How a binary view of racism can inhibit productive conversations about race in school settings

By Harvard Graduate School of Education

“Tense,”“draining,” even “hostile” were just a few of the words coauthors Sarah Fiarman and Tracey Benson heard school leaders use to describe experiences initiating conversations about race and bias. In Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism, Benson and Fiarman investigate the challenges school leaders face in these conversations, finding that the mindset and understanding of what it means to be racist contributes to the difficulty.

 

Understand the Binary Mindset

Traditionally, racism is often represented as a binary — you’re either a racist or you’re not. Fiarman and Benson observe in their book that this typically means well-intentioned white educators “spend all their effort ducking and dodging the racist label and they miss opportunities to reduce the effects of racism on their students.” For educators of color, operating within a racist/non-racist binary mindset can inhibit collaboration when they believe some white colleagues are incapable of growth.
As Fiarman and Benson observe, the binary mindset often positions good intentions and biased behavior as mutually exclusive. However, it’s possible to act with good intentions and still perpetuate systemic bias.

“The problem is not whether people in the room can be categorized as racist or nonracist,” they write. “The crux of the problem is that educators act in racially biased ways without realizing it. These actions have an impact on students. If we as educators want our actions to change, we need to be able to talk about our actions objectively.”

The challenge, then, is to adopt a mindset that can work through discomfort and view mistakes as learning opportunities. Benson and Fiarman provide recommendations that leaders can use to help guide open and authentic conversations about bias in their schools.

 

Set the Right Tone

As a leader, the decisions you make in these conversations will frame the discussion for the larger school community and send a strong signal. Fiarman and Benson note that the leader’s job is to call attention to racism and learn how it operates, not to try to absolve themselves or community members from the unintentional yet harmful impact their unconscious bias has on others.

  • Start with yourself. Leaders of all racial backgrounds can question their own biases, making sure to understand common stumbling blocks, before asking staff to do the same. However, unconscious bias is exactly what its name suggests — unconscious. Leave time and space to listen to feedback and reflect. Make an effort to honestly investigate the question: How might my biases be influencing my actions right now?
  • Grant permission to yourself and your staff to be learners. Expect to make mistakes. Know it won’t go right on the first try. But don’t let that deter you — think about what you can learn from that mistake and be prepared to try again
  • Identify a stumbling block and work toward a manageable goal. Maybe you notice naming race in mixed-race settings makes you uncomfortable. With this knowledge, how can you move forward? Maybe you find you could listen more or call out racism more explicitly. What steps can you take to ensure you do so? Or maybe you’ve been feeling stuck. Is the binary mindset limiting your picture of growth?
  • Support staff to understand that racial identity impacts everyone. For years, a “colorblind perspective” has dominated thinking about racism. Increasingly, scholars and leading practitioners are recognizing that it’s necessary to bring race into the conversation and consider the impact race has on experiences in schools and the broader community.
  • Stay in the discomfort. School leaders need to ensure that they are creating conditions for people to learn. Those conditions require “sustained disequilibrium.” In these situations, the focus needs to be on encouragement, rather than reassurance. Benson often used the phrase “I appreciate that we’re both staying in this conversation, even when it’s uncomfortable.”
    • Be aware of the differential impact of this work on staff of color and white staff. For staff of color, anti-racist work often involves an extra burden of explaining racism to white educators who are often simultaneously denying your lived experience. Leaders need to recognize the labor this involves and either compensate it or make sure this burden doesn’t fall on staff of color.
Key Takeaways
  • Frame the work as addressing impact, not intent.
  • Consider how the school community has responded to recent events. Is this the first time you are talking about race? If so, commit to a developmental approach. Deliberately build skills to address racism directly rather than assuming people either get it or they don’t.
 
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