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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Unconscious Bias in Schools’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 02, 2019 19 min read
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Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman agreed to answer a few questions in writing about their book, Unconscious Bias In Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism.

Dr. Tracey A. Benson, a former high school principal, is currently an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman is a former elementary school principal and now an educational consultant.

LF: Your book covers so much ground and is introduced in an unusual context—the role of unconscious bias in the relationship between the two of you.

Could you describe what happened and a few key things you each learned out of it?

Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman:

We began our journey together as colleagues teaching in the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As teaching teams sometimes go, we spent almost as much time planning as we did teaching, in order to ensure everyone had equal say in designing each lesson. The most powerful experiences from our time together as a teaching team were when we developed opportunities for students to engage in conversations about race and racism and debriefed them together.

The course-planning sessions and class-session activities revealed two important things to us over the course of our time working together: Our students deeply needed these opportunities to navigate topics of race prior to stepping into leadership roles and our teaching team was not immune to racism and racial biases even as we planned learning opportunities for others.

We had many honest and uncomfortable discussions about race and racism with each other that year. One such discussion exemplifies the difficulty in facilitating open and honest conversations about race. With our teaching-team colleagues, we had convened a racial-affinity fishbowl activity with our students. During the session, we noticed that when the white affinity group was at the center of the fishbowl, they chose to remain mostly silent during their 15 minutes at the center. However, the people-of-color affinity group immediately struck up a deep conversation and talked honestly during their entire time in the center. The three white members of the teaching faculty elected to sit at the center with the white affinity group but did not verbally participate.

The white teaching faculty’s choice not to participate didn’t raise an eyebrow during the session but surfaced later in a discussion between the entire teaching team when Tracey and another teaching-team member of color pointed out that they had courageously sat with and participated vigorously with the student-of-color affinity group. This discussion among the teaching team highlighted that the white members of the team chose to invoke their white privilege—acquiescing to their white fragility and discomfort—by remaining silent in a way the members of color on the teaching team, who felt compelled to support their students of color, did not.

Intense experiences like this prompted us to continue engaging in race-based conversations during the class as well as after our time together on the teaching team was over. Sarah’s invitation to Tracey to join the book project came out of the hours we’d spent on the phone and in person discussing race. And, while our time together on the teaching team and our former lives as school principals bonded us, racism and racial bias was present, and is still present, in our working relationship. We give several accounts of how racism and racial bias played out in our co-authoring relationship during the writing of the book in Chapter 2. While these interactions were not initially planned as a part of the book, we decided that sharing our difficult conversations and disagreements about how racism affected our relationship as white and black co-authors was significant to illustrating and normalizing the difficulties our readers will likely experience as they delve into addressing racism and racial bias in their professional relationships, organizations, and communities.

LF: You write about how some teachers and schools believe they operate as “colorblind,” and others as “color-mute.” It was the first time I had heard of the second term.

Could you explain each, why you think teachers and schools operate in those ways, and their negative implications for students and communities?

Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman:

Common phrases we hear from people who espouse a colorblind philosophy are, “I don’t see color, I just see the person” and “I don’t care if someone is black, brown, or purple, I treat all people the same.” We use the term “espouse” to describe this philosophy, because we all know that, unless someone is physically colorblind, it is truly impossible not to see color. In our opinion, these individuals are honestly conveying their aspiration that all people be treated equally but missing the boat on realizing the impact of racial bias in the United States in general and in themselves. Objective data from research shows that people of color are treated differently based on race[i], including in schools where students of color are more likely to be given harsher consequence than white students, curricular materials establish whiteness as the norm and marginalize or exclude people of color, and language used to describe inequitable outcomes for black and brown children locates the problem exclusively in students (i.e., achievement gap, school-to-prison pipeline, underperforming) rather than those responsible for educating them.

Espousing colorblindness assumes everyone has the same experience in America, fails to recognize the societal implications of being a person of color, and discounts the history people of color have experienced in our society. Moreover, what does espousing colorblindness truly mean? Does “I treat everyone the same” mean “I treat everyone as if they are white?” Does it mean “I don’t want to discuss what it means to be a person of color in our society?” Rather than increase equality, a philosophy of colorblindness bolsters the legacy of racism in our society. Racism and racial bias continue to result in disparate lifetime outcomes for students and people of color. Refusing to see, acknowledge, and fight against this legacy only further supports the normalization of whiteness at the expense of people of color.

