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Classroom Q&A

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.

Teaching Opinion

‘We All Have Implicit Biases’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 15, 2019 13 min read
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(This the fourth post in a special six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond to educators who say they “don’t see color” when they teach?

NOTE: Shannon R. Waite, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor in the Educational Leadership, Administration, and Policy division in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, is guest-hosting and editing several posts over the next ten days. You can read her introduction to the series here. Additional posts sharing responses to this question will appear throughout the school year.

Her first two posts shared responses focusing on “the historical context and a discussion of the educational impact colorblindness has had on groups who have been ‘othered.’ ”

Part One‘s responses were written by Judd Rothstein and Terri N. Watson, Ph.D.

You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Shannon, Terri, and Chris Emdin on this topic and listen to previous episodes of the show here. You might also be interested in previous posts that have appeared here on Race & Gender Challenges.

Kris DeFilippis and Dr. Gholnecsar (Gholdy) Muhammad shared their thoughts in Part Two.

The third and fourth posts answer the question in the context of: “How colorblindness impacts the experience and quality of education from the perspectives of practitioners, parent advocates, and students.”

Jehan Pitt and Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Ph.D., contributed answers in Part Three’s column.

Today’s guests are Jia Lee, Melissa Payne, and Brady Smith.

Response From Jia Lee

Jia Lee is a N.Y.C. public school special education teacher and a dedicated member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE):

The Unconscious Racism of Colorblindness

When New York City’s schools Chancellor Richard Carranza instituted implicit-bias trainings across the city’s public schools, to be honest, I was nervous. Top-down implementation of any kind of professional development or policy, in my experience, creates reactions across the spectrum. In this case, there was a visceral reaction from people, some of whom have even filed a lawsuit. They would probably say that they’re not racists. For those who’re curious: The trainings have not been consistent. Some of us were in small groups, while others sat in a large auditorium with hundreds of people. There was a PowerPoint presentation, a few parts that were interactive, and a range of facilitators. I heard from a colleague that their facilitator had 25 high school participants sit in a circle, while I sat in a school library where the chairs were in rows, and I was with 50 or so educators I’d never met before.

The school I teach in started the work a couple of years before with what is now the Center for Racial Justice, formerly called Border Crossers. We spent multiple days and spent many hours over the course of two years because racism doesn’t vanish after a single day of professional development. It begs the question of where we start the process of addressing a systemic issue that begins and ends with individuals in our school communities. However, let’s just address the implicit racial bias from the vantage of someone who feels strongly that they’re not racist or feel they don’t see color.

In informal conversations with colleagues about these trainings, I kept hearing, "... but I’m not racist. I care about all of my students.” I would sympathetically nod my head and then challenge myself to make this statement, “I hear you, but I also know that we don’t all have the same understanding about racism.” It’s important to step outside of our defensiveness for a moment and consider that only 5 percent of our decisions and thoughts are controlled by our conscious awareness and that the majority of our daily thoughts and decisions are controlled by our subconscious. We have more implicit impulses than conscious ones, whether we want to believe it or not. Walking, breathing, the habits that turn into routines, such as the way we brush our teeth or the route we take to work each morning, they all become part of our subconscious. Implicit racial biases work the same way. Some of the most extensive studies done have concluded that people have subconscious preferences. Check out Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test (IAT).

We all have implicit biases because that is just how our brains work. However, subconscious preferences result in discriminatory tendencies. This has major implications for our work with our students. Patricia Devine, a psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab, states that “Trying to ignore these differences makes discrimination worse” (Nordell, 2017). The American Bar Association published an article as an analysis of some of the unintended consequences post-Brown v. Board of Education, How Implicit Bias Impacts Our Children in Education. The article cites data that reveal how black students (16 percent of students) are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students (51 percent of students) for the same infractions nationwide. The school-to-prison-pipeline research suggests that students with even one suspension have double the chance of dropping out of high school. The referral rate for students for disciplinary action or arrest is significantly higher for black students than white students, again, for the same infractions. We have plenty of anecdotal evidence historically and currently.

