Humble Horizons Montessori

anti-bias education and raising “woke” kids, part 1

I recently put a post on my instagram account with 10 terms I think every parent (and educator) should know in approaching diversity and human rights. In this post, I’ll be defining, dissecting, and providing examples of bias and anti-bias so that you can do a better job raising “woke” (aware and not unconsciously biased) children who treat all people like people.

You may not agree, but it’s safe to say that there are two kinds of people in society: those who are “woke” around issues of social equality and diversity, and those who just don’t get it, and can’t get it because they lack the intellectual or emotional capacity to ever “get it” when it comes to treating people with dignity, and with basic human rights.

If you’re taking the time to read this, it probably means you are the kind of parent or educator who wants children to grow up as “woke”, anti-biased people. You want children to know how to thrive around all kinds of other people regardless of demographics or geographic location. Or maybe you want to make sure you “get it” and are not unknowingly going about your life doing things that are inappropriate, offensive, or possibly harmful to others without realizing it.

Anti-biased people are better able to truly relate with people once the superficial layers are shed. In turn, unbiased people have the capacity to help others, and affect more lives in positive ways. “Woke”, socially unbiased people probably know how to be culturally fluid when necessary, and know how to gracefully code switch accordingly depending who they’re around. They also know how to value human rights, and they want the success of others regardless of demographics. They know when to step in and say “nope, it’s not OK to treat another person unethically around me/us”, or “uh.. maybe that’s not the best idea to publicly share, because it might come across as racially insensitive…”, or to at least competently identify when something is implicitly prejudice. Even when everyone else wants to brush it off.

It’s not enough to just be “not racist”— you have to have a “person first” mentality, and consciously work on perpetuating an “anti-bias” reality, raise, and educate children to think and behave in anti-bias ways by default. The world needs more people who are kind, loving, and build others up. The world also needs more marginalized people to know that they are seen, heard, and supported. So let’s dive into your free “anti-bias education and raising woke kids” workshop, part 1!

Eliminating automatic and institutionalized bias around social and demographic characteristics is the most important building block of all diversity and human rights work. Bias means that you have a “lean” or an “inclination” towards or away from believing something or choosing something over other possibilities. Bias forms the foundation of all prejudice behavior. Bias pretty much means that you pre-judge (oh hey, root of the word “pre-jud-ice”), and that you think, speak, create, or act in accordance with your social prejudgments.

All humans are going to have biases. It’s a natural part of being human; maybe even arguably uncontrollable. The mind is a powerful filter that influences all of our perceptions. Our minds and our biases categorize and assess for our preferences and for avoiding discomfort or even danger or problems.

I personally have a bias for the beach over the desert. I kind of have a bias for surfer guys over guys who don’t surf, because I don’t know why but I find surfer guys especially attractive. It’s fully dumb, but like, if there were twin male models who met every non-physical quality I longed for in a man, but one surfed and one didn’t, hands down I would choose the surfer over the non-surfer. It’s ironic because I can’t even surf well! But I’m aware that I have this totally ridiculous bias.

Bias in and of itself is not wrong or even harmful. But it is definitely both wrong and harmful when it is based on the demographic, physical, or social characteristics people never even asked to possess; or have since recovered from, learned to manage, or improved upon. It’s not OK when social biases cause others to be unfairly left out, passed over, shamed, diminished, dehumanized, or belittled.

I also really want to emphasize that the range of damaging biases people may possess can be visible or invisible; from mental illnesses or former addictions/ past behavioral choices, to the very visible like disabilities, skin color, or socioeconomic class differences. That is why I think it’s so important to address anti-bias in the current social climate, and not just limit the change to “anti-racism”.

There are two kinds of social bias.

Conscious bias is when you know you don’t prefer, like, or associate well with other people who have a particular demographic, social, physical, or invisible characteristic. Maybe you admittedly prefer (fill in the blank) people over others. People within the same groups can also fully have biases against each other, so it’s important to be aware of that, too. Wealthy Caucasians can have a disdain for poorer white people. There is a well-known unfair bias against darker-skinned black women by both other black men and women within the black community. People can have a bias against women who are or are not mothers; or against people who have been married once before or remain unwed. People who had a troubled past they have since overcome can be passed over for someone with a “clean record”. So it is important not to classify “bias” as a race-exclusive issue or a “this group against that group” issue.

