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Some teachers, despite their best efforts, bring their own biases into the classroom. And their beliefs can impact how they interact with students and their families in a major way.
Racial bias in education is a common experience — and it shouldn’t be. In this episode, we address a pressing issue with guest Afrika Afeni Mills, MEd. Listen as Afrika explains:
How racial bias can impact parents and schools
How teachers and schools can promote equity in education
Steps students and parents can take to address racial bias
Afrika’s TED-Ed Talk: 4 ways to have healthy conversations about race
Understood’s article: How to make sure families of color are heard by the school
Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3.
What's up, listeners? Welcome back to another fantastic episode. On today's show, we're going to talk about a really pressing issue that affects our educational system. The issue is racial bias in teachers. Honestly, it's such a common experience for so many of us, so many families of color, and we share this experience. Yet we don't talk about it as much publicly. That feeling of not being welcome, that feeling of not feeling like you could be heard. The feeling where sometimes teachers aren't really aware of the biases that they're bringing to the table and how those biases might be impacting or affecting everybody that they interact with, but especially the students and the families that they deal with.
So, I didn't just want to talk about it by myself, although I could. We brought in another expert, and today this expert is really exciting to be here. I'm just hyped that she's here. So, we brought Afrika Afeni Mills, MEd. She is an Understood expert and author, and the CEO of Continental Drift LLC. She's also an adjunct professor at Boston College's Lynch School of Education. Official, please welcome Afrika to the show. What's up, Afrika? Welcome.
Afrika: So good to be here. I've been looking forward to it.
Julian: So, first thing that we always start out with is it's just a way for us to chitchat a little bit. And I always ask people at this point right now, in this moment, what's giving you life, Afrika or Professor Mills? What is giving you life?
Afrika: What is giving me life? I really, so, recently I had the wonderful experience of being the keynote speaker for Boston Public School's New Educator Institute, and there were about 400 new teachers there. And really being able to connect with them to see their excitement. It really is giving me hope and giving me life because honestly, like just to be for real, I'm seeing, especially from an educator's perspective, the exhaustion that so many educators have experienced, and rightly so. Probably I feel like even before COVID, it was really very hard. It's been hard to be a teacher for a long time. And so the fact that there's like 400 new teachers ready to go and on fire about this topic was really encouraging for me. Yeah.
Julian: I'm an assistant principal, so I get to be part of the hiring process and I get to interact with new-to-teaching teachers and...
Julian: ...the energy that they come in with, there's nothing like it, right? There's nothing like it. So I, love to hear that 400 got to hear your words of wisdom.
Julian: So. All right, all right. Before we get started, I think it's really important for our listeners to define what is racial bias and what it can look like. So, Afrika, can you define what it is and what are some of the factors that may contribute to this type of behavior?
Afrika: Yeah, so racial bias, it really you know, it begins with the fact that we've all been racialized and put into these racial categories. I think it's important to be able to note that race was something that was created, right? It was created to subjugate. And so all of us have been placed into these categories that don't really have biological significance, but create a group of people who are considered superior or deserving to have access to power and the things that lead to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And then there are others of us who were not included in that group intentionally and then thinking about that, that because that was created then from that system, from that construct comes these preconceived notions or ill formed ideas or assumptions. And then there are assumptions that are made and then decisions that are made based on those assumptions.
And so, we basically have a whole bunch of folks who are telling us things about groups of people who are not part of that group. And there is a lot of times the beliefs are not complimentary, they're not celebratory, they're not honoring of those groups of people for the most part. And so, then it becomes a self-perpetuating system of believing false ideas about certain groups of people and then denying access and denying opportunity to those groups of people.
Julian: I think that was very succinct and I think the listeners can really understand, you know, the idea of this misinformation that clouds our heads and our view of other groups. It's really important to call out. From your explanation about racial bias, I think the listeners and I are really interested to hear your thoughts on how can racial bias show itself in special education? How might that happen?
