Humans have a natural tendency to want to group themselves with other people who are similar. It’s likely an instinct that at one point helped us survive and keep our families intact. Now, however, the instinct can be less helpful.
There are many ways we separate ourselves including race, age, political stance, socioeconomic status, religion, culture, ability level, intelligence, and gender are some of those. When you create an environment of learning, however, students must be seen as individuals while also respecting who they are as people who naturally exist in the groups mentioned above.
There is a unique difference between bias and appreciation for our students and where they are coming from. Some educators say things like, “I don’t see color. I only see children.” This may seem like a non-biased statement, but it demonstrates that rather than appreciating differences, teachers are trying to place all students in a homogenous group, ignoring their individuality and particular backgrounds.
Acknowledgment - and even celebration - of differences is not bias. You should “see” differences, acknowledge them, and use materials that are sensitive to a variety of differences and mirror the individuality and background of your students.
Bias is more specifically when you assume things about what a student knows, understands, or experiences based on a group they may belong to rather than allowing for individuality.
Few educators are purposefully tougher on girls than boys, or verbally express beliefs that one race is less or more effective in math than another, but many of our biases are unconscious, hidden from our own realization. It does take some detective work to find and confront these inaccurate beliefs.
As mentioned above, we all have biases, and there are groups of people we are uncomfortable around because we come from a very different background or have had very different experiences.
The key is to acknowledge not only that differences exist but that we do have biases. Knowing your discomfort level among a group of people different from your own is the first step to assuring that biases won’t color your treatment of your students.
If you’ve never considered that you might have some unconscious biases, you should be aware that chances are very good that each of us has some area in which we are making assumptions that are clouding our true view of our students. Take time to notice your feelings of discomfort when dealing with a family or student with a different background from your own.
In addition to measuring your discomfort level among unfamiliar groups, another bias indicator is when you find yourself using absolutes when thinking about or discussing a group of people. No one group is “always” or “never” one thing or another, especially when discussing character traits, ability levels, habits, or values.
Be aware if you hear yourself making excuses for your treatment of a student or group of students. You may be subconsciously aware that you are operating under some sort of bias and becoming more mindful of the possibility of existing biases may bring that thought to the surface.
You may even find that those beliefs are commonly held among your colleagues. Your family and friends may all adhere to these beliefs. This may make it difficult to identify and change your own bias. Once you see the erroneous belief, though, it is very difficult to “unsee” it.
And when it is visible to you, you have the responsibility to change your mindset to assure your students are being given every possible opportunity to achieve.
Cultivating Personal Change
Once you realize you’ve been operating under a biased assumption, make a list of things you’ve heard, said, or know people around you believe on one side of a paper. On the other side, write what is true. Look up statistics if you need proof. Do research, and think seriously about what causes that assumption to be made.
Some biases are “provable”, meaning the research done may back the bias. Remember that not all research is conducted without bias. Some research also fails to take into account other factors that could produce the same results.
For example, for many years, math and science were not considered subjects that girls enjoyed and/or were competent with. The larger picture shows that math and science were not always offered equally to girls. Socially, there were few jobs available to women that involved math and science.
Although women are much more likely to enter math and science fields now, vocations like engineering are still very heavily aggressive and uninviting toward women.
While people may have been assuming that girls weren’t good at math and science, the truth was girls weren’t being given the opportunity to be good at math and science.
Those are the types of socially acceptable and “proven” biases that we combat with good research, deeper understanding, and a willingness to change.
In addition to researching and knowing where you are starting from, an excellent way to combat bias is to get out of your zone of comfort and become acquaintances with people who are different from you. Observe their lives, be willing to learn, and offer friendship and belonging in return.
Many people are willing to share their experiences if you are willing to listen and share your own. Although, you need to be careful not to create a “token friend” system, using a person who is different to make yourself seem more open to other experiences.
Instead, truly forming mutual bonds with people who are comfortable with you asking questions and who are comfortable listening to you can be mutually beneficial.
Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable and willing to be vulnerable with people they don’t know well. There are people who are so often only seen for one thing that they are tired of talking about it. It can be offensive to try to open lines of communication with some people. Be wise about finding realistic opportunities
Creating Change Around You
Once our own biases are confronted and dealt with, it is often an attractive idea to go on a spree of world-saving or world-changing. The problem with that is, as a person dealing with his or her own bias, you may have no business adding your two cents.
When people from outside the group push their way in and take over, it dilutes the message a group is trying to send. The very act of adding your voice may be more of a distraction than it is helpful.
You also run the risk of invalidating the struggle and message of a group that has suffered from biases when you swoop in and use your “sameness” to “save” people. You can offer support without being visible if your support is going to be a distraction.
If you are invited to speak on behalf of a group of people to which you don’t belong, look for opportunities to empower others from within that group with a voice. This is far more validating and supportive than becoming the champion of someone else’s gender, race, socioeconomic, or cultural struggles.
Once you’ve learned to deal with your own bias, call friends, colleagues, and family members out when you see them operating with bias - but do it with respect and compassion. People who are unaware of their own bias may struggle with hearing you.
Rather than speaking with them publicly and aggressively, approach the subject at a neutral time and in a neutral space. Share your own story, and talk about your own realizations. Especially in regard to students, see and show others the things that don’t fit into their ideas and ways in which particular students are not able to be judged on the basis of an entire people group.
Avoiding Acculturation and Maintaining a Sense of Self
Sometimes, when people learn to combat their biases, they suddenly find themselves losing a sense of self and becoming saturated with the ideas and beliefs of other people.
While celebrating where our students are coming from and where they are going, it’s important not to take advantage of the positive aspects of their culture or heritage. Some people move beyond unhealthy bias, beyond sensitivity, and start to change themselves to try fit into the same groups as their students.
It’s important to maintain your own individuality. Don’t pursue acceptance to the point of assimilation. Becoming sensitive and accepting doesn’t mean replacing former biases with new ones. Some people turn their biases inward and begin rejecting who they are, which is not helpful.
Also, be mindful of assuring you are not overcompensating for former bias. Sometimes in our hopes to create an environment of equity, we feel the need to overcorrect for past actions.
We do better when we know better. Once you learn a new way to see your students and their families, and begin operating under that clearer understanding, aim for true equality. This may not mean that everyone gets the same thing, as each student is an individual in their knowledge and background understanding.
What it does mean is that we offer each student whatever they need to be given as much of an opportunity to succeed as any other within our care.