As an Asian American public school teacher who was born and raised in Southern California, I attended public schools. During that time, I had one Asian, three black, two Hispanic teachers, and everyone else was white. As a student, I noticed the differences in how teachers made assumptions about me based on race. Even though I was born in Newport Beach, Calif., for instance, I was asked all through schooling if I (not my parents) needed translations. Comments on report cards were made that I was very obedient, and teachers have said that I must be good at math. That was a lot of pressure! I flunked prealgebra twice!

I think about this with my own, especially black, students. What kinds of assumptions have been made based on stereotypes that have become part of our implicit biases? If a black student speaks up, is it viewed as defiance? Because I know plenty of white students who speak up, and it’s seen as articulating a position. If you’re someone who’s never had to think about the race of your teachers, it’s probably time to check in with what you don’t see as a problem.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report on “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce”. Eighty-two percent of public school educators identified as white, compared with 7 percent who identified as black. Meanwhile, 51 percent of public school students were white, while 16 percent were black, and 24 percent of students and 8 percent of teachers were Hispanic. School leaders were overwhelmingly white. The projection is that the trend is widening despite efforts to diversify. With this information comes some initial reactions. White educators I’ve met acknowledge the disproportionality as problematic. Why? Because, even without understanding implicit racial biases, it impacts the culture in the classroom.

Even in the best of classrooms, the dominating culture is often determined by the teacher. Desegregation is a story of how implicit racial biases and institutionalized racism manifested into what we have now. The culture clashes in our classrooms has continued for decades without any conscious effort to mitigate them. Until now—we are experiencing a broad realization and serious opportunity to start to shift our subconscious into a different direction, a collective consciousness that impacts our pedagogy and nurtures not just our students and educators of color but all of ours.

Response From Melissa Payne

Melissa Payne is a public school graduate and a parent, and has been a guidance counselor in the system for 14 years. Born and raised in the Bronx, Melissa is a graduate of the State University of New York College at Brockport and Manhattan College:

We All Bleed the Same Color

I commonly hear the following colloquialisms: “We all bleed the same color” or “There’s only one race, and that’s the human race.” While these statements may be accurate, we, as educators, must be mindful of the fact that this is not true for all of the students we serve or, in society, at large. Toni Morrison wrote, Deep within the word ‘America’ is its association with race. We too as a society see things in black and white, and to ignore that fact is to ignore a long, profoundly ingrained struggle in our country’s history.”

New York City is made up of a myriad of races, cultures, and ethnicities. “I don’t see color” only serves to advance a white superiority agenda. It leaves one to not have to take responsibility for the historical exploitation and racism or the remnants that remain present today. Blatant and systematic racism are realities for many of our students. Many students live in segregated neighborhoods and attend segregated schools, and they endure blatant racism and implicit bias on a daily basis from adults they interact with, television, and/or social media. As a guidance counselor, I have to help students navigate trauma daily.

I once had a student who was ridiculed relentlessly because of her ethnicity. She told me that she was so used to being called a “dirty Mexican” that she finally started to believe it. Initially, she suffered from severe depression in middle school, due, in part, to her classmates often reciting what they heard on the news by our national leaders. When she came to high school, her answer was to become a bully herself so that she could perpetuate the treatment she received. In her mind, now, she would be in control! As her guidance counselor, I had to listen and validate her feelings. I then let her know her reddish-tone brown skin and jet-black hair were radiant! I told her that not everyone will appreciate her skin color and her heritage, but she must continue to hold her head up high and be the confident, beautiful young woman she was. We continued to work on her self-esteem and self image throughout the school year. She eventually realized she was only hurting others because she was hurt herself.

As educators, we should celebrate the cultures in our classrooms and in our schools. This will only enhance self-esteem and courage in our students. To insist that you do not see these differences reinforces feelings of inferiority that students of color often feel when engaging with white teachers. As many are subjected to disparaging remarks about Latino, African, and Caribbean countries, we as educators should celebrate and explore the beauty of these nations in our classrooms. All students should have the opportunity to discuss and learn about the beauty of the Ivory Coast and/or the Mayan ruins of Mexico. Every culture should be acknowledged, recognized, and normalized. We can start by examining the contributions of Native and African Americans to this country and also celebrate the various shades of brown throughout all of the Caribbean and around the world. “I don’t see color” is not the direction we should take as educators, and we must support one another to change this narrative for the sake of all students.

