Braving Bias

Our forefathers laid the framework for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Despite the irony of their own lives, the inequality and lack of inclusion they modeled, their collective wisdom forged a path for us to seek the truths that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair. We all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, – and perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace,” wrote Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy

I had the distinct pleasure of attending Learning Forward’s Annual Conference in St. Louis at the beginning of December. The time frame was one of the busiest in the year, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas – my life was a whirlwind of holiday celebrations, mid-year evaluations, mid-term prep, holiday recitals, throw a trip to Philadelphia in there, basketball games (both for my school and my own children), and other work/school/family demands. However, the conference did provide a break – not a break to rest, but a break to be a student and learn. My learning primarily focused around diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a framework for change.

Bias is one of those topics that I only engage in when it is in front of me. This statement alone is a testament to the privilege and the  abundance of opportunities I’ve had in my life. I live and work in a community very similar to my own. My assumptions and experiences are similar to those around me. Therefore, while I know everyone has biases, it is still something I’ve only had to look at closely as I’ve chosen to. It is a conversation and discussion that I can engage in or not. “When we know better, we do better,” wrote Maya Angelou. I believe this statement to be true. Now that I am more aware of the complexities of cultural bias, I want to do better. But how? By braving bias. 

During the conference, I attended Val Brown’s Social Justice 101 training by Teaching Tolerance. I was prompted to reflect on all the things that make up my identity. These are not roles I have but cultural definitions.  I am white. I am Christian. I am able-bodied. I am educated. I am heterosexual. I am female and identify as a female. I am literate and well-traveled. This is where my identity stopped about three months ago. However, now I would add one more. I am privileged. And while I am grateful and do recognize so many blessings in my life,  I understand better that the blessings of my life are rooted in opportunities and privilege inherent in a racist society and having an unfair advantage. This makes me feel uncomfortable.

During the conference I also heard Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain speak. Her talk was powerful. It took this newfound awareness and provided me more fluent language when discussing race and diversity. She pushed me to reflect on ways I have handled circumstances that arise around race – whether ignorance or explicit racial discrimination.  I can see how I attempted to address each circumstance as a stand alone event. While on the surface, this is how we handle all discipline and disrespect, I know in my heart that I felt different. Often in conversations around discrimination, I feel either extreme guilt or embarassement. I feel unsure of how to speak and what exactly to say. It is an area that I lack confidence and therefore stumble with my words. I simply want to be done with it. My lack of fluency made me feel like I was hiding from the conversation instead of using it as an opportunity to be brave. Since I couldn’t name what I was feeling, I didn’t know how to learn from these moments. 

Since logically I didn’t understand my emotions, the one thing I did think was that this was my issue and not anyone else’s. Did these feelings mean I lack the understanding and therefore don’t know what I was doing? Does this mean I’m not a good administrator?  Now I’ve tapped into more than a simple lack of racial language fluency but am talking about my own fears of inadequacy. It’s no wonder that I choose to not even engage in the conversation when the initial discussion requires a level of vulnerability I would rather avoid. 

At least, until now. 

Braving bias means saying these things aloud and learning with others that I’m not alone in these feelings.  It means not avoiding the conversation any longer. To get clearer about how and where bias lurks in my life I need to be willing to discuss it with others. 

I learned from both Hammond and Brown in St. Louis and others since how implicit bias differs from explicit bias. Just like implicit bias differs from implicit racism. While I have heard these terms before, only recently did I better understand the differences. Explicit means with awareness, intentional. Implicit means the opposite. It means without awareness or knowledge but something so ingrained in our lives that it is easy to overlook and just think of as “normal”.  I can see now that in the past whenever the conversation of race differences arises, I come from a place of defending myself from explicit bias. I don’t say harmful terms or pass judgement based on race/culture/religious beliefs/ability/gender/etc. Implicit bias helps me understand those feelings of inadequacy and recognize that the system is inherent in racial discrimination and not my specific actions. 