Then there is unconscious bias. Unconscious bias (also sometimes called “implicit bias”) is when you have a bias against other people without consciously realizing that your mentality and attitude towards those people is actually incorrect; and in turn, you dehumanize or demean others in some way. You think, create, behave, or treat others in ways that place them in positions of inferiority to yourself, even if you don’t consciously realize it. You make comments or art that belittles others in a ‘below he radar’ kind of way, or you end up barring them from an opportunity to upgrade their life and have accomplishment, or you don’t even realize you have fully excluded that kind of person from participation– basically because of their demographic characteristics.

Unconscious bias is way more insidious and damaging than overt prejudice because it can do major harm to someone’s life and it can actually influence cultural norms– without anyone ever consciously realizing what is going on. I found a quote recently that said:

Many people think they are not prejudice or biased because they would never consciously make a prejudice remark, or overtly act like they don’t like a certain kind of person. They might never agree that they perceive groups of people as “inferior”. There may be no tangibly salient moments where anyone can look at someone’s behavior and say “yes, you are prejudice because of that one time when you… “, or “yepp, you have a prejudice mentality as evidenced by that one time you made a racist/ homophobic/ xenophobic/agist remark about (whoever)”. But even if you’re unknowingly excluding an entire group of people from the reality, it’s still an unconscious bias.

The danger of unconscious bias is that you don’t even realize that your mentality, your words, the ideas you perpetuate, your creations, your decisions, and/or your actions dehumanize others. They diminish and destroy other people’s potential to be regarded as equal in status and regard to you. Or to live an amazing, peaceful, dignified, and happy life, just like you do.

Another major danger of unconscious bias is that an entire culture, or room full of people, can have their perceptions influenced by an unconscious bias. False and harmful beliefs about entire groups of minorities, or about the vulnerable people within a group, can be adopted by an entire crowd or nation. And then everyone in that crowd goes on to believe and perpetuate false, hurtful, and damaging beliefs about minorities.

These mentalities can also be passed on generationally to the children; and that’s when things get really damaging because entire generations grow up with damaging mindframes. So if you want to raise “woke”, compassionate children who don’t hold prejudices and who create unity with others wherever they go, it is critical that adults, parents, and educators who interface with children are willing to do self-exploration to combat bias. Adults need to be willing to have conversations that reveal unconscious (implicit) biases.

Uncovering and addressing biases is actually incredibly hard work to do. It’s hard because the biases can be so subtle we can literally go our whole lives without realizing they exist within us. That, and the people at the top in society or in companies aren’t exactly eager to share the “gold medal” podium positions in society or in their company, and all the inherent benefits that come with it. Particularly benefits surrounding wealth, resources, and the ability to feel successful or secure. That is why America remains a place with institutionalized racism. In other words, it takes a senses of humility, a willingness to acknowledge one’s own icky or ignorant tendencies and that you were wrong (blegh. Literally everyone hates to have to be in that space). Living out an anti-bias life also involves the willingness to literally share your spaces and to share the potential for greatness– even if it means you sacrifice some of your own probability for also receiving resources and success.

So now, let me share with you some (sadly) real life examples of what bias looks like, played out. Here are two that are kind of “corporately” based, and then some situationally-based ones.

Social/corporate Example A: When you’re at Whole Foods in certain cities, and you see (I’m just gonna go there, trigger alert) poorer-looking, maybe dark-brown-skinned black people shopping there, too. And you think to yourself something like “they must be tourists”, or somewhere in your mind, you know you don’t normally see people like this shopping at your grocery store. Or maybe you’re the person who won’t ever feel comfortable stepping into a Whole Foods store or a hippie health food store in your lifetime.

On a conscious level, it’s like why the (beep) does it matter who shops at a friggin’ grocery store, yenno?? Everyone needs food to survive, and it is everyone’s right to secure that food from whatever store they want. But why would my mind even have that thought in the first place? –> Years of unconscious bias programming. That’s how.

Social/ Corporate Example B: When one of my favorite fitness companies debuted their first black trainer. I have literally followed this fitness resource for years, people. Years. And they have possibly never, ever hired a black trainer until the black lives matter movement occurred. And here’s the crazy part: I love this company so much that it never even consciously made it onto my radar as someone part black myself, that I have never seen a darker brown-skinned woman featured as a trainer for this company, until maybe two days ago when they introduced a new black trainer.

And it was like 🤯 “seriously?! If you guys hadn’t pointed it out yourselves, I would have never consciously realized you don’t hire black or very dark brown trainers; and I would have fully gone on living my life just automatically assuming there must be a black trainer in the mix because even my own mind wants to unconsciously believe this fitness resource I love must be an automatically inclusive organization. But no. Even my own assumption was dead wrong thanks to that whole “below the radar” aspect to unconscious bias.

Lived through it Example 1: My boss at my job is constantly making comments such as “never get between a mother and her child”, or “sometimes mothers just know best”. Or “Yes, I agree with Ms. Susan’s motherly intuition about not taking her daughter to the doctor; and yes she can have another day off from work to stay home with her kid”, despite the fact that her kid has been vomiting for five days with a very high fever; and our school’s health policy would have required parents of our students to have gone to the doctor already.

…. Does that mean the rest of us educators at work who aren’t mothers (and usually not by choice, hello’) don’t have equally wonderful, education-driven or experience-based input? Could it be possible that after decades of working with hundreds of children, perhaps the “non-parent” educator actually has even more valid advice or approaches than a mother of less than two years, to only one child? If the exact same situation occurred between a… a… “non-mom” pediatrician (see how in our society there doesn’t even exist a word for people who are not parents?), no one would ever stop the pediatrician and say “the mother knows best”. The pediatrician’s professional wisdom and opinion would probably blatantly outweigh the mother’s opinion.

Clearly, my boss has a bias for staff who are mothers; and an unconscious bias against the ideas of people who are not mothers. In this example, there is also an unconscious bias against educators as people of wisdom and value, in contrast to other professionals whose work is valued more, such as a pediatrician.

Lived-through-it Example 2: Cultural tourism, and the Montessori “children of the world” language cards and geography shelves, which have circulated around many Montessori schools I have worked at for a very long time, and which possibly continue to be perpetuated.

Do you know what people in Africa look like, as of 2020?

Photo screen-shotted from Montessori Nduoma

They look like me and you, with various shades of skin and various textures of hair, just like in America…And p.s. there are white Africans; and albino black people too. But can you see how these very popular Montessori teaching materials perpetuate this unconscious bias to perceive and perpetuate in the imaginations of children that all “typical” African people are brown-skinned tribespeople?

Example 3: This one time I got majorly in trouble and shamed by a (white female) professor in while I was in grad school for occupational therapy at Dominican University of California, during the “diversity” class, no less.

We were all asked to share our own personal experiences regarding various topics in an online forum for this (very misguided, in retrospect) “culture and human occupation” course. It is critical to mention that I was the only black student in this cohort. (and I later ended up getting unfairly kicked out probably because of unconscious racial bias, which is what led me down the path of becoming a Montessori practitioner). Well one time in this course, which was supposed to be a “safe space” to share our cultural perspectives openly, I shared that in my family and personal experience growing up, my own parents were “very relaxed about being on time for things. If me or my sisters were ever late”, I wrote, “my parents were not all nazi-like about it”.

Lemme tell you, using the word “nazi” was like detonating a bomb in the class, apparently. I got in SO much trouble and was asked to publicly apologize and all this stuff– frankly it was shocking to me, probably more so because I grew up in a Hawaiian family and people openly talk about and make lighthearted jokes about each other’s cultures all the time here.

But when my light-skinned, model minority Chinese peer said that “It turns out, leadership is not a Hitler thing after all!”, everyone erupted into laughter and thought it was cute. Mind you, the teacher of this culture class was white, female, and Jewish. Why could the Chinese American peer compare things to Hitler (just the fact that she perceived leadership had to be done in a Hitler-like manner in the first place should have already been disconcerting to any college professor; and only serves to reinforce the dangers of unconscious bias in education that this girl was raised to think this). But if I compare my own parents regard of time as being “not nazi-like”, I get majorly chewed out? Implicit/unconscious bias. The other students are allowed to say things that you, black girl, are not allowed to say.

