What My Students Taught Me About Implicit Bias (Including My Own)
We all have implicit bias. My students awakened me to my own.
For two years, I taught French at a public high school in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City famous for eye-watering property taxes and for residents who can afford to pay them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of my students were White, the sons and daughters of wealthy Westchester residents. But the town where I taught was also home to a sizeable population of recent immigrants, mostly from Central and South America. I taught their children, too.
Bias isn’t always bad
On my first day as a teacher, one of my students wore a sweatshirt bearing the name of my alma mater. When I told him my connection to the school, he told me that his brother was currently attending and that he himself hoped to go. In that moment, I decided I liked this kid. We had an immediate commonality and therefore it was easy for us to establish a rapport.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about this, but because I liked him, I gave him a lot of leeway. I was more willing to forgive his tardiness, less likely to penalize him for a minor mistake on a test, more inclined to trust him if he said he did the homework but forgot it at home. I have no reason to believe this student abused my trust, but the fact remains that I gave him a benefit of the doubt beyond what I would give any other student, indeed beyond what I gave other students with whom I didn’t feel such an affinity.
Understanding implicit bias
Without question, I was implicitly biased towards this student who shared my enthusiasm for the university I had attended. The term “implicit bias” refers to the attitudes and stereotypes we have towards people without realizing that we do. We have a subconscious tendency to like and want to help people who are similar to ourselves. In the opposite direction, we are less inclined to empathize with people we see as different, and that’s really the problem.
We are all implicitly biased, regardless of how enlightened or open-minded we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, I never thought I was as prone to presumptions as I discovered I was during my time as a teacher.
The danger of unconscious bias
I taught teenagers. Many overslept occasionally, but I also had a handful of students who intentionally, repeatedly skipped class. When I noticed one of my White sophomores was showing up less than half of the time, I reached out to her guidance counselor. I learned that this poor girl had two very sick parents at home. Taking care of them often prevented her from coming to school.
My own mother fought cancer while I was in college. I couldn’t imagine coping with that at 15. I wanted to help this student however I could. I gave her extensions on all of her assignments and, on days she didn’t make it to class, I sent one of her friends home with an extra copy of the handouts and homework to give to her.
One day, I was surprised to see the Assistant Principal enter my classroom with one of my Hispanic students. She said she was “escorting” the student to make sure she came to class. The Assistant Principal and I exchanged a knowing nod but, in truth, I hadn’t realized just how often this student was absent. After the bell rang, I checked my attendance log. Sure enough, she was also showing up less than half of the time. I felt so embarrassed. I had noticed the absence of my White student right away. I had made an effort to learn her situation and an even bigger effort to help her once I had. I couldn’t say the same for my Hispanic student.
A hard lesson to learn
You might think one experience like this would be enough to start making a conscious effort to resist assumptions. But, later that school year, one of my students again alerted me to my own implicit bias, in an episode I find far more shameful.
One of my students got suspended—although for what I never found out. He looked Hispanic to me, but his student profile listed his race as Black.
I wasn’t shocked to learn this student had been suspended—his suspension fit easily into the narrative I had crafted around him: a kid whose parents had neither the time nor the resources to take an active interest in their son’s learning or social life, a kid who, without the guidance and monitoring of his parents, could easily find himself in trouble. I assumed his father was largely absent from his life (I reached out several times and only once heard back) and that his mother was not a native English speaker.
Because of his suspension, I had to attend a meeting with the school counselor and the boy’s mother. When I first walked into the room, I struggled to conceal my surprise. The boy’s mother was a blonde White woman. She was impeccably dressed, with diamond rings on both hands and designer shoes on her feet. She was an attorney, I soon learned, who adopted her son from South America when he was an infant.
In minutes, the perception I had of this kid was shattered. He was not the son of recent immigrants struggling to get by—he was wealthier and more well-connected than I could have ever imagined. And he was not unsupervised, left to his own devices as I had thought. His mother was endlessly interested and involved in his schoolwork. She knew about the projects I had assigned and the topics we were covering in class. She had even helped him study for our most recent vocabulary quiz.
How my experience changed me
I often think of this student, of the others I’ve mentioned, and of ones I haven’t. I say I learned more from my students than they learned from me, and I’ve heard other teachers echo this sentiment. Implicit bias can be just as detrimental as overt, unabashed bias. And, because it’s subconscious, it can be harder to combat. While it’s certainly embarrassing to be made aware of your own biases, it’s even more important to realize them. Letting your implicit bias go unchecked will often rob you of an opportunity to really get to know someone, especially someone you think of as different to yourself.
Because I was a French teacher, I often end up talking to people about foreign languages. Recently, I found out one of my coworkers is bilingual. I asked her what her other language was. She looked at me blankly. “Spanish—I’m Colombian,” she said. I just smiled. I told her I didn’t want to assume.