A new book says outcomes for students of color will not improve until schools acknowledge and address unconscious bias.
Photo: AJC Photo
Photo: AJC Photo

Why white teachers must talk about race

New book examines how the unconscious biases of educators can damage students of color

Many white teachers insist they don’t see race.

They should, says Tracey A. Benson, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Because the unconscious biases of educators and their deep discomfort in talking about race and racism are holding back their black and brown students. 

A former teacher and principal, Benson joined forces with fellow educator Sarah E. Fiarman after meeting her at Harvard Graduate School of Education to write the new book, “Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism.”

The pair was in Atlanta today to lead a morning workshop at the national EL Education Conference. Benson and Fiarman told the 60 school teachers, administrators and counselors in the workshop that it was important to see their class through a racial and gender lens to discern the bias, implicit or otherwise, that affects and diminishes students.

They acknowledge that conversations on race are uncomfortable, but contend they are vital to improving outcomes for kids. Benson is black; Fiarman is white. With candor, they  recount their own uncomfortable conversations over the years around race as educators in the trenches and then as collaborators on the book.

For example, Fiarman said she once sought Benson’s advice on dealing with black students who kept talking during class. She asked how to get the students to cease chatting and pay greater attention. Benson surprised her with his response: White students are also talking in your class. You just don’t see it because of your bias.

“I was shocked, and said I was deeply interested in the success of all my students,” said Fiarman. “But, when I went back to class, I noticed, in fact, white students were doing the exact same thing, and I had not been noticing. The deficit did not lie in the students; it lay in my poor classroom management. The problem was something that I needed to address.”

Tracey A. Benson

In an interview before the workshop, Benson said students can help schools recognize unconscious bias. As an assistant principal at a middle school, Benson wondered why students of color were not seeking after-school homework help or going to clubs. The school staff maintained the children didn’t come because they didn’t care about their grades, had no push from home to participate or needed to go straight home to watch younger siblings.

But Benson and his leadership team surveyed students and found those assumptions were all wrong. The children gave three reasons for not attending; they feared they’d be the only students of color at the activities; they worried they wouldn’t have any friends there as a result; they didn’t feel their teachers cared if they came. When the teachers addressed those concerns, the participation of black and Latino kids went from 1 percent to 54 percent after one quarter.

As a new high school principal, Benson was taken aback when a black student accused him and the staff of coming down harder on black kids. While all students lingered in the halls between class changes, the teen said staff targeted black students. The student asked, "How come when we are standing and talking to our friends -- just like the white students -- not causing any trouble, you or some teacher comes over to us and tells us to get to class?"

Benson observed the hallways for a week and realized the student was right. Teachers were only admonishing black students for tarrying, ignoring white students also dallying. 

"When you think there are eight transitions a day and this is going on every day, students of color are being taught that, because of their likeness, when they demonstrate the same behavior as white students, they have to be corrected first. When a student experiences this every day, they are more likely to become combative, to ask, 'Why are you clearing me first?'"

Students of color face daily small doses of bias that accumulate and denigrate their intellectual capacity, their experiences and their well-being, said Fiarman

Sarah E. Fiarman

She and Benson urged educators to shift from deficit thinking that considers only what students of color don’t bring to school and focus instead on the assets they do have. That requires re-framing the big questions. Rather than question why brown and black children are lagging in math, schools should ask what they're doing in their math instruction that is not reaching black and brown children.

Benson said racism cannot be discussed without discomfort, introducing a bit of discomfort into the workshop when he pointed out the black and brown women in the room were offering the most insights. Too often, he said, “These hard conversations are put on the backs of black women.”

A white female administrator in the workshop responded, “When you have to turn that mirror on yourself, it can be uncomfortable. You have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Whites are not used to being discomforted, said Benson. As a new high school principal in a school with white teachers and a majority white student body, Benson discovered the most experienced teachers taught only honors courses. The least experienced teachers taught the standard-level classes.

Benson dug into the data and found students in standard-level classes — many of whom were students of color — experienced an average of eight novice teachers during their four years. Students in honors rarely had one. He decided to “rip off the Band-Aid,” redistributing staff so veteran teachers taught a range of classes, which eventually contributed to improved student achievement across all student groups.

But the dramatic move also cost Benson five teachers who left rather than teach lower-level classes. Those teachers also rallied white parents, who protested their children were being denied deserved opportunities.

“While we did create a more equitable playing field, there was push-back. That is because for those who are accustomed to privilege, equity feels like oppression,” said Benson.

Because we have been taught that racism is bad, Benson said few whites are willing to accede they or their actions are complicit in any way, declaring, "I don't see color" or "I treat everyone the same."

Teachers who care about their students must face these unconscious biases, said Benson, and can begin by asking of every program and practice: "What is our impact on students of color? How will we find out?"

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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