What If Discussing Implicit Racism Causes Bullying?
Updated: Aug 19
Q. Do some research! What are you going to do about the white kids who are bullied because of this anti-racist education?
A. First of all, I'm very sorry to hear about any child's bullying experience in school. Bullying of any kind has no place in our schools, but we've seen that it can be so difficult to eradicate. Kids will jump on any little thing in order to try out their power over others, and that has to be nipped in the bud by school staff or, perhaps even better, from other students who recognize the problem. I experienced bullying myself back in the 60s just because my last name was similar to a popular cartoon villain. When I surveyed grade 12 students on their experiences with bullying each year, almost everyone reports having been bullied in grade school in some way. We have to keep working harder at teaching students what playful teasing of a good friend looks like compared to mean teasing, and we need to implement mediation techniques to work through any harassment or worse treatment beyond just "shake hands and make up" strategies that have shown to be ineffective.
I understand that this question is addressing a more current concern: that anti-racist education is provoking bullying of white children. That's not the intention of the policies, of course; however, the fact that it might be an unwanted outcome definitely needs to be addressed. Years ago I had a class discussion about the burgeoning practice of using a "Privilege Walk" exercise, in which students stand in a line in a gym or open area and have to step forward or backwards if they live in a detached house, etc. I've never used that exercise myself, but other teachers do, and some students in my class were quite upset that, at the end, with a few kids at one end of the gym, and a few at the other, it merely clarified to the class who the "popular kids" are, and it reinforced their place at the top of some unwritten hierarchy, leaving the kids at the back feeling ashamed at not having as much as others. In another case, I've heard about the opposite result, that the kids at the front were openly shamed for having more than others instead of sharing - as if their housing options were within their control. In both those cases, it's not the exercise itself that's necessarily the problem, but complications can result from an inexpert handling of the topic. Some of these strategies and exercises, in the hands of a novice, can make situations in which kids leave the room feeling like outsiders, either ashamed to have less or guilty for having more. Furthermore, the idea of implicit racism implies that everyone is racist, even if that's counter to people's own understanding of themselves. This notion, again, can be harmful if not thoroughly explained in a non-accusatory manner. It doesn't mean we're bad people, but merely that our perceptions are affected by our surroundings, and our current culture has some racist elements influencing our frame of reference. These complex ideas need to be taught with care and sensitivity, ensuring that they're learned correctly before students leave the room.
The research I included in my previous post shows, through several studies, that racialized students are given lower marks for the same work. There is significant evidence for that reality in our schools. Here's one of the studies in more detail, in which they had teachers grading identical grade 2 papers with the only difference being the names "Connor" or "Dashawn," and the white sounding name got about a 5% higher grade. This is implicit bias that has been studied at length for decades, and even non-white teachers demonstrate this bias. However, solutions have also been discovered. In this particular study, they found that using a clear rubric was enough to almost eliminate bias. When I first read about studies in teacher's college that teachers tend to choose hands from boys significantly more than girls, I made an effort to track who I call on in order to override any implicit bias I might have picked up from our culture. I've also found ways to mark assignments without looking at the student's name to ensure that marks aren't affected by any subconscious bias that I might not notice. This is what anti-racism education tries to do: to make teachers aware that they might have a bias, and to help them make sure that they are grading against a standard set by the curriculum unaffected by who wrote the assignment. These tactics also work to override any other prejudices around gender or political affiliation or even any recent negative experience in the classroom.
However, perhaps by "do some research" it's meant that I should look further into the experience of children in our classrooms who are adversely affected by the implementation of these policies in some classes. And that's absolutely right. We need to hear from parents and students whenever students feel ostracized in their own classroom. I don't think the solution to this problem is to stop discussing systemic discrimination or implicit bias, though. All students can benefit from understanding how our shared history and current media affects our perceptions of one another. I often show the first 3½ minutes of this video as Neil deGrasse Tyson explains how pursuing science was the "path of most resistance" for a Black student when he was in school as all the forces around him tried to get him into sports instead. He asks, "Where are the others? What is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not?" Without any recognition of the added difficulties some have, we could end up, as the video cautions, going down the road of genetics as if people who are Black or female just naturally aren't as good at or interested in science.
Instead of avoiding acknowledging this very real issue, the solution may be in refining how we discuss these issues. Recognizing that some people are playing the game on an easy setting and others have to use the hardest setting, it's hoped, would provoke us to look behind us to see who needs help. The goal of every discussion on discrimination must be to recognize the inherent value of each person, irrespective of who they are. We need to overcome prejudices due to appearances and celebrate differences. Individually we all have limits, but one thing humans can do better than other animals is to work together, balancing our individual strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out what that looks like in the world as we're living under this paradigm can be difficult to envision and then model and then teach to others. People might get it wrong, flipping the power dynamic instead of eradicating it, and that needs to be addressed immediately.
I hope that parents can talk to teachers about this situation and be heard and understood. That would be the first line of action in any case of bullying that we have to get better at addressing. When my own child was bullied in grade 1 decades ago, and I spoke with the principal, they were quite adamant that bullying couldn't possibly happen at their school as if they're above typical childhood behaviour. We need to come to terms with the reality of bullying of all kinds, get beyond our embarrassment at being fallible, and actually work to develop better dynamics within the classroom.
ETA: Another study was just done at Yale University. They asked teachers to look at a video of pre-schoolers and click when they see misbehaviour. There was no misbehaviour from the kids, though; that was a ruse. They were really tracking the eye movement of the teachers to see which child they watched the most. White and Black teachers, both, spend significantly more time watching the Black child. This is yet another example of implicit bias that we have to watch in ourselves.