Month: January 2018

Nobody wants to be racist (and yet unconscious bias is a real thing)

Nobody wants to think of themselves as a racist. And yet, many research studies reveal that we all hold unconscious biases, or hidden racist ideas. When left unchecked, these harmful ideas can perpetuate racist actions and reinforce racist systems.

 

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” (Moule 2009).

 

I am always on the lookout for rich teachable moments to use with my students to highlight issues of equity, power, and privilege. So while I had known about this idea of unconscious bias for some time now, it took me teaching reading for almost a decade to see the perfect moment to uncover our collective unconscious biases as English students.

 

With our novel study of The Chrysalids, we began by exploring the core habits of highly successful readers. One of the first habits we dove into was visualization. After we had a class that explained how good readers have a “movie camera” on in their minds, I asked the students to “cast” the characters that we have met so far in the novel. “Imagine that you are a director and you need to find actors to match what you are seeing in your mind.” Students loved that their independent learning at home centred around Google Image searching terms like: “old man farmer” and “sweet little girl with pigtails” and picking the images of the people that fit their mental images best.

“I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.”

My assumption was that most of the actors casted would be white. Even though our Grade 8 classes are not solely comprised of white students, I was guessing because most of the media my students consume has white people in central roles, students would primarily reproduce this depressing lack of diversity. My guess was that most students would sadly just see the sea of white faces that Google presented to them as “normal” and not specifically search for people of colour. Moreover, I guessed that students wouldn’t have even considered the race of the people they saw, seeing “white” as “neutral” or the default.

 

Well, I printed out all their “actors” and posted them on the bulletin board on the first floor of the Middle School. Before I had a chance to explain this mental exercise or have the students digest what they were seeing, a number of students stopped in the hallway, observed the board, and then promptly inquired with their teachers why there were so many white people on the board! While some students of course had cast people of colour in the roles of this novel, they were correct that most images were indeed confirming my hunches. I will say that I was rejoicing internally that the students who saw this board on their way to class actually noticed the stark lack of diversity!

When I brought the Grade 8 classes to the board and took them through a “see, think, wonder” routine, it didn’t take long for students to start to wonder why there were so few people of colour, why we chose so many actors that look the same, and what the author imagined when he wrote the book.

After the students were given a mini-lesson on unconscious bias and watched this video, I gave them permission to visualize characters that don’t look like them, that don’t look like “typical Hollywood actors”, or that aren’t just by default white. When we just assume that white is the default race, it is one subtle way that we recreate racist biases and limit the possibilities for people of colour.

 

While this was one lesson as part of a larger unit about reading skills and habits, the theme of questioning what we assume to be “normal” has been showing up in our novel The Chrysalids quite prominently. While I aim to explore rich literature with the students that exposes themes around othering, inclusion, equity, and justice, I also recognize the benefits of finding all the little teachable moments that inch-forward our collective awareness of anti-racism ideas. Seeing the anti-oppressive moments in the everyday experience of how we picture characters in our minds is one small step towards how we might challenge the racist status quo in our daily lives.

 

Works Cited

Moule, Jean. “Understanding Unconscious Bias and Unintentional Racism”. The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 90, No. 5 (Jan., 2009), pp. 320-326.

 

Building Equity in the Middle School English Classroom

Everyday, I step into my school and see pictures of white women on the walls: old-timey white women from the 1850’s when my school was founded, middle-aged white women who are alumni and doing impressive things in the world, scores of white women who graduated in years past. These faces greet me as I walk towards my classroom and affirm my place in this building. Everyday, I walk past fellow white teachers. Walking quickly with their heels clicking against the old wood, walking with purpose and power, assured of their status in this building. And everyday I walk past classrooms of students learning of and through well-known white figures like Shakespeare, Sir John A., Pythagoras, Deb Ellis, Bill Nye, or Darwin.

 

It is time to challenge this racist status quo in my teaching practice.

 

This year, my goal as a teacher is to de-centre whiteness in the English classroom.

But first, let’s hear a little about racism from the always-entertaining and informative Francesca Ramsy of MTV’s Decoded, so we can get closer to being on the same page about racism.

So what does “de-centring whiteness mean”?

If you are white, which I am, it is not difficult to look around our institutions and see white-culture reflected back at you. When I was a young person in school in rural southern-Ontario, all of my teachers were white, all of the books (Every. Single. One.) that I read had white protagonists in them, and most (I’m estimating 99% until high school) of my classmates were white. My whiteness was held up in front of me like a mirror and validated.  

In the classrooms that I teach, my students do not represent the larger diversity within the city of Toronto. As a teacher in an independent school, this is not surprising considering how much it costs families to send their children to my institution. That said, as more independent schools are waking up to how important it is to be inclusive spaces for families of all backgrounds, there is a shift within the student population to be more racially diverse. This is one reason for de-centring whiteness: not all of my students are white.

 

But it’s also for the white folks in the house.

 

We do all of our students a monumental disservice, you could even say a human rights violation, if our hidden curriculum is only valuing and validating whiteness. All students need to see more than just the single stories of groups of people in order to enter the world post-graduation a responsible citizen of the world.

So what does “de-centring” whiteness entail?

Well, at its most basic, it includes me providing and teaching books with racially diverse characters and exploring the voices that are not included in any text that we read. Who is present and who is silent?

It includes exploring and discussing concepts such as implicit bias, micro-aggressions, single stories, white supremacy, power, and privilege.

It involves ensuring that each student in my Middle School has the ability to investigate all aspects of their identities.

One of my favourite partners in crime at my school, a fellow provocative rabble rouser, proposed that we bring this question of identity investigating forward to our Middle School at a December faculty meeting. We asked:

How might we ensure that each member of the Middle School has access to opportunities in which they can share and investigate all aspects of their identities, especially those aspects that may be marginalized, difficult to understand, or not widely represented in our community?

And ran a protocol with about ½ of our Middle School faculty, collecting beliefs and doubts about the possibility of running student affinity groups.

 

As I write this, I can hear the voices of Cohort mentors coaching me to keep it manageable, to remember my sphere of influence, and to design something that I actually have the power to control. So my action plan is not to run affinity groups (as it might not be until next year that such a project is ready to launch…if ever), but rather, this is what I think I can bite off reasonably this year:

 

  • Collect data and research about launching affinity groups
  • Meet with key stakeholders about this possibility, sharing findings from first preliminary MS Faculty protocol
  • Run at least one protocol with stakeholders outside of MS Faculty (parents, students, board members?)

 

While I serve the Cohort 21 community as a facilitator, every year I chose a project focus to research, blog about, and experiment with in my classroom. Why wouldn’t I leverage the collective hive-mind power of many CIS Ontario teachers together in one space, with one purpose? With so many people to ask questions to, and so many school experts to be connected with, I have always found that connecting my school goals with my Cohort 21 action plan research is the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.

So, Cohort hive-mind, my question for you is: how do you support your students of colour? What opportunities do you provide your students to explore their identities? Do you / have you used affinity groups in your school and, if so, what has your experience been?