Responding to #LivingWhileBlack
Confronting Unexamined Bias in Everyday Life
Last updated January 30, 2020
People who are black, or belong to other minority groups, often report having the police called on them while they are engaging in daily activities, such as trying to cash a check at a bank, sitting in a university class, waiting to meet someone in Starbucks, barbequing in a park, or making a phone call in a hotel lobby to name a few.
In 2018, writer Black Aziz brought attention to this issue when he called on his followers to use the Twitter hashtag #LivingWhileBlack in response to the question: “Have you ever had the cops called on you for some innocuous reason? Let's talk about it.”1 Since that time, African Americans have shared their personal stories and videos of times when a white individual has profiled, threatened, or reported them, oftentimes using the 9-1-1 emergency number for a minor infraction—such as a child selling water without a city permit—or often for no infraction at all.
While the ubiquity of cell phones with cameras and social media outlets has contributed to a heightened awareness of the myriad of ways African Americans are racially profiled, it is important to remember that criminalizing African Americans is deeply entrenched in the history of the United States, dating back to slavery and the slave patrols, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and continuing today with the current disparity in the arrest and incarceration rates of African Americans and whites—all examples of past and present systemic racism in American society. A Washington Post article describes the negative physical and emotional impact that the policing of African Americans by white individuals can have:
These types of experiences are common for people of color, and each time they occur the stress and humiliation associated with these incidents accumulate. Over time, they contribute to negative health outcomes including anxiety, depression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, preterm births, and—some researchers think—shorter life spans for black people than whites.2
Teachers can use this resource to invite reflection and conversation about the role that bias- specifically racial bias- plays in these events and in the lives of their students. Many students already have a lived understanding of the dynamics at play in these moments other students may be unaware of them. For many other people, racial bias is felt deeply and consciously, and they act intentionally on that bias. But there is another kind of bias that we all experience called implicit, or unconscious, bias. Implicit bias is a term for the attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) about other people, ideas, issues, or institutions that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control, which affect our opinions and behavior. Dr. Beverly Tatum, former president of Spelman College, scholar, and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, compares our implicit biases about race to a smog:
Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like a smog in the air. Sometimes, it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.3
Dr. Tatum goes on to argue that while we are not immune to the messages we have received through the media, education, families, and peers, we each have an individual responsibility to look inward, examine our prejudices, and make an explicit effort to change.
This teaching idea introduces students to the concept of implicit bias so that they will have a framework to get beyond what scholar and author Dr. Robin Diangelo calls the good/bad binary, which reduces racism “to simple, isolated, and extreme acts of prejudice” that are “malicious, intentional, and based on conscious dislike of someone because of race.”4 Through this simplistic good/bad lens, racists are seen as “bad people” while non-racists are viewed a “good people.” Diangelo goes on to argue that to get beyond this binary we need to understand that all people hold prejudices and white individuals in particular need to be able to talk about racism without becoming defensive. In a recent New Yorker article, Columbia University professor and author Dr. Jelani Cobb explains how the lens of implicit bias can help:
The popular perception of racism as mostly the product of the kind of monstrous people who, say, would drive into a crowd of pedestrians in Charlottesville, Virginia, makes it difficult to address the more pervasive daily practices of it . . . . Implicit bias disassociates racism from overt villainy and, as a consequence, engenders less defensiveness in the dialogue.5
It is important to help students understand that everyone has implicit biases and that people with racially marginalized identities have historically suffered the greatest consequences of bias coming from the dominant culture. The activities below can help students develop a framework for analyzing and discussing the incidents of bias that they are seeing in the news, while also engaging in the hard work of understanding and starting to confront their own unconscious biases.
Introduce the concept of implicit bias by showing the video Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism (02:27), the first part of a six-segment New York Times series titled Who Me? Biased? that defines and examines the impact of implicit bias. After watching the video, have students record one comment and one question in their journals and then share in small groups.
Check for understanding by discussing the following questions as a class:
Dr. Beverly Tatum compares our implicit biases about race to a smog:
“Cultural racism—the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color—is like a smog in the air. Sometimes, it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.”6
Play NPR’s Code Switch podcast A Lesson in How to Overcome Implicit Bias (04:16) in which Alexis McGill Johnson, who runs racial bias workshops for the Perception Institute, explains the science behind implicit bias and how we can work to become aware of our own biases. After listening to the podcast, pass out the transcript so students can review the definition of implicit bias and the section about the science of how our brains work. Then share the following prompt and discuss as a class:
Johnson suggests that it is our responsibility to identify our own negative biases and take action to change them.
Use the 3-2-1 teaching strategy to help students reflect in their journals on what they have learned about implicit bias:
Read the Washington Post article He settled a racial discrimination lawsuit. When he tried to deposit the checks, police were called. out loud as a class or in groups and choose from the following discussion questions:
Show the video Check Our Bias to Wreck Our Bias (03:00), the second part of the Who Me? Biased? series. This short video provides concrete steps that students can take to become more conscious of their unconscious biases.
Provide an opportunity for students to reflect and set a personal goal in a private journal response that they will not share. They might complete the friend audit suggested in the video. Or they can try a technique that business psychologist Binna Kandola, who focuses on the study of gender bias and implicit bias, shared in our video Diffusing Bias. Kandola recommends to “set fairness as a goal when making decisions” by telling ourselves to stop the behavior, to say “I am not going to stereotype.” In their journals, have students complete the following “When/then” sentence starter to set a personal goal, letting them know that they will be keeping their answers private.
When I am __________, then I will __________.
Consider having students revisit their friend audits and personal goals in upcoming weeks so that they can continue the process of acknowledging their implicit biases and doing the hard work of overcoming them.
Facing History and Ourselves has a variety of resources for exploring different kinds of bias, as well as examining the relationship between identity, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Incorporate one or more of the following resources or lessons into your curriculum and your examination of current events this year: