Kendra Gage describes implicit bias as the stories we make up about people before we get to know them. It’s a practical and personal definition from an historian who studies what some consider an unlikely, even unpopular, topic for a white professor — the civil rights movement.
Because of her chosen discipline, Gage, an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies in the UNLV College of Liberal Arts, said she’s received questions and double-takes from students and others who are surprised to find her at the helm of an African American Studies class.
It’s those unconscious assumptions that Gage and her colleagues — including Tyler Parry, an assistant professor of African American Studies and expert in African American culture and slavery in the United States — have been working to root out of the classroom and the larger community as anti-racist educators. Their work has received more attention than ever after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and other unarmed Black Americans spotlighted systemic racism, sparked protests, and renewed calls for policing reform and structural change.
Here, the two discuss how to identify and address implicit bias, how it negatively impacts teaching and learning, and how UNLV faculty and staff can support all students, particularly Black students, in this time of racial reckoning in America. Step one: take a long, hard look in the mirror.
What is the difference between not being a racist and being an anti-racist?
Parry: Being an anti-racist is an active identity. It means you are willing to engage with these hard questions, particularly if you are a person of privilege or a white person who feels you need to educate yourself and call out individual actions or structural racism where you see it. This is particularly important living in a society that was predicated on white supremacy and still supports structures that disenfranchise marginalized groups, particularly people of African descent. You need to be cognizant of that structure, think about it critically, and take actions to address the system of inequity that we are facing. To simply say that you are not a racist has been used as a tactic by people of privilege to say, "I’m not contributing to acts of racism." That’s simply not enough.
Gage: To say "I’m not racist" is kind of that color-blind mentality; I hear that argument from other faculty: "Everybody has an equal playing field, and I treat everybody the same." But it’s very different to recognize those implicit biases and try to eradicate them.
How can professors become more aware of their own implicit bias?
Parry: Self-reflection. You have to be honest with yourself about what assumptions you have made in the past and how you can reckon with that. It’s easy to read legislation or look at society and point out instances of systemic oppression or inequities. What’s harder is to be reflective on "What biases and assumptions have I made about different people and what have I done to address this?" Anti-racist educators and activists have proposed that one barometer of success comes through your ability to produce success among your most marginalized students. Are you paying attention to them?
Gage: If a student turns in work and the writing is not as good, then the next time you see that student’s name, you might continue to grade them more harshly. Or if students don’t speak enough in the classroom, you say they’re not participating, and it leads to the implicit bias that they aren’t invested in the class. That might have nothing to do with it. We have different types of learners that we have to target differently.
Tips for Being an Anti-Racist Educator
- If you make a mistake, acknowledge it. There’s nothing wrong with apologizing.
- Strive to create an environment that’s based on equity and equality, not assumptions and stereotypes. Work to subvert them in your consciousness.
- Allow students to lead class discussions more, which can make them feel more invested in the education process.
- Take implicit bias tests on sites such as Project Implicit. Tests cover disability, gender, sexuality, race, and ageism, among other topics.
- Monitor the way you speak. Avoid using racist or culturally insensitive language.
- Learn your students’ names. Ask how to pronounce names and say them correctly.
- Be purposeful in assignments. Set clear expectations for projects and assignments, and ensure rubrics reflect those.
- Educate yourself. Read materials such as Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist.
- Be humble. If you don’t know something, say so, and then follow up with an answer.
- Don’t ‘other’ or target people by singling them out for comment on sensitive topics. If they offer a position, great, but don’t seek an opinion from them.
How does implicit bias inform the way instructors teach, assess, lead class discussions, make assignments, etc., and how can it be mitigated?
Parry: People misunderstand implicit bias to mean people are being deliberately biased. The formation of U.S. society was predicated on assumptions of racial superiority and inferiority. As generations continue, the group that is considered the majority population is going to acquire certain aspects of subconscious bias that can be enacted in ways that will harm marginalized people. If you are a white instructor who comes from a position of privilege and the majority of your students are people of color, there is a possibility that through implicit bias you’re going to make assumptions about that group if you’re not fully conscious of it. Even if you don’t believe yourself to be a racist, you have to realize that your personal feelings do not necessarily reflect the reality.