Afrika: I think especially because in a lot of ways, let me take it back a little bit to thinking about how we as educators are prepared to be educators. For the most part, we are, even though we go through different education preparation programs, right? They could be a bachelor's program, it could be master's, it could be a teacher residency program that gives us, you know, some preparation that's different than like years of study. We have that type of opportunity and then we go through licensure and all of those things and additional studies that is supposed to qualify us to be people who can facilitate healthy learning communities. One of the main problems, however, is that just like when it comes to parenting without intentional effort, I think we tend to teach in the way we were taught.
And so, when we think about even like a new teacher coming into the classroom, even if they've had like methods courses and teachings to like meeting the needs of all learners and thinking about the social context of education and all the things that we tend to learn in our prep programs, we still have that script that is running and is like our operating system that's running in the background that really is composed of what we experience in our case as well to experience, in our own experiences. I would dare to say that most of us have not experienced a learning environment or a learning community that was considerate, really, truly of students who all learn in different ways.
And so, I can speak on that from my even my own experience as a classroom teacher. I was so excited. I was amazing, like so excited to become a teacher. But when I, like when I got my list of students and I saw that certain students were, it indicated that they had learning disabilities immediately. I was like, "I'm not sure that I know what to do." Right? And so, in the absence of knowing what to do, you kind of default to what you know, which is not inclusive, right?
And then on top of that, because I'm someone who loves learning, who loves professional development, there were not a lot of opportunities for me unless I were to go back to school for another degree program, which was not necessarily something I could do at the time to really learn. What did it mean to genuinely meet the needs of all learners? And if that's the story for a lot of educators, then yes, we're going to create exclusive classroom communities, even though we don't have that intention. There's a difference between intent and impact, right? And so, I think that there's a lot of that where we have in our minds what ideally would be the type of classroom that's considerate of all learners, but being able to bring that into being and to sustain it, that's something that's challenging without support.
Julian: Why does racial bias and the experience of that impact a student's mental health and their performance in school?
Afrika: Right. So, when we think about a classroom teacher, say, the beginning of the school year, they have started out the year with whatever, it was students in their classroom while you're working with multiple students, depending on the level, I believe that most people, like I said before, begin with good intentions. But if you have — which many of us do have a racial script playing in the background of your mind — it may lead you to invite certain students into certain learning experiences and deny other students those same experiences. It may cause you to be way more punitive with some students than you would be with other students. It may even in the way that students' special education needs are met, be very segregating, right? Instead of it being where the students get to remain part of the learning community, they are in a lot of ways looked at as set to the side or otherized, right?
And so, when we think about that, if a teacher is giving you the impression, whether explicitly or implicitly, by, you know, whether you're called on or not, whether you are invited to go on certain field trips, whether you know, like the type of assignments that you're given to complete, the type of feedback that you may receive about the content that you're learning, the impact that it has, I think, on the students who are not being treated that way or the students who are receiving access is they start to believe that they are better than other students and to treat them not as colleagues or as school learners in a learning community, but as like those other kids, right? Those are the kids who get pulled out. Those are the kids who in the back of the room, right? Those are the kids who, they are not on the same level as us.
Julian: And especially when you're younger, your entire world is built around adults' interaction and their expectations of you. And if their expectations are based in racial bias, then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. And then students start to believe that they are, like you said, less than, they can't, they won't. And then it just spirals into an entire educational experience that could have been changed if the racial bias was not present.
Listeners, I think we have a pretty good idea of what racial bias is and how it might manifest itself in the experience of students. And in some cases, why it happens with so many teachers. So, let's think about how do we identify it? How do we narrow it down so we know it's happening? You know, I imagine there's many instances where students may feel like a teacher might be mistreating them. And in some cases, that's not always the case. We've been teaching long enough. We know that sometimes things pop in, a kid said, and it might not be actually what's happening. "So-and-so doesn't like me, Miss Afrika doesn't like me. And she's calling on Johnny way more than she's calling on me. She must be racist." And so, we have to be clear sometimes that just because they're not getting called on doesn't necessarily mean that it is racial bias. Talk to us about that.
