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Understanding 'Implicit Bias'

Six months ago, most of the middle schoolers in the student club F-STAND (Foote Students Together Against Negativity and Discrimination) had never heard the term 'implicit bias.'

Last week, those same students led thought-provoking presentations and discussions with middle school advisory groups about the unintended biases that can affect how we see and treat others.

F-STAND students have been learning about implicit bias for months with the help of the New York Times video series "Who, Me? Biased" and their faculty advisors: Kossoth Bradford, Megan Williams and Carol Maoz.

Kossouth says F-STAND advisors stressed four points to the students about the topic:

  1. We all have implicit bias. The brain uses mental shortcuts to make decisions and process all the information bombarding us at any given moment.
  2. It doesn't mean you're racist or a bad person.
  3. Try to be aware of them when they occur.
  4. Think of people, experiences that counter the stereotype when you notice your implicit bias.

"The students themselves asked if they could share what they'd learned with their peers in Middle School," says Kossouth. "They wanted their peers to learn about it earlier than they did."

Over the last two weeks, pairs of F-STAND students, along with members of the Faculty Diversity & Inclusion Committee, visited Middle School advisory groups to present the New York Times video "Check Our Bias to Wreck Our Bias" and to share a group word-association activity.That followed the showing of another Times video, "Peanut Butter and Jelly and Racism", at a Middle School morning meeting.

After showing and discussing the video, the middle schoolers were given a piece of paper with four things written on it: nurse, police officer, black man, head of school. Next to each, the students were instructed to write the first words that came to mind. Those anonymous answers were then read aloud to further the discussion.

"I think the biggest takeaway for the kids was that we all do it," says Kossouth. "They felt like that was so powerful to recognize. It made them rethink assumptions they have about others or even themselves."

On May 7, F-STAND members debriefed on the implicit bias activity during the club's weekly lunchtime meeting in the Harkness Room. "Seeing other students' reactions helped us learn more about implicit bias and realize that other people are thinking the same thing you are," said one student. "It makes you realize you are not alone."

Another student said the activity helped break some long-standing misperceptions. "It made us think twice about things. I shared this example with younger students, that for most of my life, I thought nurse meant female doctor. So when people asked 'can nurses be male?', I used to say no."

All the F-STAND students agreed on one thing: that addressing implicit bias should happen early and often. "I think we should do something like this every year, so they're not forgetting it," said a ninth grader.

In fact, Lower School grades are addressing implicit bias in individual, age-appropriate ways—though without necessarily using the term. Cara Hames' first graders have done work around first impressions to get the children to pay attention to those first "automatic" thoughts that pop into their heads.

"This ties in to stereotypes in that we very often see something—a boy with long hair or a child with one leg—and our brain does the work for us to say something's 'wrong' because it doesn't fit into the category of 'boy' or 'child,'" says Cara. "We've explained how our brains categorize information and it is a helpful and efficient system until it leads to stereotypes and bias. We are working on not allowing our brains to trick us."

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