Am I racist? Or, how unconscious bias affects our teaching

This edition of my blog scares me. Often when I start writing, I have a seed of an idea, but I don’t really know where it will go. In this case, I went to a topic that scares me: Unconscious bias.

It feels scary because part of unconscious bias is racial bias. And conversations about race are loaded and tender and volatile. In adding my voice to the conversation, I worry: No matter how I write about it, there is a good chance I’ll do it wrong. Or be incomplete. Or offend someone. Or….

And one of those worries is about how it lands with you, dear reader. I care about my connection with you, even through a blog. If you are reading this, I know my words affect you in some way, trigger something in you. Whether that is annoyance, or engagement, or defensiveness, or connection.

Without further ado:
A number of years ago I taught an opera program to teens with After School Matters. The program was made up of high school students from all across the city, and our class was for teens who liked to sing. Abilities ranged greatly, some students didn’t have music classes in their high schools, while others were in arts dedicated high schools, majoring in vocal performance.

Socio-economic status correlated in the way you might expect – kids who had no music programs in their schools came from poorer backgrounds. While those who were in art schools often (but not always) had better financial resources.

You can imagine how easy it was to fall into the trap of extra helping for those kids who already had skills and training. They were fun to help! They had knowledge and already knew they liked classical music.

I’m sad to say that I wasn’t very aware of how my expectations of students created self fulfilling prophecies, and I’m sure my preconceived and unconscious judgments did just that.

This is called unconscious bias, and numerous studies show that a teacher’s expectations are a good prediction of how well the student fares – not because the teacher was right in their judgments, but because the teacher teaches differently based on assumptions.

So, as teachers, we become better teachers and serve the world by becoming aware of those preconceived notions. We do this by noticing, and interrupting, our assumptions.

A subset of unconscious bias is racial bias.

I recently read an article that said that people are very afraid to say, “I am racist” or “I have racial bias” or any slant on that. Because most people, me included, associate racist with white supremacy and cross burning and lynchings. “That’s not me! Don’t lump me into that category!”, is my reaction.

I feel afraid to admit that I am racist. I want to be a nice person, and I have a fantasy to treat everyone equally. I feel deep shame when I admit that I am racist. It is not who I want to be, and definitely not how I want people to think of me.

We are all influenced by racial bias in this society. It is the cultural story within which we are all immersed, with fear as it’s girder. Fear of people who are different, fear of losing whatever place we have in a scary and unpredictable world. And the world has been especially unpredictable lately.

White people need to grapple with this issue. It won’t go away until we too dig into it and work on healing our own unwitting participation. 

So, here is a way we can notice when racial bias shows up:

"I see racial bias as a Part of me."

The great thing about using the Parts language and framework is that we don’t have to agree with every Part within us.  

We all have Parts that are less than pleasant. The ones who are critical of ourselves, and judgmental of others. Parts who are selfish. Parts who are, or wish to be violent. Parts who eat a lot, or drink a lot, or do a lot of drugs, or cheat on their significant other. We all wish these parts would go away, change, leave us alone, be different.

Same thing with racial bias – those are Parts of me that have internalized deep cultural beliefs, and these beliefs do not jive with the rest of my system, with who I want to be.

Using Parts language gives me a tiny bit of separation from the beliefs, and the hope that I can change them.

For example, this is an over-explained, slowed down convo I might have in my head when I notice fear:

Racial bias part: “Ooh, scary black man with a hoodie….defenses up!”
Me: “Wait, I hear that automatic jumping to concern. I’m curious if I really need to feel that way. Are you sensing real danger? Or is that the cultural narrative that has been shown over and over in the media and news and movies?”
Racial bias part: “Well, he’s black. And he’s wearing clothes that make me uncomfortable.”
Me: “I hear you’re uncomfortable. I hear that you’re working to notice if something is dangerous. Thank you for being on alert. I’m curious, do you think that he really looked dangerous? Did you truly sense danger?”
Racial bias part: “Well, now I’m not sure. I’m just doing my job of being on high alert for danger.”
Me: “Right. I’m getting curious about the bigger picture here. Noticing concerns, and also noticing that these fears might not be the whole story, or a cause for reaction. I’m also getting curious about offering eye contact, or saying hello. Or just staying present in my body and seeing what happens. I’m also curious what it’s like for a black man to sense distrust directed at him from the world. That’s an unfair burden for him to carry.”

Working on my racial bias in this way has shifted the lens through which I see people that are different than me. Sometimes I still might notice the judgments or fears first, but I also equally often have a lot of curiosity and compassion at the forefront.

  • Seeing a black man unloading a moving van in my neighborhood – wondering what that is like, to be a new person in my neighborhood. And knowing the history of black people who were often unwelcome in white neighborhoods – does he carry that history on his shoulders? What is it like for him here, in this neighborhood that is full of immigrants?
  • Or watching a woman struggling with little kids on the bus. Wondering how she’s doing. Wondering about my assumptions of moms who look and act a certain way. Feeling like this topic is so complex and overwhelming. Wondering what led her to this place where it looks like she’s having a really hard time, but perhaps she is no different than me, another mom who has a hard time with my two year old on the regular.
  • Seeing old, unkempt men of various races and backgrounds in the park. They look homeless, but are they? I have to be honest, this is a particular area of growth for me. I have a really hard time finding compassion for these elderly men. Even if they are homeless, do I need to be disgusted, or mad, or afraid, or creeped out?

Doing this over and over, interrupting and questioning my assumptions – that is leading to internal change. It is building my tolerance for discomfort and not having all the answers. And it takes the edge off of my shame for being racist – allowing me to actually do more to work with those racist parts. It feels much safer to say, “part of me holds racist beliefs. And I’m working with those parts to change.”

So, how do your Parts show up and affect your teaching? What assumptions do your Parts make about students of various backgrounds? Students who are poor, or from another country, or people of color? What is the narrative that your Parts tell you about these people who might be different than you in some way? Where can you find an iota of curiosity about your assumptions and old cultural beliefs?

I’m curious, how does this land with you? Does it feel like a cop-out? Does it make it easier for you to work on your racist beliefs?

As always, thank you for reading.