Afrika: Yeah, I actually have a really, to me, it's funny because I know my son, like it's a story from my own parenting experience. So, my son, he is now 20 years old. He's a junior at Boston College. He's doing really well. When he was in, I believe it was in the fourth grade, like, definitely at an upper elementary grade, he came home and was like, "Mommy, my teacher is not calling on me." He was like, I don't remember if he specifically said, I think that she's racist, but for me, because we navigate racial trauma, that was one thing that came to mind for me, right? Is that my son is saying that he's being treated unfairly by his teacher and now I'm triggered, right?
Because I'm like, "I know how this can be for a Black boy in a, you know, in school." I don't want to like, take this lightly. However, because I know my son, I was like, "OK, let's pay some close attention to this." So I said, "Without making a big deal about it, I want you when you go to school tomorrow, I want you to just like, take some tally marks of how often you are being called on." And so, that he did that. He went to school, he came back. He was like, "See?" And he said, "I raised my hand this many times, and she only called me this many times." And I was looking at the tally marks, they were pretty substantial. Some I'm like "Kai, it looks like you got called on like four or five times in this period of time." So, what he actually meant was that every time he raised his hand, he wasn't being called on. And so, I was like, "Oh, that's different." And then I could have a different conversation with him.
It's good that you want to participate, but other students need to participate as well. So, just because you're not going to be called on every time that you want to, and that's OK. But I also didn't want to discount how he might be feeling because, just because those receipts that he collected that day to show that he actually wasn't experiencing what he may have thought, like unfairness in his mind, it doesn't mean there's something else in the classroom that he was experiencing wasn't happening the way that it should. So. I'm like, in that instance, that wasn't something that was a concern for me, but I was paying attention to other things. Yeah.
Julian: I love that example. And I think all of our parenting adults listening, that's something that you can take from that. Listen to your kids, create the environment where they can come to you for something that they're feeling. And what I heard is that you didn't discount what he was feeling. You didn't try to explain it away. You didn't try to say yes or no. You told him, "Here, try this, and then we could talk about it." And I think when it comes to anything related to feelings around race, it's really important not to immediately jump to conclusions. And so, here's the flip side of this. So let's say, it actually is happening. Let's say that a teacher is actually mistreating a student. What could that look like? Give us a couple of concrete examples of what specific racial bias experiences could look like in a classroom, so our parenting adults know this is what you might see.
Afrika: Yeah. And I think sometimes it can be a bit nuanced. Sometimes it's very explicit, right? Like, you have students of color are being treated in X way and other students are having a different experience. The other piece, too, is that — and this is me being like really vulnerable about my own experience as a classroom teacher — I really was, was like, "I want to be esteemed well by my principal. I want when my principal comes past my classroom or does an unannounced observation, I want my classroom to be like looking good. I want the kids to be attentive." I want them to be, you know, basically what I wanted was conformity. Now I've learned it's not really necessarily a healthy a healthy environment.
And so, a lot of times I was noticing that I was doing a lot of like punishment. I'm like, "OK, well, y'all are talking, so I'm going to put recess on the board and I'm going to cross out a letter. And then once they're all gone, everybody's missing recess," right? Or, you know, or saying, I don't think I got so much into using behavior charts, but it was something that a lot of my colleagues were using and things like that. And the reason why I bring those up, even though they may not seem racially specific, is that one of the things I've learned in my journey as a teacher developer is that most of those ways of being and treating students and thinking of management in schools where there are larger percentages of kids of color, it's very different than other environment where there are not a majority of kids of color, where they are mostly white students.
And for example, like if you think about in some spaces, like some of the schools I was in, it was like, you can't go to the bathroom unless somebody, you know, unless you have a pass. Or you could just be a human being and go when you need to, right? Because that's what your body needs. Or you can't wear a hoodie or you can't wear your hair in a certain style or you can't wear certain clothing or in the classroom, there's a variety of a list of don't do, right? And there where students were in a lot of ways being punished because they were not following the rules. And for me, that feels a lot like it connects to what we call the school-to-prison pipeline. We're not really talking about like wonder and curiosity and engaging and learning and discussion and critical thinking. We're looking for students to be compliant and to be controlled, and to listen to the teacher as the one in control of the space.
And so, I think it's really important for us — especially if we're working in a community where there are larger numbers of students of color — look at the way we think about classroom management.