Mica Pollock coined the term “color-mute” to describe the phenomenon of educators avoiding talking about race in schools.[ii] Educators in schools that practice color-muteness may see disparities in student outcomes by race, but they do not verbally define these disparities by racial differences or attribute these differences to racism or racial bias in the system. Color-mute school policies are written in the language of “all students,” even when a more specific policy is needed to address the specific needs of students of color. The recent popular phrase “All Lives Matter” in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement is a prime example of colo-rmuteness in action. Because, while it may be true that police reform is necessary for all citizens, specific policy reform is needed to protect the lives of black citizens who are being incarcerated and shot by police officers at higher rates than white citizens[iii].

One of the root causes of colorblind and color-mute philosophies comes from a lack of know-how and fear. White adults, having often been raised in color-mute households and attending color-mute schools, have not developed the skill to talk about race and racism in productive ways. In many well-meaning white households, children are taught that talking about race is rude and inappropriate. As a consequence, when white children say racially insensitive things (often out of sheer ignorance), they are often shushed and scolded rather than engaged and redirected to a more productive way to talk about race. When these white children become adults, they do not have the tools to discuss race productively, leaving them to stumble through conversations which often leave them feeling shameful, guilty, and angry.

Since the ability to openly discuss racism and racial bias is an essential starting point, the lack of know-how and comfort among white teachers and school leaders undermines efforts to identify and address racial disparities and racism in the schoolhouse. Moreover, due to this inability to talk openly about the need for specific strategies to address racism and racial bias in schools, school leaders often elect to implement color-mute programs (i.e., extended day, after-school support, social-emotional learning curriculum, etc.) to address racial disparities, not realizing that unaddressed racism and racial bias within the schoolhouse will always undermine these efforts as well.

LF: One chapter is titled “Cultivate A Brave Community.” Can you define what that is and what it looks like in practice?

Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman:

Cultivating a brave community involves infusing conversations about race, racism, and racial bias into the common language of the school. In our experience, most schools reserve conversations about race and racism for special diversity-centered professional-development days. By doing this, school leaders signal that these conversations are good to have but only on specifically designated days. Moreover, by keeping these oftentimes uncomfortable conversations pocketed to specific designated times, schools limit their capacity to become more comfortable with engaging in tough conversations about race. By breaking out of the “this is our diversity day” culture, schools can begin to acknowledge that racial bias is a persistent problem that necessitates persistent discussion, planning, and attention.

In a school cultivating a brave community, educators confront racial bias openly and honestly. In order to create an atmosphere that values honesty and a commitment to becoming better as a community, leaders deliberately cultivate trust. Trust doesn’t come from hearing people’s good intentions. Trust comes from witnessing people’s actions. When colleagues stay in a hard conversation with respect and honesty even when it’s uncomfortable or frustrating for them, that builds trust. Colleagues increasingly believe in each others’ desire to grow as anti-racists. Two processes that help build trust are establishing clear norms and using protocols for structured conversations. Norms and discussion protocols help us establish new patterns of behavior. We often use Glenn Singleton’s norms for Courageous Conversations.[iv] For example, a norm of “speak your truth” encourages individuals, especially in mixed-race settings, to speak from their own personal experience. Another norm of “expect and accept nonclosure” sets the expectation that no matter the depth and breadth of conversation, the issues of racial bias may not be solved in a day.

Brave communities often use protocols in ongoing small-group conversations about a specific text or racial-affinity-group conversations to help school administrators and teachers become more comfortable talking about racism and racial bias. Equally important in brave communities are conversations around key data points and observations that indicate racial disparities in the schoolhouse. For example, instead of waiting for the “diversity professional-development day”, a school leadership team may choose to examine and plan around racially disparate data at weekly leadership-team meetings. In preparation for these weekly meetings, the leadership team may choose to collect and disaggregate race-specific data in areas such as classroom participation, participation in extracurricular activities, students selected for positive recognition, or school attendance. Too often, efforts to address racial disparities in education focus exclusively on disparities in student discipline. While we agree that this is an important area to investigate, this is just one area of student experience in school. The aforementioned areas are just as, if not more, important to examine and plan around because these areas represent the climate students live in on a daily basis.

