Responding to #LivingWhileBlack

Confronting Unexamined Bias in Everyday Life

In 2018, we saw repeated incidents in the news and on social media of white individuals calling police to report black and other minority individuals who were engaging in everyday activities: waiting for someone to join a meeting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia; falling asleep in a dormitory lounge in New Haven, Connecticut; shopping at Nordstrom Rack in St. Louis; touring a college campus in Ft. Collins, Colorado; barbequing in an Oakland park; and talking on the phone in a Portland, Oregon, hotel lobby to name a few. In the article Living While Black, CNN listed twenty-seven such news stories that they had covered in 2018.

Writer Black Aziz brought attention to the issue on April 20, 2018, 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

Just as they were in 2018, the events people share using the #LivingWhileBlack hashtag are likely to be a feature of this year's news. Teachers can use these resources 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.

  1. What Is Implicit Bias?

    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:

    • What is implicit bias?
    • What is the difference between saying someone has an implicit bias and calling someone a racist?
    • 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

      • What are some examples of the cultural images and messages that Dr. Tatum is discussing?
      • How can media images, news images, conversations that we have, and our education contribute to the messages we absorb about other individuals and groups? Are there other ways that we absorb these messages?
      • What are some ways that we can become aware of and counter our implicit biases?
  2. Build an Awareness of Implicit Bias

    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.

    • What factors might motivate someone to take responsibility for identifying negative biases?
    • What does it take to change our negative implicit biases?
    • What might make this work challenging?

    Use the 3-2-1 teaching strategy to help students reflect in their journals on what they have learned about implicit bias:

    • Three things that they have learned about implicit bias.
    • Two questions that they have about implicit bias.
    • One concrete way that they will apply what they learned from the video and/or podcast to their own lives.

       

  3. Examine the Effects of Implicit Bias

    Read the New York Times article Doubletree in Portland Fires 2 Employees After Kicking Out Black Man Who Made Call From Lobby out loud as a class or in groups and choose from the following discussion questions:

    • What possible factors might explain the decision of the security guard to contact the police to have Jermaine Massey escorted out of the hotel?
    • How have the actions of the Doubletree employees affected Mr. Massey in the days and weeks following the incident?
    • What is the relationship between someone’s intent when making a decision to say or do something and the impact of their decision? Does intent matter if someone is harmed?
    • Are you aware of any other incidents similar to this one in which a white individual called the police to report one or more black individuals who were going about everyday activities in a public space?
      • What factors, if any, do these incidents share in common?
      • In what kind of spaces did the incidents take place? What kinds of people typically control (manage) and occupy those spaces?
      • What were the outcomes of these events? Do you feel like they were sufficient? If not, what else do you think needs to happen?
    • What is the relationship between implicit bias, power, and privilege? How do conscious and unconscious biases impact the choices people make when they encounter someone different from themselves?
  4. Take Stock of Your Implicit Biases

    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 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.

Extensions: Digging Deeper into Types of Biases, Prejudice, and Discrimination

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:

  • The lesson Identity and Labels from the unit My Part of the Story uses a cartoon, video, and reading to help students explore some of the ways we use labels to identify each other and to consider the ways that those labels affect how others think about us, how we behave, and how we think about ourselves.
  • The lesson Identity and Choices from the unit My Part of the Story uses an image gallery and readings to help students understand the ways in which the choices a person makes, consciously or unconsciously, can affect how others perceive that person.
  • The lesson The Challenge of Confirmation Bias from the unit Standing Up for Democracy introduces a new kind of bias, confirmation bias, and invites students to examine why people sometimes maintain their beliefs in the face of information that contradicts their understanding.
  • The reading The Blink of an Eye and its accompanying set of connection questions introduce students to what new research into human behavior reveals about prejudice and unconscious bias. Note that because of the text complexity, this reading is more appropriate for older students.
  • Finally, The New York Times video series Who Me? Biased? explores implicit bias in six two- to three-minute segments. While this teaching idea uses the first two videos in the series, if you have time in the upcoming days or weeks, show and discuss the remaining four so students can continue the work they started today of understanding and confronting their internal biases.

Citations

  • 1 : Black Aziz ANNANsi (@Freeyourmindkid), Twitter, April 20, 2018, 5:39pm.
  • 2 : Megan R. Underhill, “Police calls for #LivingWhileBlack have gotten out of hand. Here’s what we can do about it,” Washington Post, July 20, 2018.
  • 3 : Beverly Daniel Tatum, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 126.
  • 4 : , Robin J. DiAngelo and Alex Tatusian, White Fragility (New York: Public Science, 2016), 71–72.
  • 5 : Jelani Cobb, “Starbucks and the Issue of White Space,” New Yorker, June 4 2018.
  • 6 : Beverly Daniel Tatum, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 126.

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