Afrika: Yes. Yes
Julian: What is the language that we use? What is our posture? What, are we looking to like, catch students doing something quote-unquote inappropriate? Are we looking for ways to reflect on our own thinking and our own decision making and the way that we engage with students and families? And so, I think in a lot of ways that can show up in ways that may not look racially, explicitly "Oh this is about race," but when we dig underneath it. It's like, "Yeah, we're noticing that students of color are being treated in a much different way in their school communities than white students maybe treated."
So, some of that and then some of it is just very explicit where the curriculum doesn't include content that really reflects different people groups. So, that I don't think people think of that as like racial bias, but it is. And especially nowadays when we're thinking about noticing how things are going in the country around like book bannings and legislation against teaching history as it happened, there's a lot that is happening right now that is feeding racial bias. It's actually not coming against it. It's actually perpetuating it.
Julian: Appreciate it. So, you know, really as a parenting adult or a family member, going back to what Afrika said, it's really important to have conversations with your children. It's really important to bring this up with them and not to say that they're going to experience it, but it's important to create the space where they feel like they can share, even if they do. Let's think about, just like you said, all the things happening with the government and we're not going to go too deep into that. There's a lot of legislative changes. Like legislation is definitely, it's being seen in education more so than in the past. And so, I'm interested to hear and for the listeners especially, are schools required to implement strategies to reduce racial bias and promote equity in education?
Afrika: I think when you look at standards in different states, when you look at the mission and vision statements of a lot of schools and districts, there's a lot of statements about meeting the needs of all learners. Everyone is welcome. We want to make sure that we are a school community and everyone should thrive. If you look at any statement that a school puts out, it is named that this is what people believe and what they say that they espouse, hard stop.
However, when we're starting to look at what's actually happening, not only when it comes to like race-specific content instruction, where there are a number of districts who are actually resisting social-emotional learning in their spaces, which is a way for us to regard one another as human beings and for us to all be able to be together in a space where we feel safe, where we feel we can take risks, where we feel understood and seen, where we can make mistakes and learn from them, where we can be able to notice what might be happening with us inside and why those are really important parts of being able to create and sustain a healthy school community.
And the fact that so many schools are looking at social-emotional learning almost as like a gateway. So, talking about inclusive educational practices and so, they're trying to cut that off. I feel like that is actually an assault on being able to have a safe space for students, for every student to feel safe. And so like, the question you ask is important because it's like, are they required, to me, I feel like morally, yes. However, if there is resistance in a community and a school leader is making decisions based on wanting to not experience that resistance, to not experience pushback, to not experience a lack of funding or a loss of accreditation, right?
There are a lot of things that school leaders are having to face now in bringing that part of the education space to the fore to say like, "Yes, we believe this," and it doesn't really matter — I mean, not to say that people's feelings don't matter, but like we know what's good for kids —we're not going to sacrifice kids because someone is uncomfortable and because they didn't get to learn in this way, and it's unfamiliar to them and they're afraid of change. That's, I really feel like that's a lot of what's happening. And so, it should be what's part of every school community. I believe that it's changing in a way that's not good, in a way that's really destructive. Yeah, it's very destructive.
Julian: And, you know, for our listeners all around the country, you know, we have people in different states, and different states have different experiences, different school districts have different experiences. And so, if you're listening and you're interested to find out, go on the school's website and see what is the mission and what is the vision of the school or the school district. And you may or may not find language around the idea of equity or social-emotional learning or inclusivity, But if it's not present, then that's a conversation point to be brought up with the Board of Education and the governing body of the school.
And so those that are Title One schools, meaning those that receive federal funding, those that receive federal funding are required by law to not discriminate and to not be in an inclusive space. Those are some things that you can look for the mission and the vision on the website, and usually it's pretty prominent on the school's website. But check that out. That's going to tell you a lot about what they think. Let's imagine that a student is experiencing mistreatment from a teacher.
Julian: What immediate steps should parenting adults take to address the issue effectively?
