Concerns of a Mother-to-be: Implicit Bias and Low Expectations

By: Syreeta Tyrell 

March 11, 2015

By the grace of God, I will bring a child into the world soon, and I must admit, I am a little terrified! Like all new parents, I am apprehensive about the normal potential medical and life obstacles I will need to face with my child. But, even more my heart is troubled by the not so normal (by which I mean unnatural) social dynamics my child may have to face.

My husband and I are both black—I was born Jamaican and he Congolese. And, unless all the ultrasounds and blood exams I have done so far have uncharacteristically failed to discern the sex of our child, our baby will be a male. I believe that I should be completely focused on how beautiful it is to be blessed with the opportunity to bring a life into this world, but instead I am preoccupied with the fact that I am having a black baby boy. There is nothing normal about bringing a child into this world and having the hybrid of its race and gender being a paramount concern, but I understand that it is perhaps the biggest obstacle my child may have to deal with.

While I am fortunate that like I, my child will be less likely to face overt racism, such as being denied a seat at a restaurant table, or later on being denied the right to vote because of the color of his skin, I remain disturbed by what I know about the prevalence and influence of implicit biases in our society.

Mind science discoveries about implicit bias—automatic associations of stereotypes or attitudes about particular groups—explains the socially constructed neurological realities that often influences and reinforces unevenness in the treatment of and outcomes for particular groups in our society. Scientists studying mind science have determined that only about 10 percent of discrimination can be explained by the conscious mind [1].  This is because the unconscious thoughts of even those who consider themselves non-racists are consistently contradicted by their unconscious feelings and mental processes. Implicit biases confirms that race and gender matters—implicit biases create and associate positive perceptions with certain races (disproportionately white) and negative perceptions and associations with other races (disproportionately black). The schemas and filters that create these biases are derivatives of the society and culture in which we live.

I was discontented upon realizing that the different situatedness of what I consider my formative years gave me an advantage that my son will not have. I grew up in Jamaica—one of the most consciously black countries I know. I grew up being taught to take pride in the color of my skin. My understanding of my heritage, which I had the privilege of being educated about in school, was of one built on people who displayed the mental power and persistence to rise above and move beyond their oppressive environments. I grew up being taught by black teachers who expected me to be the best, and most of my elected leaders looked like me. I grew up knowing that the athletes and musicians from “my little island” was among the best in the world.

Thus, by the time I immigrated to the U.S.—at age 11—my “likkle but wi tallawah” (means we are small, but strong-willed to achieve anything we set our minds to) identity was solidly intact. At that time, I instilled in myself the idea that because I was Jamaican I would not be limited by the lower expectations of the new social and cultural dynamics that shaped race relations in the United States. In high school, I watched as teachers overlooked many of their black and Latino students. I can recall at least two instances in which my teachers appeared amazed or baffled by the fact that I was one of the higher achieving students in their class.

Unfortunately, reminders of the continued low expectations of black students—reinforced by biases—in schools have been all too recent. For example, in October of 2012, the Florida State Board of Education passed a plan setting different racially stratified math and reading competency expectations for its students to reach by 2018. The targeted (or expected) competency levels were significantly lower for black students in both subjects.

Across the country, in addition to facing lower academic expectations (expectations that are often internalized in the form of stereotype threat), black children, particularly black boys, face far more severe discipline than their counterparts of other races, [2]. Black students are also largely under the tutelage of teachers who lack the cultural competence to understand them as individuals and not as a color. Additionally, black students in the U.S. are limited in the education they receive about their history. The narrative of black students in most schools is still confined to Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is rarely, if ever, a black middle or high school student will be sitting in a science class that incorporates the discoveries of black doctors, scientists, or engineers, who have contributed to the advancement of science, medicine, and technology in this country and throughout the world.

I recognize that implicit bias matters in terms of the potential that teachers and others may see in my child and aim to nurture. And beyond school, implicit bias matters in terms of the value that some may attach to his life. So, aside from fine-tuning my knowledge of implicit bias and finding ways to address it (and I urge others to do the same), I find myself attempting to dissect how I will prepare my son to respond to the low expectations and other limitations that may confront him as a result of bias. For now, all I know is that I will work to ensure that the expectations for my son will begin in our home. My duty as his parent will be to help him develop the identity, abilities, talents, skills, and characteristics to respond to the lower expectations of the world with great fortitude, pride, and belief in himself.

[1] powell, john a. (2013). Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization Can Move Us Toward Social and Personal Healing, Univ. of Ark. Clinton School of Pub. Serv. & Center on Community Philanthropy, 32-43, 39; http://clintonschool.uasys.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Clinton-School...

[2] Kirwan Institute Issue Brief (Feb., 2014): Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline: Implicit Bias is Heavily Implicated; http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/racial-disproportionality-in-school-disci...

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