Throughout my entire K-12 childhood experience, I never once saw anyone who looked like me.
Not in any textbook. Not in my teachers' or administrators' faces. There were no role models on television and not one affirming character who looked like me in a novel. I was never taught about a single Asian female of any significance who made any positive contribution to society at all.
Much later in life as a 1st grade teacher in my own classroom, I looked at my own classroom library collection through an equity lens. Examining the colorfully labeled bins in my classroom, I noticed that the only representations of Black people on my shelves were those of slaves, survivors of oppression, or famous athletes. Without being conscious of it, I had replicated my experience for my own students.
Windows and Mirrors
Once I saw my mistake, I made an immediate change, pulling apart and reorganizing my theme bins, carting in large stacks of new books from the school library, and making intentional choices to allow all students in my care to see affirming representations and reflections of themselves in our classroom.
This was a pivotal moment, one which pulled me to consider ways in which my instructional decisions contributed to my students' own racial identity development. They needed to see people who looked like them widely and positively represented in positions of leadership, power, authority, greatness, heroism and success, not only in my classroom library, but also in my curricula. They also needed a window into the lives and experiences of people different from themselves, but not through a deficit lens. Understanding difference is so important, and doing so without imposing value judgements grounded in privilege is essential.
Implicit Bias in My Classroom
My struggles to help my students of color, however, went way beyond the bookshelf.
One day during 1st grade guided independent reading, a scuffle broke out among four very different students: one came from a family I had known for over a decade, one was White Vermonter experiencing poverty, another White Vermonter from an affluent family, and then there was Mohamed. Mohamed's family had been in the country for about six months after leaving Somalia as refugees. When the students interrupted our reading lesson, I was frustrated. Guess who I immediately blamed? Mohamed. I assumed Mohamed was guilty. Now, I could try to defend my assumptions here, I could tell you that he was often the instigator, or that this was a pattern for him. But the truth is I didn't base this determination on any known facts; it was strictly driven by my own implicit bias.
Lately I've been examining my own life since early childhood, and I see that I was conditioned to view Black people as guilty, a possible threat, and simply not like me. These messages came from my parents, from other people around me in my White, affluent community, from television and movies. Over time I came to accept their views as true, as my own. This is the way implicit bias works. We form prejudices about folks whom we see as different from us, and because we can't fully understand someone else's lived experiences, we go with what we think we know, our assumptions, and what we've come to believe about "people like them." None of us are immune from bias, yet each of us has the obligation to recognize it when it creeps in and respond accordingly.
Fortunately, in this case I recognized my own racism when calling out Mohamed without cause. I also knew I had an obligation to do much more than apologize. I needed to recognize that when I called out my Black, Muslim student, I had damaged not only him, but everyone in that classroom. I apologized to him and his group, but I also worked hard to find and create opportunities the rest of that day, week, month, and year to make sure Mohamed knew that he was just as good, just as innocent, just as trustworthy, and lovable as everyone else in that classroom.
I also knew that this would not simply be one incident that happened one day for Mohamed. This was not a time to stand behind my good intentions or defend myself, because I knew that Mohamed would go home and see people who look like him portrayed as villains and criminals on TV, that he would experience people treating him with suspicion, presume his guilt in a store, on the sidewalk, and perhaps in another classroom, and he would hear about people who look like him and his family members getting shot by police with no one held accountable. I had to situate this seemingly small act of bias in a larger socio-political context. It was my responsibility to acknowledge the impact of my action and make intentional efforts to provide a counter narrative not only for Mohamed, but to every child in my classroom.
Author and professor Paul Gorski describes this work as Equity Literacy. He means that educators have to apply an anti-bias lens in our classrooms, one that goes well beyond common understandings of "cultural competence." While cultural competence calls on us to recognize difference, doing things like learning to correctly pronounce every child's name, hanging flags from different countries in our hallways, and practicing our morning greetings in different languages, Equity Literacy sets a much higher bar. Equity Literacy requires us to "understand how our students' lives outside school—the repressions they and their families face, the inequities with which they contend, inform the way in which they experience us, as teachers, and school."
Fear is a Luxury We Can No Longer Afford
In my consulting work I encounter so many White teachers who avoid conversations about race and privilege because of fear. We don't want to offend. We don't want to expose what we don't know. We fear being called out as wrong or, even worse, racist. While I want to first validate these fears, I believe we cannot afford the luxury of protecting ourselves from them while our students suffer. The stakes are simply too high.
We must intervene when students or adults use the N-word. We have to speak up in class the morning after Charlottesville, or Baltimore, or Ferguson, and let our students speak too. We must firmly uphold what is right and true when a white student with the swastika on his shirt claims that it's the Hindu version of the symbol, despite repeated reports of intimidation and racial aggression from students of color. We need to be courageous and work through our own discomfort, otherwise our silence and inaction will speak volumes and perpetuate racism in schools.
We need to call on ourselves to have the tough discussions about racism, bias, and inequity. We must listen to each other, learn from each other, and do our own inside-out work without relying on people of color to do it for us. One pretty good place to start is by watching and sharing recently released videos called Courageous Conversations About Race in Schools. These short videos provide great conversation starters and come with accompanying discussion questions that can take place in schools.
We are going to have to lean into our discomfort to do this work. We have to prioritize the safety and affirmation of our students of color in order to close the opportunity gap. Let's begin with some honest conversations.
Rebecca Eunmi Haslam is the 2015 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and the founder of Seed the Way Consulting, LLC , providing training and professional development for anti-bias education and racial justice in schools. A 14-year veteran teacher in Vermont's elementary schools, Rebecca is now helping prepare the next generation of teachers to enter increasingly diverse classrooms, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses including Equity Literacy in the K-12 Classroom, and Heroes, Arts, and Social Justice as a faculty member in the Education Department at Saint Michael's College.
Photo credit: Michael Mims through Creative Commons, Unsplash (130838).