When it comes to discrimination “good intentions” are not enough

ignorance image

I have a confession to make. One of the reasons I married my husband was because I loved his younger brother.

Now, before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain what I mean by this provocative statement. I am not referring to a romantic type of love, rather I am referring to a strong admiration of the character traits my brother-in-law, Stephen possesses. Plus, Stephen is gay, so a romantic relationship was out of the question (I’m joking, of course).

And, while I begin this post with humor, the content of this piece is no laughing matter. In fact, perhaps just my attempt at humor, in and of itself, made you feel uneasy (I used the words love and gay in the same paragraph). However, you may not want to admit that these words and images made you uncomfortable. Afterall, you are an educator, and we educators treat all of our students equally. Educators do not have biases.

Except, all humans have underlying biases. And, sometimes we aren’t even aware of them.  Tonya Ward Singer, an author who studies implicit bias stated in her 2015 blog post Get Explicit about Implicit Bias, “everyone has implicit bias and implicit associations don’t always align with our intentional beliefs. For example, a teacher may believe all races are equal, and also may unconsciously associate Latino students with low achievement.”

It Is These Implicit Biases That Perpetuate Inequality In Our Classrooms

No teacher sets out to assign students tasks that are discriminatory in nature, however without careful evaluation of all aspects of the projects we assign, we often do just that.

Let’s go back to my brother-in-law for a minute. Stephen is a single, white, gay, foster-dad living in the City of Chicago. He is raising two, elementary school-aged, African-American, boys who also have regular contact with their biological mother and three other biological siblings who live in other foster homes.

Last week one of the boys came home with a homework assignment which he asked Stephen for help completing. The assignment was marketed as the teacher’s “annual, holiday project” and students were tasked with creating linear-style, family trees, including family photos. After reviewing the project descriptor, it didn’t take Stephen long to determine it would be virtually impossible for his family to complete the project as assigned.

No More Excuses

Having been a public educator for over 15 years and currently working with many school systems across the country, I can anticipate how teachers may respond to a predicament like the one Stephen faced. Responses may include statements like, “I’m sorry I didn’t know. I’d be happy to provide an alternate assignment.” or “Feel free to adapt the project to describe your family.”

And, while these responses are certainly appropriate they are reactive. And, we need to be proactive. Simply assigning a project like the linear family tree example sets the stage for inequality. These actions are not malicious in nature, rather they are examples of microaggressions (defined by merriemwebster.com as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group). But, even without malicious intent, the adverse effect of microaggressions on individual students and learning environments, on the whole, are profound.

In July of 2016, The Chicago Tribune published an article by Brian Crooks titled, “What It’s Like To Be Black In Naperville, America.”  In the article, Crooks recalls his elementary school experience:

In third grade, the gifted program focused on the middle ages. I was in heaven. I loved learning about knights and castles and all that stuff. We had a group project to do sometime that year, where we had to give a short speech about something we’d learned during the year. All of the groups broke off to divvy up the work when my teacher came over to my group. Wouldn’t it be “easier” and more fun for me if my group did our presentation as a rap? I’m eight years old. I have no history writing any kind of music, much less a full 3 or 4 minutes of rap verses for me and my teammates. But, I tried. The other kids just expected it to be natural for me. They looked at me like, “What do you mean you don’t know how to rap?” We ended up just doing it as a regular presentation like everybody else, and afterward my teacher came up to me and said, “I thought you guys were going to rap? I was looking forward to MC Brian.” Again, she didn’t know that she was making a racially-insensitive statement. Why would she? It’s not like she’d had deep conversation about how Black people feel about their Blackness, or the way Black people internalized the way White people feel about our Blackness.”

With knowledge of experiences like those illustrated by Stephen and Crooks, we can no longer claim ignorance. The best teachers are reflective. Just like we reflect on what formative assessment evidence tells us about our instruction, we must reflect on what our students’ actions (or lack thereof) tell us about the way in which we instruct.

If a student cannot complete an assignment as assigned the onus should not be on student and/or his parents to adapt the assignment, rather the onus is on teachers to change the assignment and ensure it is accessible to all students.

How can educators make sure assignments are accessible?

We can adhere to some guiding principles to help us avoid microaggressive situations like the following:

  1. Never assume anything. We must remind ourselves that we do not and will not ever know what it is like to be anybody but ourselves. We may have friends of other cultures and we can certainly empathize with others, but we don’t actually know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask students questions. Often times we avoid asking students questions because we fear that asking the question is offensive. But, when we neglect to ask questions, we tend to make inaccurate assumptions (like the rap example Brian Crooks describes).
  3. Revisit your learning objective. As far as I know, there is not a learning standard anywhere that requires students to create a family tree. Fortunately, today’s teachers have solidified sets of standards for all content areas which guide our instruction; we don’t have to determine what we are teaching, but we have the autonomy to determine how we teach it. We can evaluate the tasks we assign by asking ourselves, “what is the learning objective or standard I am trying to assess? Does this assignment do that? Is this assignment the only way I can assess these criteria?
  4. Ask a trusted colleague or administrator to partner with you to evaluate your project. Teachers often grow attached to the lessons we have created. We are proud of them, possibly had several years of success using them, and we don’t want to say goodbye. And, sometimes we become so close to the lessons we teach we fail to see the flaws in their design. Therefore, it can be helpful to seek the input of a trusted peer to help you determine the accessibility and validity of a task.

In the end

None of us are immune from committing microaggressions. And, we will likely make more in the future. But, the first step is being cognizant of this and making a concerted effort to avoid doing so.

What are your thoughts? Share in the comments below or connect with Lisa on Twitter.

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