Gage: Implicit bias comes out in whose voices we favor in a classroom. I’ve noticed when sitting in on other lectures, you can have 10 people raise their hands in the class and the instructor continually calls on the white male in the front row; they don’t even see the rest of the class. It’s all about how we set up the classroom and how we diversify the voices being heard.
As classes resume how can faculty acknowledge this moment of racial reckoning in our country?
Parry: They shouldn’t assume that students don’t want to talk about it. People say racism is a controversial subject. The reality is it’s only controversial for those who are uncomfortable talking about it, and most of those people happen to be white simply because they are in a privileged position and they’ve never really had to address this. But most people of color in the United States talk about race frequently. Students want their voices heard in the discourse. How else are you going to address students’ concerns unless you ask them from the start? If you’re in week nine and you still haven’t brought it up to your students, why would they want to talk to you about it then? They’ve already determined this is something you don’t want to talk about, and it makes you uncomfortable.
Gage: I acknowledge from the get-go who I am. I can’t say I haven’t had certain privileges because I am white, so I acknowledge that. I’ve had a different experience, but we can learn from each other in the classroom. Now more than ever if we don’t talk about these issues, that silence means that we are complicit, and we’re not acknowledging what our students are going through. One way to acknowledge this is as simple as having a diversity statement on your syllabus. Acknowledge the racial environment we are in that will cause stressors for students. We need to be flexible with our students. There are going to be moments when they’re not going to meet those deadlines, that they’re going to struggle because of what’s going on externally. These triggers keep happening; we keep seeing Black people being targeted, and there is no way this isn’t going to impact their productivity in our classrooms.
It’s important that we have empathy for students and we say, ‘I’m sorry you’re having a rough time. What can I do to help you?’ As anti-racist educators, we have to listen more, be more flexible, meet them in the middle. These are young adults trying to navigate a difficult world right now, and we need to be compassionate.
What advice do you have for faculty members who are less experienced or have no experience in talking to students about matters of race?
Parry: Faculty in interdisciplinary studies or ethnic studies are usually happy to talk to faculty who are having trouble with these issues. It’s a matter of reaching out to people who are more familiar with these issues and simply asking.
You have to be an instructor that students trust. You can say all the right things, but students have to believe you’re authentic. If you present yourself as an inauthentic person, that really is the first step to failing as an anti-racist educator.
Gage: I encourage faculty to get to know their students better, more on a one-on-one basis. It can be simple conversations at the beginning of class. You can say, "How was your weekend?" and it can open up doors. We need to have faculty reaching out to students of color as a whole. A consistent complaint I’ve heard from African American students in my class is they feel the institution doesn’t care about them and just wants to push them through.
Throughout this pandemic, I have sent emails to students, even those who were doing well, to say, "How’s everything else going? Is there anything else I can help you with?" Having those check-ins with students shows we care beyond what we’re teaching.
How can faculty be more culturally inclusive in curriculum planning and course preparation?
Parry: You need to be able to access and introduce students to scholars of color who are writing about the subject material they will be analyzing. I teach 18th- and 19th-century slavery, which just 20 years ago you could argue was dominated by white men because that was reflective of the academy. There are syllabi that are still assigning those same white guys who were writing about slavery in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were great books when they came out, but if you’re not updating your content based upon the newest and most original work about race and society, then you’re doing your students a disservice.
If you’re not giving them methods to respond to what’s happening in society or introducing them to the work being done by scholars of color, then you’re simply revisiting the type of curriculum that produced a lot of the problems we see today, especially with implicit biases, and the silencing of Black voices within the academy and throughout society. Scholars of color need to be amplified and appreciated for the work they are doing. You could also collaborate with other people who might be more aware of how the field has changed. If you’re teaching a class that deals more with race than you’ve ever done before, reach out to colleagues.
Gage: If you’re having students read books and articles in class, who are those articles written by? Are they all white men? Are they all straight, white men? That’s a problem, not covering a plethora of voices in the classroom. It’s important to have a vast array of articles and from different positions. We are all experts in our field, and if we can’t teach across the board, then what are we doing here? Sometimes the pedagogy doesn’t line up with the goals of the university or who our students are, so we need to change those processes. This is the moment. If you don’t get it now, 2020 is going to leave you behind.