Equity & Diversity

Future Teachers Mistake Black Students as ‘Angry’ More Than White Students, Study Shows

By Madeline Will — July 08, 2020 5 min read
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A new study finds that prospective teachers, most of whom are white, are more likely to identify Black children than white children as angry, even when they’re not.

The study examines teacher-candidates’ “racialized anger bias”—a term coined by the researchers that means seeing anger when none exists. One of the researchers, Amy Halberstadt, had previously done a study that looked at how teacher-candidates perceived the facial expressions of Black adults.

“In that first study, we discovered what Black people already know largely—that people perceive Black adults as angry even when they’re not,” said Halberstadt, who is a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. "[In this new study], we found that even older elementary school children are also experiencing racialized anger bias. With prospective teachers who care deeply for children, this is still happening.”

In this study, researchers studied 178 prospective teachers who were enrolled in education programs at three southeastern universities. Most of the future teachers in the study were white women, which is in line with the national teaching force.

Both white candidates and candidates of color were equally likely to misidentify Black children as angry, Halberstadt said. However, researchers were not able to separate out the responses of candidates of color into specific racial and ethnic groups—including Black teacher-candidates—given the small sample size of those participants. Halberstadt noted that given that there’s such a mixture of experiences and backgrounds within the population of candidates of color, it’s difficult to say what this finding means.

Participants were shown 72 short video clips of child actors’ facial expressions and were asked to identify the emotion being displayed. The clips were equally divided between Black and white children and between boys and girls. The children in the clips were between the ages of 9 and 13.

Researchers recorded the number of errors that participants made, especially seeing anger when there was none. The study notes that the findings were “clear and robust": Prospective teachers were 1.36 times more likely to exhibit racialized anger bias against Black children than against white children and incorrectly view the Black child as angry.

Future teachers were 1.74 times more likely to incorrectly identify a Black girl’s facial expression as angry than a white girl’s. Participants were 1.16 times more likely to mistake a Black boy’s expression as angry than a white boy’s.

Overall, Black boys were the most likely to be incorrectly assumed to be angry by future teachers, Halberstadt said. White girls were the least likely. Past research has found that adults view Black girls, aged 5 to 14, as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls.

Researchers said they would expect to see even higher levels of anger bias in the actual classroom, when teachers have to make split-second judgments of the situation.

White Kids Get a ‘Free Pass’

Researchers also asked the future teachers to answer a series of questions designed to assess their explicit and implicit biases. The implicit bias test measures how quickly respondents pair white faces with positive words and Black faces with negative words in comparison to the inverse. (This study used the faces of young children in the test.) The explicit bias test asked participants 18 questions about racial differences in the educational context. For example, participants were asked to mark their level of agreement for statements like “Black students don’t study very much” or “Black students are more emotional than white students.” Participants responded on a six-point scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

On average, participants disagreed with the statements but didn’t do so strongly, which indicates some degree of explicit bias. They also exhibited implicit bias against Black children. A recent study that looked at the results of both explicit and implicit bias assessments found that teachers have the same level of racial biases as other American adults.

The higher a prospective teacher’s bias level, the more likely they were to give white children a “free pass” and not see them as angry, Halberstadt said. But higher levels of bias did not increase the likelihood that a prospective teacher would misperceive a Black child as angry.

“To me, this is particularly important because it suggests that anger bias is pretty much in the air, it’s so infused in our culture that a lot of people have it,” Halberstadt said. “I don’t think we can predict when it’s going to be activated or for whom. ... We have so many hundreds of years of cultural beliefs and cultural claims about Black people as angry. [That stereotype] has become so infused into our culture, we might not be aware of its impact on us.”

‘Anger Begets Anger’

Black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, federal data show. In the 2015-16 school year, Black boys made up 25 percent of all students suspended out of school at least once, and Black girls accounted for another 14 percent, even though they each only accounted for 8 percent of all students.

While this study didn’t attempt to link teachers’ racialized anger bias with school discipline rates, Halberstadt said she wonders if there’s a connection.

“We do know that anger begets anger,” she said. “When you see anger in someone, you’re going to start to get angry as well—whether or not they were [actually] angry.”

And the authors note in the study that if Black children feel misunderstood and unfairly judged by their teacher, they may become less engaged in the classroom—thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of teachers’ expectations. This could also harm Black children’s sense of self, which could then affect their ability to learn, Halberstadt said.

“Black children deserve the same empathy and curiosity about their emotions as white children,” she said.

Halberstadt said she and her team hope to replicate this study with current classroom teachers. But she recommends that teacher-education programs and school districts both invest in training that asks teachers to examine their own implicit biases and then find ways to mitigate them.

Image via “Racialized Emotion Recognition Accuracy and Anger Bias of Children’s Faces,” Halberstadt et al

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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