This post is sort of like a guest post, but not quite. The brilliant Dr. Briscoe-Smith and I met in Oakland when she gave a presentation on implicit bias and how to talk about racism with kids. Her talk was so powerful that I knew I had to get her thoughts and strategies to you as soon as possible. This blog post is our brainchild. She wrote the first draft, and I integrated my understanding about the intersection of neurodiversity and implicit bias. Enjoy!
As many of you know, it is already a challenge to properly identify neurodivergent and differently-abled children as gifted. What may be surprising to some is that there is another layer to this challenge, persistent undervaluing of black and brown children that makes it even harder to see them as gifted; this layer is racism. While there is still unacceptable amounts of explicit racism operating to keep black and brown children out of the educational system, implicit racial bias is also operating, despite our best intentions.
There is plenty of evidence, both empirical and through our lived experiences, that proves how children of color don’t fare well in the educational system. For example, black boys are three times more likely to be kicked out of preschool, while black girls are six times more likely to be disciplined throughout their educational history. This is due, in part, to implicit racial bias. Our implicit biases are our unconscious, automatic, and stereotypical thoughts about other people. They happen outside our awareness, and are often antithetical to how we’d like to see others.
African American and Latino children are consistently overly disciplined, sent out of class, and rated as more problematic by their teachers. This happens even when black and white children’s behavior is the same. For example, when child behavior is controlled in empirical studies, black and brown children are disciplined more harshly, and rated as behaviorally challenging. Implicit bias has been directly implicated in all of these instances.
And just like there is a spectrum of skin colors, there is a spectrum of brain design. Children with both a skin color and a brain design in the minority are made to pay doubly for our implicit bias. Add this to the fact that gifted and twice-exceptional children are known to be intense, creative, and justice-minded, and you’ve got a recipe for misdiagnosis and misunderstandings. Our current education structure is failing a disturbingly large cross-section of students. Neurodiversity, racial, gender, and economic inequality are intersecting every day in classrooms all over the country.
Implicit bias has recently been implicated in the disproportionately low numbers of black and brown kids identified as gifted or twice-exceptional. In fact, these children are more likely to be identified as having learning deficits and behavior problems. The stereotype perpetuated by bias is that black and brown kids can’t be gifted, and that they are more of a problem in classrooms.
There are many well-intentioned educators who make biased decisions about black and brown children’s potential and behavior. These decisions add up to systematically keep these kids out of opportunities to advance, excel, and be seen as gifted or exceptional. This is often despite these educators explicit wishes to operate in more equitable ways.
We are all more likely to operate based off of our implicit biases when we are stressed or under time pressure. As educators, we are in situations like that multiple times a day; we are often in situations where we are making snap judgments about others, outside our awareness, and aligned with stereotypes.
So what to do about this? First, educators, parents, and other professionals that work with children must become aware of their implicit biases. There are great resources out there. You should start with the Kirwan Institute’s papers on education and implicit bias. You can actually assess your own biases through the Implicit Association Test. You could also take this information to the administration at your child’s school and ask them if the educators have had training in implicit bias.
But awareness is not enough; it takes practice and a commitment to change. The research out there is new on what it takes to change these biases. But one thing comes up as a potential means of reducing our negative biases — working on positive, genuine relationships with our children. Ask them questions like, “How did you come up with that idea?” and “What would you like to learn about?” Approach students with curiosity and open mind, then listen well. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.
Implicit bias operates as a smog to alter the way we see children. It obscures their true abilities and gifts with stereotypes and lowered expectations. Step closer to children of color, slow down to really see them. Then question whether or not your perceptions have been altered by the smog.
You have the ability to see children truly and to advocate for them wholly.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard University. She then received her clinical psychology Ph.D. from University of California Berkeley. She then went on to continue her specialization in trauma and ethnic minority mental health through internship and postdoctoral work at University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness or foster care. Much of her work has been with schools, as a clinician, consultant and trainer. Currently she is a full time professor at the Wright Institute and she provides consultation and training to bay area nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma informed practices and cultural accountability. You can learn more about her work at http://www.drbriscoesmith.com.