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Everyone Keeps Talking About Implicit Racial Bias But What Is It?

Over the last few days, I’ve been tackling implicit bias with my eighth-graders. I mean, if Starbucks can shut down for a day to learn about it, so can we, right? Also, we’ve been reading pieces of “The Hate U Give,” and the discussions have shown me that my students really needed language to describe how racism operates at a more complex level than just “racist” or “not racist.” Learning about implicit bias helped us move away from the “is it racist or not” debates, and towards an understanding of different forms of racism.

What is Implicit Bias?

Students, and, actually, a whole lot of us adults, understand racism to mean obvious, overt racism. It is the screaming of racial slurs, the donning of white hoods, the conscious belief that Muslims are all terrorists and Mexicans are all rapists or drug dealers. We know this racism when we see it, and we understand it as wrong. We can call this racism, explicit bias. But implicit bias is important, and understanding implicit bias, the unconscious associations we make about people and situations, is critical to understanding how race operates in the U.S., and in our classrooms. Implicit bias is why Black men are read as being threatening in situations where White people are not. Implicit bias makes the Starbucks employee call the police, it makes the officer see a gun where there is a cell phone. It makes teachers read Black kindergartners as behavior problems and White students as intense and precocious, or, as a student of mine offered in class, why a group of White teens in a mall is harmless, and a group of Black teens is dangerous. This racism happens without conscious racist thought, which is what makes it so scary and persistent. Implicit bias is all the ways that we are racist, even when we are super sure we’re not. It is the way racism continues to operate under the surface of polite professionalism.

Teaching Implicit Bias

To understand implicit bias, we took this test. It was interesting. When I took it in the morning, my test showed a “strong automatic bias towards White people.” That’s not easy to write, or easy to think about or say. I told students they did not need to share their results with me or anyone else, but I did, after they had taken the test, share my results. We then framed a good portion of the ensuing conversation around my racism, the stuff that’s in my head, the stuff I undoubtedly bring with me to class every day. I find it easier, and more honest, to center my own shittiness in conversations like these, and model what it means to own your own stuff. I asked my classes to picture a doctor, then a teacher, a criminal and a terrorist. Some students started trying to use their hands to physically block the images that came, unbidden, to their heads. It’s worth pointing out that I teach in a school building that practically shares a parking lot with the police force responsible for Philando Castile’s killing. Police violence can be a touchy subject around here. In fact, at the beginning of the year, many of my students told me they didn’t want to talk about race this year, since so many attempts to do so last year had gone so poorly. It’s taken me months to get to this point of trust, the point where I trusted students to give each other some space and respect, and where they could trust me to give them safety while they shared.

Teachers’ Implicit Bias

The most interesting and illustrative part of our work around implicit bias happened when I asked what it would mean to have explicit bias as a teacher. When I asked the question, I thought the answers would be easy, but the answers (that my bookshelves would have mostly White writers, that I would separate kids of color in my seating chart, that I would call on White kids for answers, but call out kids of color for behavior or noise) are all things that I’ve seen well-meaning White teachers do. It’s not that they are racist, it’s that we all have some racist-ass shit crawling around our heads. Our work towards anti-racist teaching often starts externally, but throwing up a MLK poster and doing a hip-hop poetry unit is not the end of that work. If it was, I would have had a great second year of teaching, because I did both things and was pretty damn proud of myself. Yet, we can teach “The Hate U Give” and still manage to give hate without knowing it if we are not constantly pausing to reflect on our decisions (even the little, little ones like who got called on, and who did I stop in the hallway and why, and why am I standing near this group so often, and, and...) and check our own bias. That racism, the sneaky hidden shit that makes us expect less from our kids of color, that keeps us that much more distant, that much less caring, that racism is killing our kids of color.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to ...

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