Claude M. Steele, the prominent social psychologist, writes in his influential book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us that “the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation.” 

Steele explains that the act of trying to disprove a stereotype “gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation, or in addition to trying to perform well in a workplace like the women in the high-tech firms, you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group. You are multitasking, and because the stakes involved are high — survival and success versus failure in an area that is important to you — this multitasking is stressful and distracting.” 

For local school officials and education experts who have devoted good chunks of their lives to mitigating the implicit biases that contribute to classroom stereotyping, the act of slaying ghosts is not a task that ought to be assigned to students. 

As Steele argues, “this is not an argument against trying hard.” So the conventional wisdom of students trying “twice as hard” — comic book-hero-like — despite the stress of dealing with stereotypes should be tossed out of the classroom window. 

“The focus here, instead, is on what has to be gotten out of the way to make these playing fields mere level,” Steele writes. “People experiencing stereotype threat are already trying hard. They’re identified with their performance. They have motivation. It’s the extra ghost slaying that is in their way.” 

Barb Hickey, a River Forest District 90 school board member, has undergone racial bias training and has read Steele’s book. In fact, the entire D90 school board has over the last several years been through ongoing racial bias training sessions, as have D90’s teachers and faculty. 

The great leap, local educators involved with racial bias work say, is getting from racial bias as theory to what racial bias looks like in reality. 

Hickey said that D90’s racial bias training, which is facilitated by the National Equity Project — a California-based organization that offers coaching and consulting on implicit bias for school districts across the country — taught her a deep truth about how bias expresses itself in reality. 

“Some of the NEP training really makes you recognize that bias is expressed in small ways that are often much more significant to the person on the receiving end than the person on the giving end ever appreciates,” Hickey said. 

“Disrespect is not necessarily intentional, but it certainly comes across to the person on the receiving end and I think our teachers have responded to a lot of that,” she added. “They recognize that the small things they do in their classrooms — the small, day-to-day ways they talk to their kids — this is what bias is in the real world.” 

Gina Harris, an elementary school teacher who has facilitated racial bias training in her role as a board member for the Illinois Education Association, said that the path to that realization — from learning about bias as a concept to understanding its real-world implications — is not an instant process. 

“It’s not an Aha!, light bulb moment for most people,” she said. “Just like how we teach math, we build out a concept, start with the small pieces and add to them so that eventually you know how to master the equation. That’s kind of similar to how we approach unconscious bias and racial education.” 

Harris, a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School and a District 200 school board candidate in this week’s election, said that her training in unconscious bias “is very experiential” — not just theoretical. 

“I use a lot of video clips, because you’re practicing experiences,” she said. “You do this over time until people start to see, ‘Oh, wow! I noticed something when I was out in the world that I wasn’t aware of before.’ People begin to see where their own stuff is coming from, because they move through the process slowly over the course of time.” 

District 90 board member Calvin Davis said that he’s witnessed some of those realizations firsthand. 

“I’ve heard some of the teachers say, ‘I didn’t realize I was doing this or that,'” he said, adding that the NEP training “has really taken hold and a lot of teachers are accepting the fact that they may have a natural bias and they’re slowly overcoming it.” 

District 90 board member Rich Moore said that “the most striking thing” about the NEP training “was that teachers were very amenable to the training and ongoing professional development and they wanted practical examples of it.” 

Those practical examples, Moore said, were complemented by lessons in American history that are often glossed over, or totally omitted, in most classrooms. For instance, the training includes a lesson on racially restrictive housing covenants. 

Once in place, the collective understanding of unconscious bias permeates beyond a racial context and can benefit students suffering from a range of disadvantages, the D90 board members said. 

Davis said that the district has even changed some practices that might stigmatize children receiving free or reduced lunches. Hickey said that district teachers have even started to pay attention to how subtle classroom practices might contribute to undue stereotype-related stress for some students, such as “telling boys and girls to line up on different sides of the room.” 

Hickey, Davis and Moore were all candidates for reelection to the D90 school board in this week’s election.

For Harris, the thing for educators to realize is that the act of slaying ghosts, in addition to being their responsibility, is that the work is hard and it’s personal.

“This is internalized work,” she said. “You have to take it in and chew on it. It takes some doing. This can’t be done with just one-off training.”

Sidebar: A Glossary of terms

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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