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Q&A: Implicit bias can lead to classroom microaggressions. What teachers and administrators can do

An empty classroom of a primary school in the village of Belegis, 25 kilometers west of Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Schools in Serbia reopened as normal on Wednesday, except in southwestern Serbia, where some classes will be held online due to the high numbers of new coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
Darko Vojinovic
An empty classroom of a primary school in the village of Belegis, 25 kilometers west of Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Schools in Serbia reopened as normal on Wednesday, except in southwestern Serbia, where some classes will be held online due to the high numbers of new coronavirus infections. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Implicit, or unconscious bias, plays out in many everyday situations, and the classroom isn't immune.

Peoria Public Schools board member Dr. Anni Reinking and her co-author, Dr. Theresa Bouley, wrote a book about implicit bias in education and it often plays out as microaggressions.

Speaking with Tim Shelley, they talk about the harms implicit bias inflicts, and how to interrupt it.

TIM SHELLEY: Can we talk a little bit about what implicit bias is, in terms of how it happens in the classroom?

ANNI REINKING: I would say it's unconscious prejudices that influence what you're doing in your classroom. The big part is unconscious. And so part of this book is to make them conscious, for you to reflect, or for teachers or administrators to reflect and think, oh, you know, that's a thought process I have had before.

Anni Reinking
Peoria Public Schools board member Dr. Anni Reinking

THERESA BOULEY: Yeah, I think implicit bias is exactly that - it's unconscious, right? So often, though, it's actually that we have biases or beliefs that are contrary to what we might think. And I think that's important to point out. The nature of it is that we're unaware. And this is really problematic in schools, working with families and students, because if we're not aware of those biases, then we're not aware of how they're being transmitted to the students in our classroom, or their families. And so again, it's this is all about self awareness. And that's what's so tricky about implicit bias.

TIM SHELLEY: And that can play out on several levels. So it might be racial, it might be, you know, religious, socioeconomic. There's so many different dynamics in which this can play out. Can we talk a little bit about how it might look, so to speak?

ANNI REINKING: So the way that the book is designed is, we kind of take every identity that's on the social identity wheel and play it out into what that might look like, for an implicit bias, and what are some actions you could do? So what are some intentions you could have? What are some reflections you could have?

And so there's racial, there's gender, which includes gender expression, and sexual orientation, religious, economic, linguistic diversity, family diversity. And then ability, which includes disability and ableism. And so each of these, I think, is very, very different. And so how you kind of recognize them as you have to kind of be called out on what are some common misconceptions or common implicit biases.

So for example, for racial, there's cultural appropriation, which a lot of times around Halloween, we'll hear about a lot of cultural appropriation. There's the idea of invisibility, second class citizen othering, from a dominant privilege. So understanding privilege and oppression, dehumanizing, the idea of the perpetual foreigner, which, recently with the pandemic, the perpetual foreigner, we've seen play out a lot with Asian Americans, who have a lot of who have experienced a lot of discrimination around the country. The model minority, so the idea of quote "acting white," and so that kind of comes up when students of color are said, 'Oh, you talk white,' or 'you act white.' Those are kind of the ideas of the model minority.

And then we kind of dive into discipline. So this kind of goes along the same concepts. of what can administrators do? Or what can policies do hair discrimination. So California, they have the crown act. I think they have it in some other states also. But essentially, you can't discriminate for traditional hairstyles. And there's the zero tolerance policy which historically marginalizes bipoc students. And then suspension and expulsion, we have higher suspension and expulsion rates for students of color. So that kind of outlines the, the race chapter, the chapter on racial microaggressions. But we take each identity and kind of walk through them.

THERESA BOULEY: As we're looking at different identities, some examples that I think are pretty common, might be for instance, let's take economics and socioeconomic status of children living in less affluent homes. [They] might be criticized or punished or lose a recess for not bringing in their homework, but their parents, maybe their parent was working two shifts, and maybe they're with their older brother the night before. And that's why they didn't have that homework assignment in, and that's surely a microaggression. Linguistic microaggressions might include something like, 'oh, your last name is Rodriguez; you don't speak Spanish?' Or 'you speak English well.'

As Anni just said, you know, and when it comes to microaggressions, we're not just talking about verbal microaggressions. We're also talking about behavioral microaggressions. So a student, or an individual in a wheelchair, might find a space not accessible to them. And that's certainly an environmental microaggression.

In early childhood education, we see family microaggressions, or family discrimination or stereotyping, like, maybe a child has two dads, and there's microaggressions are also not just from the educators in the school, of course, but their student, a student as well. So perhaps the student will say, 'Oh, you can't have two dads, you have to have a mom, everybody has a mom.' And that's experienced as a microaggression. You know, we also looked at LGBTQ+, and all the ways in which perhaps, maybe a, you know, a trans individual has said, 'Oh, you're so beautiful for a trans person' or something.

So there's a lot of different ways in which students of varying identities and their families experience microaggressions, both at the hands of educators, administrators, and students. And what's so tricky about it, is that in terms of the solution to this, all individuals in a school system has to have to be involved, right? Because the teacher might get to know work really hard to get to know the family and the different identities and the intersectionality of those identities of the family and the student, but then someone in the cafeteria might say, oh, you know, give this to your mom and dad. So all all members of the school community need to be involved so that we can be aware because words matter, language matters. And I think that that's a big part of microaggressions is through language.

TIM SHELLEY: Say I want to reduce my own microaggressions talking to people. How can I catch myself, so to speak, or how can I be more cognizant of how this may be interpreted? How can I begin to shift my mindset on that?

One of the things that we talk a lot about in the book is self awareness. So I always say that the first step is self awareness for educators to be multicultural teachers, or teaching cultural responsiveness. In this case, reducing the microaggressions it's really about their self awareness.

One of the things that I did when I was teaching at the elementary level was I was involved in this program. It was called the TESA: Teacher Expectations Student Achievement, because of course, expectations is a huge microaggression. Do we have different expectations for boys in science than girls, etc., or students who are English language learners, etc, across the board?

Self awareness is really important because in this in this program, we were able to get our colleagues to come into our classrooms and observe. And so it was through those observations where they could help us to realize, oh, you know, you were calling on these children more during this time, or you gave this student more wait time, or you totally ignored that student for the whole block or something. So, there's a lot of different ways that we can develop self awareness, but it really is just about being on that road to being a reflective learner, constantly learning about ourselves, thinking about where our ideas come from, how our families, our family values have impacted us, our experiences have impacted us. And really, you know, thinking deeply about these things, I think that's the first step.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.