Sunday / May 19

Get Explicit about Implicit Bias

This is the second blog in a four-blog series on bias and teacher expectations. Access the first blog here.  

No matter how good our intentions to be free of prejudice, we all have implicit biases that can have a serious impact on our work in schools.

Implicit bias refers to stereotypes or attitudes that affect our decisions and actions. Unlike explicit bias, which is intentional and part of our belief systems, implicit bias is an association we have that is unconscious and unintentional.

Facts about implicit bias:

  • Everyone has implicit bias.
  • An implicit bias can be a positive or negative association.
  • Implicit associations don’t always align with our intentional beliefs. For example, a teacher may believe all races are equal, and also may unconsciously associate Latino students with low achievement.
  • We can change implicit biases through intentional engagement in de-biasing techniques. (Roberts, 2011).

Understand Our Biases

The IAT bias tests are designed to test our implicit associations. One test on associations with black skin, for example, engages us in rapidly connecting images of black faces or white faces with violent or non-violent images and words. It’s a fast test and results are based on timing, so outsmarting the system isn’t an option. The test effectively cuts past intentions to illuminate biases we don’t even know we have.

If you have not yet taken an IAT, please click this link to take one now. It’s a quick process, and as experience is the best teacher, I recommend you take the test now. Be advised, however: if you are proud of your explicit beliefs in equality, taking an IAT may be a humbling experience.

Humble Reflection

When I took the test, the results were a moderate positive association between black skin and violence. This was a troubling finding, especially for someone with a life focus of working for equity—but I’ll stop there. Being white and having test results that show racial bias immediately makes me want to list a lifetime of evidence supporting the idea that I am not racist. This impulse to be defensive gets in the way of deep reflection, so I will resist it.

Instead I am publishing my embarrassing findings to model what I believe we all need in conversations about race: humility. Awareness is the first step toward a solution. If we fight awareness of our own implicit racial biases, we are doomed to continue living with them. It’s better to be humbly aware, together, without blame or defensiveness, so we can collaborate on solutions.

Disconnect between Beliefs and Biases

If you find you have implicit biases that conflict with your belief system, you are not alone. “More than 85 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be unprejudiced. Yet researchers have concluded that the majority of people in the United States hold some degree of implicit racial bias” (Roberts, 2011).

Why Implicit Racial Bias Matters in Schools

Eighty percent of teachers are white, and 40 percent of students are students of color. When racial bias factors into how teachers perceive kids, kids suffer. Specifically, students of color suffer. As I shared in my previous blog, a new study (Gershenson, Hold, & Papageore, 2015) adds to the growing body of evidence about the effect of racial mismatch on teacher expectations.

Until we address implicit biases head on and systemically elevate teacher expectations for all kids, there will always be an achievement gap.

Blame or Ownership?

Reading about the systemic issue of schools having low expectations of students of color, it is easy to agree this is tragic. It is also easy to attribute the problem to other people. I might tell myself, for example: the teachers in that study were probably racists. It’s different in my school. Every white teacher I know wants all kids to succeed.

Given the disconnect between explicit beliefs and implicit biases, this response is natural. Many teachers who have low expectations aren’t aware they have low expectations, or that race has anything to do with their expectations. It is easier to point at overt racists as the problem than it is to get personal and ask what implicit biases we need to illuminate and change in our ourselves.

How Do We Overcome Implicit Bias?

In Verna Meyers’ TED Talk How to Overcome Our Biases: Walk Boldly towards Them, she advocates that we get out of denial and move toward what we don’t understand. To overcome biases about black men, for example, stare at images of amazing black men, move towards black men. Be in humble inquiry about your own biases and then look specifically for counterexamples you can use to reset your own associations.

Melissa Anderson addresses the idea of countering stereotypes in her article We Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students. In this important read, she goes beyond the well-researched argument that hiring teachers of color improves education for kids of color, to argue that a more diverse teaching force will positively impact the worldviews of white kids.

See links below for resources on addressing implicit biases in schools, and please comment to share more.

What was your experience with the IAT test?

Which strategies are most effective for helping educators understand and change implicit biases?

Join us for the next blogs in this series on race and teacher expectations. Coming soon:

III. Four Sentences Educators Must Stop Saying about Students

IV. Seven Ways to Raise Expectations for All Students


Anderson, M. (2015). We Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students

Gershenson, Hold & Papageore (2015). Who Believes in Me: The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic on Teacher Expectations

Kteily, N. & Bruneau, E. (2015) Americans See Muslims as Less than Human.  No Wonder Ahmed Was Arrested. 

Meyers, V. (2014). How to Overcome Our Biases: Walk Boldly towards Them

National Center for Education Statistics (2013). First Look Report

Roberts H. (2011). Implicit Bias and Social Justice

Staats, C. (2014). State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014

Additional Resources for Educators:

Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development by Enid Lee (Editor)

Cultural Proficiency books and by Randall Lindsey and colleagues

Courageous Conversations books by Glenn E. Singleton

How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You and more by Bonnie M. Davis

Implicit Bias Test

Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale.

Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools.

Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

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