<And by the way, yes, being a “model minority” is absolutely a real thing and I don’t care if people say it’s a myth– it is not a myth I most assure you. Even blacks who excel on a professional level at music or sports fall into the model minority category; and white criminal trash can represent a sort of anti-model majority, if that makes sense).

A study out of Yale showed that preschool teachers implicitly target black students as being misbehaved more often than they judge students of other ethnicities to behave negatively. Well perhaps it’s not just a “preschoolers” thing. Perhaps it’s a systemic mentality that can occur for blacks in all institutions of life, be it preschool, university, or the workplace. Here are some snippets from the Yale study.

A “woke” professor, who is keenly aware of how to facilitate and encourage anti-bias education, or who is just in touch with her responsibility and role (and dare I say, good) at her job as the “diversity” professor, would have taken everyone’s discomfort with the use of the word “nazi” and jumped on it for an excellent mind-opening diversity and anti-bias conversation.

Questions she could have asked are:

  • If you feel triggered by your classmate’s use of the word “nazi”, when we historically, actively hate the nazis in America, raise your hand. Are you willing to have a dialogue about this right now?
  • Who is willing to tell us why that word makes you feel uncomfortable?
  • What adjectives would you use to define someone who might be acting “nazi-like”?
  • Raise your hand if you agree that your own parents are “not nazi-like”? <we know every hand in the room would shoot up. So why did I get in trouble for using the other N-word? Let’s keep it real!>
  • Is anyone in this class German, or Jewish? If so, do you feel like any comments made about nazis triggers you? Would you be willing to tell us why or why not, and share your perspective?

… and so forth. This would have helped everyone in the class broaden our thinking, and become significantly more “woke” around the use of words, cultural narratives and biases, and making comparisons about people.

Literally everyone except for me and and my Jewish peer, Shanee Ben-Haim, was incredibly outraged that I would say my own parents (who are not Jewish or German, for the record) were not like nazis. I’m sorry, but to say that someone is not like a Nazi is a compliment, LOL. After class, Shanee was like “Dude I am sorry you got called out in the class forum. I don’t know why everyone is trippin so hard. I think the soup nazi joke from Seinfeld is super funny; and I once had a patient at the hospital with a swastika tattooed on his arm. And I still had to treat the guy, just like every other patient in my rounds that day”. Shanee is woke. Good job, mama and papa Ben-Haim.

(just as a follow up, unconscious bias example #4: for the record, I did end up getting kicked out of that graduate program based on two pages of made-up reasons like “student sends too many emails” and other such nonspecific, unsubstantiated well, bullsh*t. That is why I became a Montessori educator– because I was kicked out of grad school the first time I tried to pursue a degree, and I didn’t know what else to do after years of hard work was shattered in an instant, other than go back to my Montessori job.

How do we know it was unconscious racial bias? There were no clear incidents of misbehavior or policy breach to speak of in my performance. My GPA was excellent, my fieldwork reviews were excellent, I was the only student who had gone out of state for fieldwork and I had even started a blog for Dominican’s OT student association, which no one had ever thought to do before. I never missed an exam; and submitted all assignments on time. I even still went to school the same day I was in a rollover car crash. That’s how dedicated of a student I was. It’s just that — I was the only black student in the cohort. And they did not want to see me continue to succeed in their predominantly white program. Or even if there was some kind of other issue going on that I was unaware of and unable to improve upon, they weren’t willing to give me the insight to try and fix whatever it is they disliked about me so much. And this was OT school– an OT’s entire job is to help people from disadvantaged (physical or psychosocial) circumstances succeed.

In the years that followed my unfair dismissal, Dominican University of California unfairly dismissed an elderly student with a documented disability, and a year or so after her, a latina student. Except somehow the latina student found my contact info and I wrote her appeal letter for her threatening to sue them, and they let her back in. True story. Some universities are prejudice and predatory; and all parents should help your children avoid them like coronavirus!).

I wish I was making this all up, but sadly I am not. (Karen McCarthy is currently employed by Dominican University of California’s OT department; and we had gotten in touch after Dominican kicked out Allison Bordessa, the older disabled student).

So there you have it. Bias, and unconscious bias. Why it matters, and why it needs to end now. ♡♡♡

Thanks for reading!

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