Unconscious Bias as an Expression White Fragility
When any form of equity is on the table for professional learning, invariably norms are put up on the screen telling everyone in the room that this is how we will behave. These are the parameters for our safety. But who sets them? Who decides what the norms are and who do they serve? While learning about equity we often conflate the concepts of safety and comfort. (For a critical interrogation of the practice of setting norms, read: Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo.) There MUST be discomfort in this learning or we are not learning. When we claim we are unsafe, we MUST critically examine what that means. Are we in any physical danger? Are we truly unsafe?
If we make the commitment to do better as educators committed to equity and social justice, we must make the commitment to embrace our own discomfort and disruption of status quo.
How do we get there? We have seen waves of discourses move through education: anti-black racism, anti-Islamophobia, Indigenous rights and Truth and Reconciliation, gender identity and sexual orientation equity, anti-Semitism, culturally responsive pedagogy which are all informed by critical race theory, anti-racism, anti-oppression, queer theory and critical feminist theory. At the same time we have these discourses: Cultural Proficiency, Restorative Practices, Positive Climates, Well-Being, Mindfulness and my personal favourite, Unconscious Bias in its many forms. These are the ways we get to talk about how we are all good people without putting the learning in the historical context necessary for real, deep and impactful learning.
Why do we do this? Why do we default into these safer, feel-good ways of knowing? Robin DiAngelo coined the term, white fragility.
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. (from White Fragility, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54–70)
And of course her latest book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism which is an essential read for any person committed to understanding the structures that perpetuate oppression and why white people continue to benefit from them.
Following an increased barrage of media coverage of school boards in the Toronto area about inequitable and outright racist practices, boards began to create their own good news stories, fuelled by a fear of being the next board to get the hit sharing their newfound commitment to equity and inclusivity training for all staff.
Parents and community interest groups had louder voices and now the media seemed to be listening. As explicit racism gained momentum and right wing governments take over in the US, Europe and in Canada, the sense of urgency is heightened. The false belief many held that having Barak Obama as President meant we were in a post-racial society is wiped when the current president validates and honours voices of those who we would define as neo-Nazis and sexual assaulters by calling them “fine people” we must admit to ourselves that this has always been present, and not just in America. (To learn more about this history of White Supremacy, you MUST listen to the Scene On Radio podcast, Seeing White.)
So let’s be clear, This is Canada too…
Our own Premier, Doug Ford, has cut curriculum honouring the marginalized voices of our LGBTQ youth, understanding consent (read Consent in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum in the Age of #MeToo), cancelled Indigenous curriculum writing projects, and cut funding to any work associated with equity. The new premier in Quebec, François Legault, aims to ban any religious attire including the hijab making it impossible to gain access to certain jobs. These men have been elected with these issues as part of their campaign promises. Someone elected them.
Why do we need a more critical approach to equity and inclusivity training? We can’t talk about supporting all students without recognizing the historical context of these students and their families. We must make the commitment to learn about, and engage in the history of the Indigenous cultural genocide through Residential Schools, dispossession of Indigenous lands, the continued oppression of our Indigenous communities through lack of clean water, proper schooling and housing, mental and physical health supports, all supported by the Indian Act. We must acknowledge the truth of slavery in Canada (YES CANADA), laws that forbade land ownership to particular marginalized groups, access to jobs, quotas for universities (my own grandfather wanted to be a doctor but no Jews were not allowed into the University of Toronto medical school up until 1949), turning away of the St Louis in 1939 back to Nazi death camps with our Prime Minister uttering “none is too many” to the number of Jews he was willing to offer refuge to. The ability to gain access to Canadian citizenship for Chinese until the 1930s and the imposed head tax on Chinese in Canada also prohibiting them from bring their families to Canada, Japanese internment during WW2, Ukrainian internment during WW1, increased Islamophobia across Canada, the creation of the Anti-terrorism Act making racial profiling acceptable…Truly, this is just a summary. (Want to learn more about Canada’s true history? Listen to The Secret Life of Canada podcast.)
School systems do not operate outside of the political climate in which they exist. They are publicly funded by government and a microcosm of our larger society. A friend of mine has told me that when she retires she is going to start writing a book called “The Ontario Education System is Broken”….
I would say the same of Canada as a country as well as our school systems. They are doing precisely what they were designed to do — uphold structures through curriculum, practices, and biases laid out in school policies and procedures to benefit some students over others.
When legal discourse is stripped of the history of forced servitude and genocide, then the only time in racial discourse that matters is now — not anything that happened before. In this context, assessing experiences of bias requires only considering the intent of someone who might be biased.
She goes on to say:
Recreational antiracism with an emphasis on implicit bias is the best of both worlds for allies: virtuous and comfortable.
Contemporary analyses of implicit bias centers motivations of aggressors over the impact they have on victims. This can enhance minority experiences of discrimination by marginalizing their testimony about these experiences in favor of aggressor defenses which amount to, “It’s not my fault that I’m ignorant.” There is an implicit emotional labor demand here: that minorities persistently be understanding of actions that brutalize their hopes and dreams.
“it is damaging to people who experience cognitive dissonance every time we hear that implicit bias is the root of our problems. We ourselves have observed over and over that explicit bias continues to be a problem.”
So how does this learning affect us in our schools? We sit in large ballrooms learning about unconscious bias which essentially tells us that it is isn’t our fault, it is due to how our brains are structured. The advice includes working to interrupt our biases by recognizing them but does this change the experiences for our marginalized students, staff and communities?
Principals in schools often act from a place of fear scared that their face will be the next one on the front page of the Toronto Star — so much so that it becomes a precursor to many conversations about how to respond and act…
“I don’t know what to do here…what if I do something wrong? I don’t want to be the next face on the front of the Toronto Star!”
The voices that bring these issues to the fore are important — there is no doubt about that. The exposure has forced boards to realize that there are many families who will no longer wait for the white majority to get comfortable in their learning. The time is NOW!
Because the desire to make racial equality a topic which is up for debate, or racial justice a goal that we can ease ourselves into, is what has sustained the system of violent white supremacy for hundreds of years. I need you to understand, because I need you to understand what those who say that we are “pushing too hard” or “asking for too much” or “moving too fast” are really saying. (Ijeoma Oluo: There Is No Middle Ground Between Racism And Justice)
For those of us who have made equity the focus of our career, we are numbed by the responses “We aren’t ready for that yet” or “We have to meet them where they are”. These are the places where white people feel safe — where we can feel we are doing good work without ever having to question the oppressive structures that continue to privilege some over others. We cannot learn any of this work in an impactful way if we take it outside of the historical context offered through more critical discourses like anti-oppression, antiracism, anti-black racism and the like.
After a “safe” conversation about unconscious bias I was actually accused of not having hope. That we must all have hope. I thought, ah…this must be the next thing. This must be the place where those of us who are committed to anti-oppression, anti-racism and critical consciousness will be shamed for not having hope and always thinking the worst of people. But knowing the truth and continuing to push forward in that truth is about hope. Why else would we continue to fight, risk, say things that people in power don’t want to hear other than the belief that we CAN DO BETTER?