Deconstructing Hidden Beliefs and Implicit Bias

implicit bias

When I was in elementary school my mother always made me lunch to take to school in a brown paper bag. While all the other kids were on the lunch line getting chicken patties and pizza, I had homemade tuna or turkey sandwiches with a side of carrots and sometimes a small baked sweet potato—yes… you read that right… a baked potato… I was a weird kid. My mom even packed in a little note sometimes too, reminding me to have a great day. In looking around the cafeteria at other people’s lunches I noticed many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (which was something I never understood as a kid), lots of cookies, and I didn’t see any “have a good day” notes. I remember thinking, “Where was the protein? Why so much sugar? Didn’t their mom love them?”

At the ages 0-8 we see the world as if it’s through a video camera recording everything in our brains and making meaning of it. Meaning is particularly important here because developmentally, everything at that age is experienced in relation to self. In other words, your brain is always subconsciously asking, “What does this mean about me?” As we grow up, the lens in which we see the world is heavily tinted with what we’ve experienced during our earliest years which in turn influences our thoughts and actions. So yes, I have to admit, until I was an adult, I thought that kids who brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school for lunch had parents that didn’t love them. I laughed out loud at this realization when the thought occurred to me when I was, in fact, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my own two children for school without notes because it was easy, and PBJ’s are delicious (and yes, I love my children very much).

But this is all good news! Your brain is AMAZING! Our “meaning-maker” helps us develop a sense of self! And, among many other incredible things, our brains are so efficient that it constantly takes large amounts of information and simplifies it, creating mental shortcuts. Imagine if we had to process all of the stimuli we experience all of the time—it’s exhausting just thinking about it. Your brain is FANTASTIC at its job, but it really doesn’t care if these shortcuts aren’t actually serving you. In simplifying information, there are sometimes flaws: dots are connected and stories are weaved that don’t necessarily reflect reality… yikes! In the words of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor speaking about her own awakening to the inner workings of her own brain in her book, My Stroke of Insight, A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, “​​…there was both freedom and challenge for me in recognizing that our perception of the external world, and our relationship to it, is a product of our neurological circuitry. For all those years of my life, I really had been a figment of my own imagination!” 

So why does this matter for teachers and how can we work with the amazing biology of our brain? Well, at the risk of sounding cliche, you don’t see the world as it is; you see it as YOU are… which is your implicit bias. The trick is to determine the difference between what’s true for you and what is actually universal Truth. Most of the time what’s “true” for you is really just a reflection of you and your past lived experiences. Imagine implicit bias as a pair of invisible glasses; it’s your perspective. The Truth is that there are always more than two sides to every story—I’d argue there are as many sides to the story as there are people who have experienced the story! As a teacher this is super important to understand because of the great responsibility you have when you stand in the front of the room of young, impressionable students. Your bias will get in the way simply because you are you and you are not them. You must be aware and accept that you have implicit bias in the first place, and then understand how to respond when something challenges that bias (which will also definitely happen). Here are some ways to do that:

Mindfulness & Self-Awareness

Mindfulness is how we pay attention to some things and not to others. It’s about tuning into yourself and checking in with what you are experiencing in the moment as it is happening. When an implicit bias is challenged, there might be a physiological stress response that affects your nervous system. For example, you might sweat, your heart rate might increase, or you may even feel lightheaded. Breathing is one of the best ways to practice mindfulness and return your nervous system back into a state of calm. A box breath is a great tool to lock into a place of ease: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4, exhale for 4 and then hold for 4. It’s helpful to repeat that pattern three times so your nervous system can relax. When you are mindful, you become present and can be self-aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and what your body is responding to. Then, you can move on to getting curious about what you are noticing.

Noticing & Curiosity

If a student or colleague confronts you about a potential bias, you can either react or respond. Reaction usually involves your ego and a connection to what this interaction means about YOU (remember that sneaky meaning-maker?). You might be thinking, “If I’m wrong about this, then what does this mean about me?” But what would happen if you set your ego aside and actually listened? What if you took off your invisible implicit bias glasses for just a minute to hear another perspective. Then, being mindful and self-aware, become an objective observer of yourself. Instead of judgement, just notice. Ask yourself: How do I feel? What thoughts are causing me to feel this way? Is this thought that I am thinking true for me, or is it a universal Truth? Judgement and curiosity cannot exist in the same space so start to replace those judgy feelings with a sense of exploration and start to ask those questions. Only then can you be open to changing the prescription on those implicit bias lenses.

Grace & Kindness 

Here’s the thing… you’re not perfect. But don’t worry, because nobody is. When you meet the world with an open mind and open heart, your ego takes a back seat and you get to learn. We are all always learning, and that’s pretty cool! When you take a misstep, put your foot in your mouth, or blunder in front of your class, meet yourself (and others) with kindness. When we know better, we do better, so let’s extend grace to yourself and others with an intention of learning… and perhaps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

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