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