Afrika: I think some of this is like what's developmentally appropriate, right? So, if I'm talking about a kindergartner, a first grader, a second grader, I would not put them in the place of needing to go and necessarily say these things themselves to their teacher. I think that should come directly from the caregiver. But I will say that, especially because a lot of what we're talking about has to do with student like legitimate, legitimate student voice and agency and listening to students and believing them when they tell us that they're experiencing some type of discomfort. And so, I think that as the students get a little bit older, like once they, I would say even third grade and some people might disagree with me, but once they get to be in a place where they are able to articulate how they're feeling or what they're noticing, I would not say to send the child to have that conversation with the teacher on their own.
I think that it's really important for one of two approaches, not to say that those are the only approaches. I would say if the student or the child is feeling comfortable having the conversation with the teacher and the caregiver present, to have the words come from the student themselves and to have the caregiver back them up is really very powerful.
Sometimes because there is such a power dynamic between students and teachers and because a student might be afraid of retribution, or which it breaks my heart to think that I know that happens, right? Where they are sometimes, I mean, it happened in my own experience where I said something and it was something I was uncomfortable about, and then a teacher directly humiliated me in front of a class. So, it doesn't always feel good. But I think to make sure either to support the student with the caregiver there so that the caregiver knows that we are, "This is a learning partnership. My child has noticed this. I want my child if they're comfortable to be able to say, 'here's what I notice, here's how I'm feeling, here's what I want instead.'" And then to have the caregiver back that up.
If the child is not feeling comfortable articulating that, I do still think it is helpful, if possible, if it's not traumatizing for the student to be there and to have the caregiver lead the conversation. But I think it's really important for not like it's not like a "gotcha!" for the teacher or not "OK, like I'm trying to shame you," or anything like that. It's like this is, "I am my child's first teacher, and I know my child. I'm invested in my child's wholeness and wellness and thriving. And whatever is happening in this classroom, I want you to have the opportunity to hear either directly from the child or directly from me that this is happening, that we notice it, and that it needs to change." right? "And to come up with a plan of how it's going to change. And to really have a continued plan of how are we going to keep in touch about this to see that it's changing." Right? To be able to have that conversation.
If things don't change after that, then I think then you need to level it up, right? You need to be able to involve administrators and things like that. Hopefully, it doesn't get to that point. Sometimes it does need to, unfortunately. But I think that really being able to enforce what just like we were talking we are talking about the school's mission and vision statement. So many schools will say like we really believe in family and community engagement or family community partnership. But the way that looks oftentimes is "OK, so when we have conference night, when we have literacy night or math night, or if we have an open house, we want you to come to the school, but we're not really expecting to see you aside from that," right?
Julian: Yeah. I mean, I would say from an administrator view, writing and having written record is always paramount. You know, if your child is coming home and saying certain things that are being experienced, I would make sure to keep some sort of written record somewhere with timestamps so that there's a date attached to when this happens, just so that, you know, if it has to come to something else. You have a written record of this and it's something that you can use. And, you know, inquiring with other people to see, are there other children experiencing similar things? You know, it's really important, like you said, the idea of community. I know my own children's, their classroom, we're friends with a lot of the parents. So, we talk a lot about the teachers.
Sometimes I got to play devil's advocate and say, "Wait, hold up. I'm a teacher too. I'm an educator. Hold up." And that really helps you level set, is this something that's legitimately happening or is this something else that I need to address with my child? All right. So, let's think about students that might be a little older and they also might be experiencing racial bias. What are some ways that we can help them advocate for themselves instead of us jumping into the mix as their families? What can they do in the moment? Can you give us one really good strategy that you know is like tried and true?
Afrika: As much as possible, establish a relationship of your own as a student with your teacher, that like earlier on. So, for example, when I got to college, a lot of people would tell me like, "Oh yeah, go to office hours," or "Spend time with the professor, letting them get to know you and you getting to know them so they're not, you know, you're not just the face in the crowd," right? That actually would be beneficial to begin that earlier. Sometimes it's tough because if you, if the learning community is not engendering.
Like student leadership and students really taking to helping to participate in leading their school community, then it's really incumbent on the students to do that themselves and starting maybe student organizations and things like that. But I would say that try from the beginning to establish relationships with each of your teachers where you can provide that back-and-forth feedback. Sometimes that may not be welcome. So, then I feel like, then I recommend something different. But trying to establish an open communication from the beginning is helpful.
