Bias is when we have our mind made up about something based on prior experience, our environment, or some part of our identity. We might admit to being biased regarding things we are comfortable saying, such as, "I may be biased, but aren't my nieces and nephews pretty cute?" I love my nieces and nephews, they're adorable, and I'm happy to be a smitten aunt. But bias is more than showing favoritism toward people you love. It is an unconscious stance—a snap judgement—that is based on all the parts of your identity experience. In the New York Times POV video series, Saleem Reshamwala describes implicit bias as "thought processes that happen without you even knowing it; little mental shortcuts that hold judgments you might not agree with."
Biases aren't just something we believe—they're something we act on, operating from many parts of our brain. They are our associations with objects and symbols. How much we trust someone based on looking at them. How much value we place on information given the source. How we tend to feel more comfortable with and compassion towards those who look like us. Decisions we make every day in our classrooms.
How we view and measure people's character can be quick judgments grounded in our implicit bias.
Why Introduce Bias?
It's important to talk about bias because we can't work against something that we don't know exists. Rarely do we admit, "I may be biased, but I only go to the grocery store where the people look just like me," yet we make choices along these lines every day, consciously and subconsciously. We all have bias. introducing it to students is a way of making the implicit explicit so they can start to think about their thinking as they consider topics that are social or political—race, guns, human rights, government funding, who they choose as friends, what they choose to read. The sooner we can talk with students about bias, the sooner they can be self-aware. This isn't just an academic exercise: if you've ever felt the sting of a comment or action that was tinged with an unconscious bias, or if you've ever realized with horror that something you've said without malice has been received as racist or sexist or classist, you know how important this work is. It is often hidden, unintentional forms of bias that are really damaging to marginalized individuals. Discussing bias with kids leads to opportunities to make the implicit explicit. It gives them (and us) the space to learn how those little mental shortcuts out minds make every day can have a greater impact than we realize on our thoughts, on our actions, and on others.
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Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed.