You Think Racial Bias Is Worrisome At Starbucks? Try the Classroom.

I have fond memories of my first trip to New York City, which I took with my family one summer back in high school. We were sweltering from the Manhattan heat and couldn’t find a taxi to save our lives. Remember, this was back before all of those ridesharing apps became popular, so I think we walked around the same couple of blocks for 30 minutes before finally deciding to try our luck in a different part of town.

I’ll never forget what happened then. A tall Black man in sort of raggedy clothing made eye contact with me and started yelling and waving his hands. “Hey! Hey! Come here!”

I was younger then, and it scared me. I wasn’t sure of his intentions, so I grabbed my sister’s hand and rushed my family down the block. We hurried along, mildly terrified, for about a half of a block when I finally mustered the courage to turn around and get a final glance at the strange character.

He was still yelling at us. And behind him, there was a shiny yellow taxi on the curb.

“Hey! Hey!” He kept yelling. “I was just trying to get you this cab!” As it turns out, he was trying to help us out the whole time.

I’m an adult now, but I haven’t forgotten that moment. Whenever conversations about biases break out, I always think back to that situation and how I completely misjudged it.

The fortunate thing is that this situation wasn’t all that consequential. But for far too many people of color, situations like this can actually be very dangerous.

Just look at what happened this past week at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two Black men were arrested for “trespassing.”

As the story goes, the two men had asked to use the restroom while waiting around at the Starbucks for another gentleman to show up, but an employee declined their request because they hadn’t purchased anything.

The two men refused when they were eventually asked to leave, and the police quickly got involved. They both ended up getting arrested.

This is a textbook case of implicit bias at work. And it’s making the entire nation think about the power that biases can have.

What Are Implicit Biases?

Implicit biases — basically, the unconscious stereotypes we have that can influence the way we act — exist all around us, and they permeate the fabric of our society.

We know they exist because young Black and Brown students face higher suspension rates than their White peers despite having similar levels of behavioral issues. We know they exist because White high school dropouts are just as likely to get hired as Black college students.

That’s not just disappointing — it’s flat-out unjust. And we need to start calling it out.

Sure — it’s hard, if not impossible, for people to own up to their own biases. Our humanness makes us ignorant, and often willfully so, of our own flaws. But when our blind spots are our own students and fellow citizens, we have no chance for a truly fair society unless we begin to think seriously about how our biases can affect one another.

Here’s Why It Matters

If I assume that one student can’t learn as well as another, you’ll probably see that play out in my classroom. I wouldn’t spend as much time investing in that kid, or building a relationship with him.

What if the scary taxi guy had been a student in my classroom? I imagine it would be pretty hard to teach someone that you’re terrified of.

It’s not about politics or “racebaiting” — it’s about justice, and it’s about making sure that every kid that walks through the schoolhouse door gets a fair shot at a great education. But with achievement gaps widening and with far too many Black and Brown kids slipping through the cracks, I’m not sure that’s happening right now.

As teachers, parents, community members, or advocates, I think we all need to sit down and do some soul searching. Critical reflection is a key element of becoming an effective teacher of diverse students, and it can help us identify those blind spots so that they don’t manifest in an ugly way in our schools and classrooms.

We can’t afford to sit around and allow our students of color to receive a less-than-adequate education. It’s gone on for too long and it’s going to take a ton of work on our own behalf to make things better.

My guess is that it won’t be as easy as hailing a cab.

 

Photo by Christopher Irwin, CC-Licensed.

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