Response From Brady Smith

Brady Smith is the principal co-director of the James Baldwin School, a transfer high school in Manhattan:

Supporting the Whole School Community

At the James Baldwin School (JBS), a transfer high school in Manhattan, we engage in conversations about racial equity in many different forums. As a school that serves over 90 percent black and brown students, it is essential that students see themselves in the curriculum and incredibly impactful that students are supported by adults that look like them. Our staff is multiracial, and we seek ways to support all adults in honoring the identities of all of our students. As a white school leader, I believe it is a top priority that I collaborate to create brave spaces, actively pursue personal and professional growth in the area of racial equity, and participate fully in the collective work of the school community in addressing the biases in our systems and in ourselves.

We have a multiyear, staff-developed, schoolwide goal as part of our partnership with NYC Outward Bound Schools that focuses on “culturally relevant and trauma-informed approaches to schoolwide and classroom structures.” We have a waiver from the N.Y. state regents exams through the Performance Standards Consortium so our curriculum can explore issues of social justice that our students find more relevant and engaging rather than focusing solely on preparing students to take standardized tests. Adults have engaged in conversations about race as a whole staff, in race-based caucusing, in daylong retreats with facilitators like Dr. Jamila Lyiscott and Kathy Lebron, and in optional after-school sessions called “Rap on Race.” All this is to ensure that every adult sees all of our students, their race and all other identities, so that we can best support them.

Why is it important that the race is acknowledged by teachers and celebrated in the curriculum? As JBS teacher David Ward says, “If teachers do not create learning environments that acknowledge the cultural and racial aspect of their students’ humanity, those students begin to disengage. Most American curriculum is designed from a Western European perspective that diminishes the contributions and values of nonwhite cultures. Students see themselves through the eyes of their oppressors and must hide behind a shield of disinterest in order to maintain their self-worth. When curriculum is culturally and racially inclusive, students take pride in learning about those who look, sound, and think like they do; it brings them back to their family table, where their first lessons were taught.”

To suggest that we live in a “colorblind” or “post-racial” society simply recenters whiteness. JBS teacher David Ward continues, “Race is always the elephant in a multicultural and racially diverse environment. Students of color cannot hide who they are, and when a teacher says, ‘I don’t see race,’ it can come across as ‘I don’t acknowledge a major part of your humanity and identity.’ If they don’t see race then, they don’t see that student.” Regardless of what adult educators may think, students see race, and it is their perspectives and their experiences that determine whether schools are empowering or oppressive.

Former JBS Restorative Coordinator Tyler Brewster reminds us that “it’s also important for educators to consider and reflect upon where and how students ARE being represented. What are we communicating to them, without communicating to them, if the only place they can see themselves is in the faces of service workers for example around the school or when we’re talking about the negative aspects of American history?” Tyler and colleague Shana Louallen have just completed a restorative-justice intensive with 20 students at JBS through their consultancy firm Peer-Connect.org designed to develop students’ awareness of restorative justice and racial bias but also to support students in lending their voices and vision to reimagining systems and structures at school. Tyler continues, “Racism is, however, larger than personal interactions—it’s an entire institution, a system, the very foundation this country was built on. As microcosms of our larger society, it’s no surprise that educational spaces are one of the most impacted by racism and oppression.”

This is collective work. In schools, we must see and hear each other, youths and adults, and have honest and brave conversations. We must interrogate the systems and structures that we have created and perpetuated to ensure humane and equitable processes and outcomes for students. We must seek to grow as individuals and actively explore our own identities and biases. And we must honor all that our brilliant young people bring to school in order to celebrate and empower them and interrupt the systems, educational and otherwise, that have oppressed them. Our school namesake, James Baldwin, would have it no other way.

Look for Part Five in a few days...

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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.