially equitable. Especially when it hasn't been addressed as an organization. There's a reason that organizations are predominantly white, because it's not by accident, it's by design. And so when you bring people of color into that space, there needs to be a sense of this space is probably white, we have white dominant cultural norms, and if you want these black and brown people to be successful here. And we need to address the racial bias, the racism that exists in our organization along with bringing black and brown peoples in, because we can't just expect just because you bring in people with brown skin that then people are going to raise their consciousness and awareness in terms of the way that race and racism play out in the workplace.

These are the two aspects that I wouldn't say are wholly wrong, but it's a place that we often go more often than not, but a way that really doesn't address the foundations of race and racism.

Sarah Fiarman: I don't know if we'd call this wrong, but another pattern that we've seen that we think is not supportive of this work is when leaders, mostly white leaders, rely on staff of color to lead the work. That's pretty common. Sometimes it's because staff of color will step up because they're concerned that nobody else is doing it, and so they'll take on that extra burden. Sometimes, often, it's because a white leader will feel, "Well, I'm white. Racism is about people of color, so they know more, they should lead this." So, a white leader will tap a staff member of color to lead efforts. Essentially what that does, it places any enormous burden on people of color who are already, as Tracey said, often having to navigate majority white spaces where they're having to fight for their full value to be recognized. But it's also an extra job that those folks are carrying on top of their regular job.

We talked to a group of leaders and one African American man said, "This is kind of retraumatizing for me, because I am having to now work with white educators who are doing some of the things to students that I experienced myself from white educators when I was a student, and that were painful, and now I'm having to step by step hold the hand of these white educators to help them learn about how harmful some of their behaviors are, often unintentionally." But how emotionally draining that is for him to have to do that, and that's a burden that we often put on people of color in schools. I think that's another thing for leaders to be cautious about and alert to.

Jill Anderson: I have to imagine there might be some teachers or educators listening who are not in that leadership role and they might be thinking, "My school leader's never going to do something like this, but I'm interested in doing something, even if it's just on my own within my school." What can they do?

Tracey Benson: Teachers, they're the closest person to the students, and ultimately that's who we seek to impact when we do work with leaders. And so if a teacher wants to do this work, they can do this work in their classroom, they can do this work in the hallways, they can do this work on the playground. They don't have to have a coalition of the willing, person of one, that's very powerful. They have 24, to 26, to 30 students in some schools of their own that they could work on their own are racialized lens and be sure that they are treating students equitably within the classroom. They could ask their administrators, when the administrators come to do observations, can you, and by way of managing up, I am working on addressing or finding out where racial bias shows up in my classroom. So when you do an observation, can you observe which students I call on, which students participate, with students I have conversation with, because I want to make sure that I'm being equitable.

When I grade papers, I'm going to blind grade. That's a great strategy for trying to take bias out of grading, because you know when you see a name of a student, it automatically biases do who they are and it might bias the way in which you grade their papers. That's another way, to have blind grading. To have randomized ways of calling on students in the classroom. To really pay attention to who you're giving consequences to and what are those consequences. Are they worse for other students and for other by race and by gender? These are all things that teachers can do on their own to hone their skill and ability to take it out of their classroom.

Then once after a few years that they've created a sort of a strategy around this, they could then spread to others, their colleagues. It'd be great to have every principal on board, but that's wholly not necessary. Every teacher has a team or has a department in which they can talk to others about successes they've had in their classroom and share with others in terms of like what their strategies and then what have been their positive results behind that.

Sarah Fiarman:  I think there are also ways for teachers to connect with other people online. I know there's a group called BARWE, Becoming Anti-Racist White Educators, that provides online resources every month, encourages people to get together with other educators in their community, not necessarily at their school if they don't have other folks at their school. SEED, Seeking Educational Equity Diversity, is another organization that is doing work to support teachers and developing their own racial identity and their own understanding of becoming more anti-racist. In addition to the investigative work that Tracey's talking about, about learning to monitor their impact, that can be balanced or I guess complimented by doing a lot of work internally on understanding how those biases have come to be. So at the back of our book, we list a bunch of recommended books to support each of the different concepts that we introduce in the book.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much for coming in.

Tracey Benson: Thank you for having us.

Sarah Fiarman: Yeah, thank you very much.

Jill Anderson: Tracey Benson is an assistant professor of education leadership at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Sarah Fiarman is the director of leadership development at EL Education and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They wrote the book Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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