Equity in Education: Confronting Biases as a First Step

By Didi Dunin, CEI Intern

This is the second part of the special series Equity in Education.

Inequity that stems from race, gender, sexual orientation , socio-economic status or disability is a tragic part of our history, culture, and modern life. It impacts all of us in society. Understanding the causes and consequences of inequity is critical for stimulating social change and a more compassionate world.

Understanding Implicit Biases

While combating explicit bias towards any group tends to be the target focus when trying to increase equity, implicit biases that people hold towards others must also be addressed and understood.

Implicit biases are stereotypic beliefs that develop outside our conscious awareness from learned associations and social conditioning. Importantly, these biases do not necessarily align with our personal identity. It is possible, for example, to unconsciously associate positive or negative traits with one’s own race, gender, or background; or to treat others differently without “meaning to.”

For example, a study by Okonofua and Eberhardt (2015) showed that teachers of all races were more likely to punish Black students compared to White students, even for teachers that held no explicit biases. Specifically, a racially diverse sample of 57 K–12 teachers from school districts across the country were asked to read about infractions made by fictitious students (who had either a stereotypically Black or White name) and to subsequently rate the severity of the misbehavior. Results showed that the more likely teachers were to think the student was Black (on the basis of the student’s name), the more likely they were to label the student a troublemaker.

Implicit biases make it difficult and uncomfortable for educators to talk to students about race and social equity. When teachers fear being seen as racist or saying the wrong thing, they often shy away from these topics of discussion. This leaves a void where students may not have opportunities to learn about the impact of bias, discrimination, or racism. When left unaddressed, however, children remain passive to the effects of inequity.

Consequences of Ignoring Equity

When bias is not addressed, students who are not impacted personally by bias or racism, may come to view inequity as “the way things are” without a motivation to question its validity or change it, while students experiencing discrimination are left feeling marginalized and hopeless. These students may feel that they are powerless to gain opportunities and access resources that are available to others. For example, they may find themselves with limited access to safe neighborhoods, emergency services, or even such basic things as grocery stores that offer fresh fruits and vegetables.

Not addressing inequity can also lead to:

  • Lack of compassion
  • Bullying
  • Discrimination
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Cliques
  • Lack of community
  • Feeling unsafe
  • School failure
  • “Stereotype threat”

Not only do marginalized students feel like outsiders, not connecting with their peers, but they are also likely to be targets of negative behavior and to be excluded from many events and activities. Marginalized students may be targets of bullying and harassment, leading to depression, lack of self-esteem, and even a sense of powerlessness and silence.

“The significant impact of trust and belonging on lives is further supported by research that has found peer rejection to have additional adverse effects on those who already experience marginalization (Kim, Orpinas, Kamphaus & Kelder, 2011; Regan, 2017).” This means that ignoring the role of equity in bullying prevention could amplify the negative consequences felt by students directly impacted by discrimination. Educators must also remember that “othering” occurs not just due to racial differences, but also in instances where students have diverse disabilities, sexual orientations, gender identifications, socio-economic statuses, and/or religious affiliations.

Educators: Examining our Own Biases

The first step to addressing equity in education is for educators to understand their own implicit biases, such as through the Implicit Association Test (IAT), before teaching their students these lessons. The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., Black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) by capturing the speed of responses. It is a simple and effective way for teachers to understand their own biases that they might not be aware of. Awareness is the first step towards change.

Once educators feel they have sufficient knowledge of their own biases, they should read about the history of inequity in their community and country. Then, they should feel ready and confident to address these topics with their students in the classroom.

Stay tuned for more about teaching students about equity in Part 3 of this special series, Equity in Education.

References

Case, K. A. (2013). Deconstructing privilege: Teaching and learning as allies in the classroom. New York: Routledge.

Kim, S., Orpinas, P., Kamphaus, R., & Kelder, S. H. (2011). A multiple risk factors model of the development of aggression among early adolescents from urban disadvantaged neighborhoods. School Psychology Quarterly, 26(3), 215-230.

Lueke, A., & Gibson, B. (2014). Mindfulness meditation reduces implicit age and race bias. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(3), 284-291.

Magee, R. (2015, May 14). How mindfulness can defeat racial bias. Greater Good Magazine, (3).

Nurenberg, D. (2011). What does injustice have to do with me? A pedagogy of the privileged. Harvard Educational Review, 81(1), 50-64.

Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students., Psychological Science, 26(5), 617-624.

Regan, K.A. (2017). Socially marginalized youths’ experiences with
social media and its impact on their relationships.
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Thesis and Dissertation Repository.

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