‘I Don’t Think I’m Biased’

Teaching Tolerance, Spring 2010

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With few exceptions, the process of becoming competent in multicultural discourse is advanced by an initial event or “encounter” that challenges individuals to reconsider their beliefs and attitudes. The encounter, according to Gay, is “an experience or event that shatters a person’s current feelings. . . . It may be real or vicarious, personal or social, verbal or visual.” The design and provision of such encounters is a decisive component of our diversity work.

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The Teaching Diverse Students Initiative (TDSi), now available at www.tolerance.org/tdsi, includes a number of resources to help create an encounter experience. The section on “Understanding the Influence of Race” includes tools to help teachers examine their own biases and think critically about what “race” really means.

Another encounter experience that we use can be found at the website for the Public Broadcasting Service television series “Race: the Power of an Illusion.” The “Sorting People” exercise asks participants to categorize individuals into racial/ethnic groups based solely on their visual appearance. {snip}

{snip} One of the most powerful readings for our predominantly white, female students is Peggy McIntosh’s 1999 article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Most of these students are unaware of the privileges they receive just by being born white in the United States and are startled to read this article. We often accompany it with another article, White Privilege in Schools, by Ruth Anne Olson (1999). {snip}

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Dismissal

“None of this is true; the author obviously has a political agenda.”

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One of the least effective strategies we have found in addressing this response is trying to convince the individual of the accuracy of the source. {snip}

Disbelief

“I don’t think that I can really be biased. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood, and I have a lot of friends who are African American.” or “I didn’t grow up privileged. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and we worked for everything we got.”

{snip} Teachers view themselves as “good” and “fair” people, and they are skeptical about being biased. They are typically eager to cling to the comfort of their perceived neutrality on such issues, which again can provide a roadblock to productive dialogue and reflection.

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Acceptance

“It makes sense to me that I am biased, because I am white and I grew up only around white people.” or “I do think I have received privileges because of being white, but that is how things are. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

{snip} This line of reasoning rationalizes their bias and sense of privilege. They see bias and privilege as societal issues, rather than personal ones, and this allows them to avoid taking responsibility for their attitudes and biases.

The teachers with whom we work accept the societal factors that have contributed to bias but don’t see their inaction as contributing to the problem. At this point, we use readings from Tatum’s (2003) book, which provides the example of the moving sidewalk at the airport as analogous to racism in America. {snip}

Discomfort

“Much of this is surprising to me as well as embarrassing. I am mortified by the fact that I have taken issues of privilege for granted that people of color struggle with on a daily basis.” or “I have always been proud of being color blind and treating people fairly . .  now I’m wondering if I was being unfair.”

{snip} One of the resources that we refer to is the movie, Crash, which shows the devastating effects of overt and hidden bias.

Discomfort can manifest itself in other ways as well. Some teachers with whom we work frequently hold great pride in their pronouncement of being actively “color bind” when it comes to their students. They view this as an expression of their lack of bias, and it can be difficult to readjust this thinking. {snip}

When teachers express discomfort, we encourage them to explore ways to take action to combat stereotyping and discrimination. We suggest examining materials in classrooms for racism and sexism, addressing and eliminating racist language, and examining school policies and practices that discriminate against particular groups of students. {snip}

Disclosure

“Everything I am experiencing shows me that I have strong preference for African American individuals. I interpret this as a distrust of white people, which is unfortunately true.”

A less common response is when individuals actually disclose a conscious bias. This differs from the acceptance response, where an acknowledgment of a hidden bias is recognized. This response is characterized by an open admission of prejudice–a step beyond acceptance. This confession requires a great deal of honesty and courage and can be disquieting to divulge.

Although there is the potential for this response to elicit alarm, our experiences indicate a level of self-awareness that differentiates these respondents from others. Individuals who disclose personal bias frequently express how hard they work to intentionally focus on others’ abilities, without regard to race. {snip}

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Conclusion

As teacher educators, we continue to challenge ourselves to provide varied opportunities for teachers as they engage in the exploration of education for social justice. This work is not achieved without challenge. As we present pre-service and practicing teachers with new ideology and experience, we also must acknowledge ourselves as cultural beings continuously encountering and interpreting ideas and interactions. This process of continuous mindfulness and self-examination seats us as co-learners, with each discourse providing opportunity for illumination.

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[The website “Teaching Tolerance” is a project of the Southern Law Poverty Center.]

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