I do think is something that I noticed happened, and I think it was like around the time of the pandemic where there were all these groups of students. I think it was like a Black @ movement, like I saw on Instagram. It was like Black at this school and Black at this school. And they were like, "Here's my story. Here's what's happening to me here. Let's get together. Let's talk about it." I'm just like, I know some teachers felt like they were put on blast and, you know, like they felt like they were being shamed and they're like, "Oh, I didn't know you were feeling this way." So, it's like, "OK, so let's go ahead and let folks know ahead of starting the social media movement," that would be ideal. But then also too is, make your voice known. Like I think even to develop their own student-led groups and if you have a faculty member who is supportive of you, then that could be your advisor. That's ideal.
But to really get together into, like you were saying earlier, to be solution-oriented, I don't want to just get together and complain about a teacher. I want to vision cast and I want to freedom dream and think about what type of school environment I want to have and what type of learning experience I want. And then let's create that and communicate it out and let's move toward that because we know not enough people ask kids what kids know, what type of learning experience they would like to have and how they would like for things, what things are working and what things they would like to be different. So, I think forming more student-led organizations where they are able to bolster one another's voices so they're not isolated no matter what the school. Whether it's in a school where it's mostly kids of color or even if there are less, fewer kids of color, is being able to support one another and say, "This learning community matters to us and we are dedicated to it being healthy, even if we have to say hard things."
Julian: Yeah, I heard she gave us about six different things to do. So, vision cast. I love that. And what did you say, freedom dream? Freedom dream and vision cast.
Afrika: Bettina Love, I got to shout her out because, yeah.
Julian: So, before we go, I would love to know specific resources like websites, books or webcasts, podcasts, videos, YouTube channel, anything that, that you would recommend for guidance on how to manage racial bias in the classroom.
Afrika: I have a TED-Ed Talk that came out this spring called "Four Ways to Have Healthy Conversations about Race." It is, is an eight-minute listen. I think that it could be really helpful in starting the necessary conversations that we must have in order for us to be more racially healthy and to have better racial consciousness development as educators.
One of the most amazing and I think, underutilized resources that I've seen over the past couple of years is the Center for Anti-Racist Education has a framework that was developed and it can be found on ValBrownEdu, Val Brown's website. She hosted the framework there, and it really like, it has a whole framework for moving, you know, like starting out, like looking at our common humanity and then moving from that foundation to really leaning into historical truths and then developing our critical consciousness. It's like a five, there's five components, and it provides so many really great resources for developing that type of environment. I love it. I shouted out whenever I can because it really provides like some self-assessment tools and examples and things that we need to be able to change. We need to be able to see what it can look like. And I think that gives us a really great way to do that.
Julian: All right, Afrika, you gotta make sure you come back, because there's a lot more that we need to talk about. But this is really, really, really been an amazing episode of "The Opportunity Gap." I appreciate you. I appreciate your candidness. I appreciate you sharing personal stories.
Afrika: I agree, thank you.
Julian: You know, I appreciate you taking the time to join us.
Afrika: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Julian: So, listeners, this has been another great episode of "The Opportunity Gap." I want to again thank Afrika for joining us. The conversation is critical. It's critical, and it is something that we can't just let live here on a podcast. If you do listen, please continue this conversation with your children. Continue this conversation with your friends.
But before we go, I have a few resources I'd like to share. I will definitely be linking them in the show notes. First and foremost are Understood's article, the article is entitled "How to make sure families of color are heard by the school." The article is entitled "How to make sure families of color are heard by the school." Your TED Talk, Afrika's TED Talk, "Four Ways to Have Healthy Conversations About Race." TED Talk, "Four Ways to Have Healthy Conversations About Race." And from the Center of Anti-Racist education, ValBrownEdu. There's an amazing framework that you can use to reference. And as always, listeners, the biggest resource you have is your community and your circle. Check in with each other, check in with each other, check in and make sure that you all are fighting that good fight. Until next time. Thank you so much for listening.
"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Cin Pim. Ilana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.