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Column: When we know our unconscious biases, we can work to limit them
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

We all have unconscious biases.

That was one of the main points during a training session titled “Confronting Unconscious Bias” that was presented this week by United Way of Hall County and other local partners to a group of educators.

I sat in on the three-hour training Nov. 10 at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus. 

If you’re thinking this is about race — that’s only part of it. The training addressed race, gender, language and more and was targeted to educators and helping them better serve their students.

It wasn’t about blame or guilt but awareness that we are shaped by the world in which we live, including societal factors such as our income levels and neighborhoods, the media and advertising we have consumed over a lifetime and our language and culture. 

These unconscious biases can actually be something we more consciously disagree with, but in a dangerous situation, the portion of our brain that controls our fight, flight or freeze response doesn’t have time for conscious thinking.

It’s not our fault. And again, we all have them, no matter our race, gender, etc.

Maybe you’ve heard of the “doll tests.”

A young, Black child is presented with dolls, two Black ones and two White ones.

Which one is pretty? Which one is bad? Which one do you want to play with?

The experiments conducted in the 1930s and 1940s were later used in arguments in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that led to the desegregation of schools.

A majority of the Black children preferred the White dolls and ascribed positive characteristics to them.

The argument swayed U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren who wrote in the Court's opinion that the segregation of Black children gave them "a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.”

Some have recreated the tests, and biases toward lighter skin still appear, for example in a pilot study done for CNN, White children showed a bias toward lighter skin and Black children did, too, though at lesser rates.

The jury is out on whether training can lead to any real behavioral change in regard to unconscious biases, according to an article in Scientific American

Still, I found the training enlightening. Words were flashed on the screen and we were asked to think about whether our response was negative, positive or neutral. 

Disability.

English learner.

We had thoughtful conversations on our responses and how that could affect our behavior. We also discussed real-life local examples of changes made in our schools after leaders were made conscious about how some unconscious biases may have negatively influenced education.

On a larger scale, these kinds of unconscious biases may be to blame for things such as the underrepresentation of minorities in school gifted programs. A research report cited on the website of the National Association for Gifted Children showed that universally screening for giftedness rather than hand-picking students to test for the program produced a 180% increase in how many poor students (those qualifying for subsidized meals) were gifted, a 130% increase among Latinos and an 80% increase among Black students. 

Even if unconscious bias training can’t change those biases, it seems like when we become aware of their impacts, there may be a few things we can do to limit them. 


Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident. 

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