Building the ability to talk about race and unconscious racial bias is not only for the benefit of people of color. White people also benefit from conversations about race. Most white people don’t think of themselves as having a race since our society teaches that whiteness is the norm and only people of color have a racial identity (think “flesh” colored Band-Aids, “ethnic” hair products versus just “normal” hair products, etc.). In this context, most white people don’t understand a) that they have a racial identity, and b) how their racial identity influences their daily life experience. This white-centric thinking and acculturation has left generations of white people race-illiterate, unable to have the most basic conversations about race and racism without feeling ashamed, guilty, or angry.

Tracey remembers being invited to a multigenerational event in Boston, which focused specifically on talking about the dynamics of race and racism. At that event, he vividly recalls how the adults mostly sat silent, and those who spoke did so with pause and trepidation, while the kids, as young as 3 years old, spoke about how race and racism played out at their schools with honesty and without filter, which made many of the adults in the room visibly uncomfortable. The goal of continuously cultivating and nurturing a brave community is to help adults speak more honestly and freely about race and racism, without worrying about making a mistake or saying something wrong. Yes, exposing ones internalized racism is terrifying. Yes, speaking freely without worrying about who may get offended is scary. However, without brave spaces where these conversations take place frequently, we can never build and learn together about how to eliminate racism and racial bias.

LF: It’s not unusual for white teachers to come away feeling defensive after attending any kind of “diversity” professional-development sessions. There may not be any way around that result, but what advice would you give to school or district leadership that wants to provide some kind of training to its faculty and staff?

Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman:

This question is at the heart of our book and one of the main reasons we decided to write about this topic! As principals, each of us initially avoided talking directly about race and racism with our staff even though we wanted to. We anticipated that white teachers would shut down and that their defensiveness would prevent us from getting traction with improvement. What we came to realize is that this defensiveness comes from a particular mindset about racism that has taken hold in the United States. This binary mindset sorts people into two categories: racist or nonracist. Within this mindset, if you are a good person with good intentions, you fall on the nonracist side of the binary. Bad people who dislike people of color are on the opposite side. When we subscribe to this mindset, we have only two ways of identifying ourselves: good or bad, nonracist or racist. In this model, if we have good intentions, by definition we are nonracists. This is the justification behind the common claim, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” This attachment to being a “good nonracist” and not a “bad racist” causes many well-intentioned white people to become hyper-defensive at the suggestion that they too have racial bias.

If we want to help educators see the ways their behaviors may be negatively impacting students of color, we first need to help them decouple racism from intentions. We have found that the concept of unconscious bias provides an entry point for white educators to understand that while they may hold good intentions, their actions can still harm students. No matter our good intentions, we have been raised in a society that teaches us to treat black and brown children with more suspicion and less intellectual respect and to treat white children as more deserving of second chances and rigorous learning. These biases reside in our unconscious and seep into our speech and actions. When the two of us work with teachers and leaders, we give examples of ways we have each treated students of color unfairly to demonstrate that none of us is immune to these biases.

When we teach people the fallacy of the binary mindset, we encourage them to instead take a developmental approach. We are all on a journey of unlearning the lies society has taught us about the intellectual, cultural, social inferiority of black and brown people and the corresponding superiorities of white people. Understanding the grip of the binary mindset can help school and district leaders build empathy for white teachers who come away feeling defensive after talking about racism and racial bias. Instead of viewing defensive teachers as resistant, breaking out of racial binary thinking can help school leaders see teachers on a continuum of learning, instead of being stuck and unwilling to learn.

However, just because the leader understands these aspects of adult learning with relation to race doesn’t mean the job of leading a brave community will be any easier. No matter how much we prepare before leading discussions around race and racial bias, there will be hurt feelings, frustrations, defensiveness, and unease. These feelings are par for the course and a necessary part of engaging adults who may not have ever been consistently challenged to examine their racism and racial bias. In fact, if there are sessions or a series of sessions that do not involve some level of discomfort, leaders may be opting for harmony and peace over doing the real work of truly addressing racial bias.

