Tackling Unconscious Racism in the Classroom

by Jo Morgan

I’m not racist! Are you? Of course not!

Racists are vile, ignorant people.

I’ve been on anti-racism marches against the EDL. I’ve stood up against racist bullies. As an educator now, I try to use my platform to promote equality and to celebrate difference.

I’m not racist!

Racists say racist things. They openly discriminate against others. They 'Sieg heil!" in the street. Racism is something ‘bad white people’ are guilty of, not me.

I’m not racist! 

Am I?

Some of my recent reading has got me thinking about this and I have had to admit that things may be more complex than I first thought. 

The academic and educator Robin Di’Angelo (2018) would argue that I, like many other white people, have failed to confront the depths of my own bias by denying that racism has anything to do with me. She argues that this distancing technique helps us to feel that racism is something other people are guilty of whilst continuing to allow unconscious racism to dictate many of our opinions and behaviours.

But I’m not racist!

Of course I would think that, claims Di’Angelo, because this comfortable narrative is easier to accept than the truth. When a white person’s identity as non-racist is challenged, they often respond with anger, outrage and denial. Di’Angelo argues that this ‘white fragility’ obscures the need to dismantle racist constructs.

"The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” she claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.”

Di’Angelo wants us to accept a definition of racism which goes beyond blatant racist attacks and includes more subtle and even unconscious racist assumptions.

But do we really have unconscious biases dictating our behaviour?

Many studies have demonstrated that we all, regardless of our own identity, hold unconscious biases on the basis of race, sexuality, gender and other factors. In addition to this, most people hold a favourable bias towards groups to which they belong (unless the group to which they belong is particularly oppressed). When revealed, these biases often contradict declarations of firmly held beliefs and influence our behaviour in ways we would not expect. Those of us who feel that we are not racist may just have pushed our racism underground (Fairman, 2016).

Unconscious biases are just that: unconscious. We are often unaware of them and assume that our behaviour is dictated by our conscious belief systems. Whilst this may be news to white people, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people have long reported being treated differently: for example, being disproportionately stopped by the police, passed up for promotions at work, stereotyped and so on. 

So how does this relate to education? Have educators become complacent in their understanding of their own attitudes? Do they hold racist views which they are unwilling to confront?

A growing body of evidence indicates that teachers treat children differently because of the colour of their skin. Whether it’s the difficulty level of a question asked, the response to poor behaviour or assumptions made about interests and intelligence, it appears that teachers are racially profiling their students.

But surely no teacher would do that!

The evidence indicates otherwise. In one study conducted by Stanford, teachers assigned harsher punishments to black students. (Fairman, 2016). In the UK, figures from the government show that black Caribbean students are three times more likely than white British students to be permanently excluded (Bain, 2018). Other studies have shown that teachers assume that Chinese and Indian students will be good at Maths and Science (Speck, 2020).

So, is this racism? Like myself, the teachers in these examples are unlikely to have considered themselves racist, yet their unconscious bias has clearly led them to treat students differently according to their race. Whilst this reality is uncomfortable for teachers like me, who would hate to consider themselves racist, it is clearly time that we examined and challenged our own unconscious bias. Unless we confront our own biases and disrupt stereotypes, white fragility will continue to be a barrier to confronting unconscious racism in education. 

Perhaps one problem here is the lack of diversity in the teaching profession. The most recent statistics from the Department for Education showed that more than 30% of students in British schools are BAME. With fewer than 4% of Heads and 7% of teachers being BAME it may be that we are experiencing a deficit of racial diversity and literacy.

Recruiting a diverse workforce to create an inclusive workplace can be difficult but the benefits to innovation, productivity and engagement are profound. As a starting point, schools should have a clear vision for inclusion, with strategies for measuring diversity. Strategies should be in place for the recruitment and retention of staff from minority groups. Schools should not be afraid to measure how teachers target questions in class and challenge representation of diverse groups in the curriculum.

Perhaps another problem is that there is no requirement for trainee and existing teachers to have any sort of diversity and inclusion training. Vini Lander from Leeds Beckett University argues that racist attitudes in British schools have not changed for decades and that all teachers should receive ‘racial literacy’ training (Speck, 2020). Given the formative impact teachers have on the lives of young people this basic requirement would be a good place to start. 

We as educators are constantly making judgements and we need to ensure that these are made with our rational, conscious minds. We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on issues like unconscious bias and to read, train and challenge each other in productive ways.

Some teachers already use ‘blind marking’ methods to avoid basing their judgements on assumptions. Perhaps schools need to investigate and implement these methods more widely. Names drawn randomly to decide who to question in class may be another way of ensuring greater parity in the classroom. When orchestras began using blind auditions they saw a drastic increase in women being hired. We need to learn from examples like this to ensure that our principles and intentions dictate outcomes, not our unconscious biases. When making decisions about punitive measures we should be wary of potential bias and ask ourselves whether this could affect our decisions and consciously collaborate to ensure consistency.

In 2017 Schools Week reported an increase of over 50% in racially motivated hate crimes in UK schools from 2014/15 to 2016/17. Something has to be done about this. It is not good enough for us as educators to declare that racism does not apply to us. It is time to confront our own white fragility and recognise that there is so much work still to be done.