This new understanding gives me a sturdy platform to grow from and better understand my own feelings. When confronted with implicit bias – bias that is rooted in unconscious attitudes and stereotypes formed from each person’s deep culture – it is critical we understand that we must learn how to reframe our beliefs. This is a process that requires honesty, a willingness to suspend our beliefs, and time to internalize new information in order to continue braving bias each and every time we feel it arise in our lives. Now I know that when I feel this loss for words or emotion around these situations or conversations that by asking more questions and recognizing my own feelings, I will learn to face and acknowledge my own bias. Only then can I serve others and lead with unmerited grace. 

Daniel Bauer, author and podcast host, was featured on Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D and podcast host of Leading Equity in December 2018. While listening recently, I heard something that resonated deeply for me. If we want our schools to be the best – then we must fill in our gaps – and all schools have gaps. All schools have pockets of students who are not the majority and; therefore, require more listening on the part of the adults. This listening will provide us with a better understanding of how those gaps impact and distract from learning. Once we have those relationships and that insight, we will be stronger and more equipped to provide rich learning experiences all students need and deserve.

Why look? Why be uncomfortable? Why be knowledgeable? Because of something I read in Robin Diangelo’s work White Fragility. “It is a messy, lifelong process, but one that is necessary to align my professed values with my real actions.” Values I strive for and attempt to teach my children include (1) harmony with others (2) finding balance of self (3) having the courage to speak up and courage to remain silent (4) finding value in service  (5) being compassionate (6) cultivating wisdom to act and wisdom to wait (7) practicing self-discipline and (8) seeking the joy found in truth. I firmly believe that because I have added reflection into my life, through writing, I can bravely look into the shadows and uncover the truths that will continue to guide me to pursue and align my values. Bias is one of those shadows.

As humans, we cannot have a conversation around bias, race, diversity, equity, and equality without recognizing our own beliefs and acknowledging how we arrived at the table. We must understand our role in the conversation. Despite the emotions and discomfort this often invokes, the only way to grow beyond our feelings and our own sense of inadequacy is to stay in the conversation. We must brave our own bias first to become culturally aware enough to help those we serve. As Hammond wrote, “ Culture is like the air we breathe, permeating all we do. And the hardest culture to examine is often our own, because it shapes our actions in ways that seem invisible and normal.” Her book goes on to provide real, concrete steps to help us become aware of our own bias. She provides a framework to push through our fear and learn how to use our triggers to become tools to help us change. The steps are specific activities to help grow our own fluency and ability to engage in this conversation. Once we gain new insight, we gain new understanding. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” – Marcel Proust.

 I am thankful I used this holiday break to read, listen and ask questions.  It helped me to better shape my own understanding regarding cultural differences. As with any new insight, the first step for me is learning. I want to be the kind of leader who is confident about how to create a school culture that celebrates diversity, fosters equity for all students and teachers, and includes each and every person. I want to be the kind of leader who invites conversations around race and misunderstandings. I want to be the kind of leader that helps others recognize that we all have bias and once we embrace that truth only then can we find and live the solution. 

The conference in December and the rich resources I’ve found sense have provided new ideas, mentors, connections, and ways for me to continue to grow in this arena. I am grateful for the new perspective, a bit fearful of where this will take me but excited as well. I want to be confident in this conversation and I want to serve others in a way that honors their truth and yet provides hope for their journey in this work. I believe what Bryan Stevenson wrote about the need for unmerited grace. Braving bias is, perhaps, the first step to tap into that compassion, to look closer at the mercy we all need. 

“There are no guarantees in the arena. We will struggle. We will even fail. There will be darkness. But if we are clear about the values that guide us in our efforts to show up and be seen, we will always be able to find the light. We will know what in means to live brave.” – Brene Brown

Join me in learning more on this topic during the Leading Equity Virtual Summit beginning January 2nd, 2020 hosted by Sheldon L. Eakins. For more information click here. If you are interested in reading more about this topic, check out my book list here. If you are a leader in Forsyth County and would like to join a group of other like-minded educators helping empower teachers to build the awareness and fluency around diversity, equity, and inclusion, please click here.

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