Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism: Acknowledging Our Possible Biases and Working Together Openly Is Essential for Developing Community in Our Schools

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism: Acknowledging Our Possible Biases and Working Together Openly Is Essential for Developing Community in Our Schools

Article excerpt

In the blink of an eye, unconscious bias was visible to me, an African American. A man saw my face as I walked into the store and unconsciously checked his wallet. On the street, a woman catches my eye a half block away and moves her purse from the handle of her baby's stroller to her side as she arranges the baby's blanket. In the airport, a man signals to his wife to move her purse so it is not over the back of her chair, which is adjacent to the one I am moving toward. What is happening in these instances? Were these actions general safety precautions? If so, why did the sight only of my brown face, not the others who moved among these individuals, elicit these actions?

I believe these are examples of "blink of the eye" racism. Such unconscious biases lead to unintentional racism: racism that is usually invisible even and especially to those who perpetrate it. Yet, most people do not want to be considered racist or capable of racist acts because the spoken and unspoken norm is that "good people do not discriminate or in any way participate in racism" (Dovidio and Gaertner 2005, p. 2).

Such unconscious biases affect all of our relationships, whether they are fleeting relationships in airports or longer term relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, teachers and other educators. Understanding our own biases is a first step toward improving the interactions that we have with all people and is essential if we hope to build deep community within our schools.

Biases are rooted in stereotypes and prejudices. A stereotype is a simplistic image or distorted truth about a person or group based on a prejudgment of habits, traits, abilities, or expectations (Weinstein and Mellen 1997). Ethnic and racial stereotypes are learned as part of normal socialization and are consistent among many populations and across time. An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is a recent exchange that repeated Clark's classic 1954 doll study. In a video, completed by a 17-year-old film student and disseminated through the media, a young black child clearly reflects society's prejudice: The child describes the black doll as looking "bad" and the white doll as "nice" (Edney 2006). Children internalize our society's biases and prejudices, as have all of us; they are just a little less able to hide it. I am reminded of the story of a 4-year-old in an affluent suburb who remarked to her mother upon seeing a young Latina while in line at the grocery store, "Look, mommy, a baby maid."

And when we receive evidence that confronts our deeply held and usually unrecognized biases, the human brain usually finds ways to return to stereotypes. The human brain uses a mechanism called "re-fencing" when confronted with evidence contrary to the stereotype. Allport coined the term: "When a fact cannot fit into a mental field, the exception is acknowledged, but the field is hastily fenced in again and not allowed to remain dangerously open" (Allport 1954, p. 23). This is illustrated by such statements as "some of my best friends are black." That statement, while used to deny bias, has within it the seeds of a defense of negative feelings toward blacks. The context of the statement usually means that "my best friend" is an exception to stereotypes and, therefore, that other blacks would not be my friends. Thompson (2003) refers to this as absolution through a connected relationship (i.e., I am absolved from racism because my best friend is black). Dovidio and Gaertner describe this inability to connect stated beliefs and unconscious bias as aversive racism, "the inherent contradiction that exists when the denial of personal prejudice co-exists with underlying unconscious negative feelings and beliefs" (2005, p. 2).

In many situations, from either the dominant or the oppressed, simple unconscious associations may drastically change outcomes. An example is Steele and Aaronson's (1995) work on stereotype threat, in which the performance of African-American students in a testing situation was cut in half by asking them to identify their race at the start of the test. …

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