LF: What are three concrete actions you could recommend that teachers take during this new school year to examine their unconscious (also known as implicit) bias and work to counteract it?

Dr. Tracey A. Benson and Dr. Sarah E. Fiarman:

The first step we recommend is that teachers and administrators first focus on themselves. Racial bias is so fundamental to the American life that we all need to continually self-reflect on our complicity with upholding a system that routinely advantages whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Racial biases affect every aspect of American society, evident by disparate outcomes between white people and people of color in areas such as health care, life expectancy, household income, employment, incarceration, wealth, representation in the media, and access to a high-quality education. Racial bias influences where we live, where we send our kids to school, where we work, and even who we have in our social circles. Given this context, before we take any action steps that involve others, we need to engage in self-examination.

In the book, we explain how essential it has been to each of us to examine the ways the binary mindset about racism has influenced our thinking and work. In different ways, we have each absorbed the belief that a person is either racist or nonracist. For Tracey, this has meant confronting his tendency to write people off as soon as they say something that shows an ignorance of racism. He’s realized that in order to help people grow, he needs to see them as learners on a developmental continuum. Sarah has worked to name rather than hide her unconscious biases—her racism. She’s learning to recognize that the impulse to prove that she’s a “good” white person inhibits her development as an anti-racist. We’re both actively working to dismantle the ways this binary shows up in our thinking and inhibits our own and others’ development. Sorting others and ourselves into good/bad, nonracist/racist categories prevents learning. It’s crucial that leaders begin by examining themselves.

Our second recommendation is to focus on impact, not intent. We suggest teachers who are interested in reducing the impact of racial bias in their schools and school communities, engage in ongoing inquiry about the experiences of students of color in their classrooms and schools. The second half of the book is full of strategies for how educators and educational leaders can concretely diagnose and challenge bias in their schools including developing measurable strategies to address the ways racial bias impacts students. For example, which students go to see the counselors in school, access after-school programming, get special jobs in the classroom, are recommended for AP classes, report they are treated fairly in the cafeteria, see themselves reflected in the books in the school library, can name an adult they trust at school, etc. One way this inquiry might play out is through peer observation.

For example, a teacher might ask which students are asked higher-order-thinking questions that prompt a student to analyze and synthesis, and which students are asked lower-order-thinking questions that simply require a student to remember or recall? When a teacher partners with a colleague or a school administrator to observe and document which students are called on and the types of questions asked to each student, by race, the teacher may uncover how his/her unconscious racial bias may be manifesting itself in daily lessons. Do white students persistently get asked higher-level-thinking questions than students of color? We’ve seen these types of unconscious behaviors in classrooms on more than one occasion. And, while these types of behaviors may seem mundane, if these patterns go unchecked, 1) the students of color are being shortchanged on their education every day, and 2) white students are unconsciously absorbing the racial bias of the teachers, priming them to continue the generational cycle of racial bias in our society.

Finally, our third recommendation is to not fear failure. Failing forward is how we get better at leading discussions about race. Unlike courses we’ve taken in schools and colleges that help us master a particular set of knowledge and skills, most leaders have never taken a course on facilitating discussions about race and racism. While some leaders may have higher levels of experience, a greater knowledge base, and a greater comfort with leading race-based discussions, no one is an expert. As a teaching team with aspiring principals, we would often tell our students when asked about how to talk about race in schools, “You will get it wrong a lot. But you need to get it wrong in order to learn how to get it right.” The most important way to get better at dealing with discomfort is to practice dealing with discomfort. You can only do this by actually pressing forward into discomfort and learning how to navigate it once you’ve arrived.

LF: Thank you, Dr. Benson and Dr. Fiarman

[i] See for example, Sendhil Mullainathan, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” New York Times, January 3, 2015.

[ii] Mica Pollock, Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 8-9.

[iii] Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito, “Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2019, 116 (34) 16793-16798; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821204116, and Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Statistics: Inmate Race” retrieved from https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_race.jsp on August 30, 2019.

[iv][iv] Glenn E. Singleton, Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2015), 56-58.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.