Consider this scenario: Two students, one black and one white, receive their scores after completing a spelling test. The black student receives an 86% and the teacher commends them for doing their very best. The white student receives an 86% and the teacher spends time not only illuminating their mistakes, but providing helpful hints for improved performance the next go-round.
This imbalance of expectations is one of the many manifestations of unconscious racial bias in the classroom.
These kinds of micro-inequities – small, everyday injustices that go unnoticed by victim and perpetrator – play out thousands of times over the course of an American school day. Fortunately, recent research has identified a promising, if unexpected, method for resisting implicit bias in the classroom: Mindfulness meditation.
Implicit bias – the automatic, unconscious application of stereotypes onto a person whose outward characteristics align with those of a marginalized group – exhibits itself in a multitude of ways. It shows up as unequal performance expectations for students, or the use of culturally insensitive examples to demonstrate class concepts. Even equity-minded teachers are prone to biased behavior.
In 2014, 51% of students enrolled in American K-12 public schools identified as non-white. This figure is expected to increase to 56% by 2024. Contrast this with a teaching force that is 80% white and we begin to see the urgency for strategies that bridge the racial divide.
Mindfulness is the practice of generating self-awareness through open, intentional concentration on the present moment. Studies on the cultivation of mindfulness have shown that the practice has the potential to both improve mental health and prevent unconscious bias in its practitioners. The non-judgmental examination of thought helps prevent unintentional stereotyping, which allows practitioners to question the narratives they ascribe to others and instead react to situations with intention and benevolent objectivity.
Engaging in mindfulness has already proven effective in the healthcare sector, where clinician care disparities based on race, religion, socioeconomic status and gender are extensively documented. Diana Burgess, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, studied the outcomes of doctors enrolled in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs. Clinicians participating in such programs displayed a greater openness to interacting with diverse patients, improved recognition and self-regulation of biased thoughts, and lowered levels of stress, stress being a contributing factor to unconscious behaviors. This translated to greater empathy and compassion for patients belonging to disparaged groups and improved individualized, patient-centric communication.
The healthcare and education sectors share some common characteristics. Both serve racially, culturally and economically diverse populations. Furthermore, practitioners often operate in high-stress working conditions, which is known to adversely affect decision making. This makes education fertile ground for further mindfulness experimentation.
In order to mitigate implicit bias in our schools, we must raise teacher and administrator awareness to the existence of their unconscious attitudes before they interfere with student trajectories. But how does increased consciousness translate to action in the classroom? While researchers continue to debate the particulars of mindfulness training for teachers, they’ve reached consensus on audience and timing. Pre-service teachers in training make ideal candidates for a bias-fighting mindfulness intervention; they have yet to develop narratives based on experience in the field around what certain groups of children can and cannot achieve. They also maintain an openness to new methods and curriculums.
Racism is a politically delicate topic. It’s difficult to ask teachers to authentically engage in conversation about race, let alone become aware of how their individual actions and behaviors contribute to the perpetuation of racial inequality in schools. However, the absence of critical self-reflection enables old patterns to repeat themselves. An effective mindfulness practice would guide teachers to reflect on their real-life experiences, making it possible to identify specific situations that activate their unconscious racial attitudes. Self-regulatory behavior can begin only once these triggers are known.
Geneva Gay, Professor of Education at the University of Washington, argues that developing critical consciousness in pre-service teachers is of higher priority than mastery of content and technique. She reminds that teaching is “as much a personal performance, a moral endeavor, and a cultural script, as it is a technical craft.” Awakening from the complacency of believing all is well is not only the professionally responsible thing for teachers to do, it’s the ethical thing to do.
There’s the potential that increased self-awareness to one’s role in oppressive systems will elicit strong feelings of anger, sadness or guilt. While these emotions indicate progress, any intervention should have a plan in place to support teachers whose realizations cannot be adequately addressed through mindfulness practice alone.
Despite the risks affiliated with increased awareness of bias, it’s urgent that we act. As the opportunity gap in the United States continues to widen, the onus is on those with the relative power and privilege to enact change to try everything they can to ensure students of all racial makeups have an equal right to education and life-long achievement.
Berila, Beth. Chapter 3: Recognizing and Unlearning Internalized Oppression. Integrating Mindfulness Into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.
Berila, Beth. Chapter 6: Critiques and Challenges of Mindful Anti-Oppression Pedagogy. Integrating Mindfulness Into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education. New York, NY: Routledge, 2016.
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Professor Maisie Gholson interview with Megan Freund, November 20, 2018, Ann Arbor, MI
Subramani, Supriya. “The Moral Significance of Capturing Micro-Inequities in Hospital Settings.” Social Science & Medicine 209 (July 1, 2018): 136–44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.05.036.
Megan Freund is a designer focused on equity and empowerment in education. She has worked in public schools in the United States and France, at tech companies like Uber and Airbnb, and is a graduate candidate in the Master of Integrative Design (MDes) program at the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.