Dismissing bias

Tënä koutou,

People think that being called biased is code for being called racist.  Most people don’t want to be called a racist so they deny bias too.  It’s a mistake because it means we don’t have a real conversation about being human and like favouring like.

Auckland PhD student Hana Turner found that,

teachers’ expectations were highest for Asian students, followed by Pākehā and Pasifika students. “But then much, much lower than that were the Māori students”.

To which the Minster for Education responded by saying it wasn’t “reflective of what most teachers think” and that “most teachers she knew of – worked very hard to help their Maori students to achieve.” (Rnz)

Which is a nice thing for her to say, but tends to dismiss the study’s findings by suggesting it was an unlucky sample of particularly racist maths teachers in Auckland.  Actually, I would be inclined to believe that Hana Turner’s study was true.  Which is shocking only if we maintain the age old rule for white people that kind of boils down to “even talking about race is a bit racist” even though non-white people are fully aware of race most of the time.  So, actually, it is not talking about race that ends up being a bit racist.

Now before we get too hung up on the word racist, let’s start using the word biased.  I am confident that I am not racist, but I am definitely biased, by which I mean that I am a normal human being.  I suppose that it wouldn’t really surprise you to learn that all my friends are white, middle class, straight, and university educated.  Like attracts like.  You feel more comfortable with people who are like you.  If you go into classrooms across New Zealand you will see like sitting with like.  For quite some time this has made me anxious, but now I am wondering if it is ok.  Perhaps the idea that everyone should be happily co-mingling in a big fruit salad of cultures is not only deluded but a bit like assimilation (the fruit salad is, after all, contained in a certain type of European bowl).

Dr Carla Houkamau was good at explaining how unconscious bias works on Radio New Zealand.  When you are meeting with, or working with, people who are different from you it might be that you simply don’t make as much eye contact as you normally would, or that your body language is not as open, and that this contributes to making the conversation awkward, and that you both feel it at a certain level, and that the meeting is maybe shorter than a normal meeting, and the resources offered or the opportunity to get back together again are passed over.  Not so bad if it’s a chance meeting in a bar (although a potential friendship is forfeited), but a lot more serious if it is between a teacher and their students, or a nurse and their patients, or a police officer and their suspects.

Also, let’s not be too hard on ourselves.  Working with people who are unlike you is hard.  I worked in Japan for five years and had many friends in Japan who were Japanese but I am not in touch with any of them.  This has not been just the usual falling off of long distance friendships, but the failure of these cross-cultural relationships to deepen and become anything other than surface friendships that often foundered on cultural differences despite every one’s best intentions.  Cross-cultural relationships are hard if the cultures are far apart.  I made good friends with other teachers in Japan from a range of English speaking countries, and those friendships lasted a lot longer.  So it is in the classroom.  You will see Māori and Pasifika students who are friends and hang out together.  You will see that all the time. Māori students hanging out with Chinese students?  Not so much.

And yes, I know that there are exceptions – the students who seem to flit between groups effortlessly, or the group of friends that could form a mini UN – but I am not talking about exceptions, I am talking about the broad trends that all teachers know are true because they see them everyday.  That’s another way not to have this discussion: present exceptions.  The main way, though, as I said at the start of this post, is to minimise and dismiss any claims that the mainstream culture might be acting in any way that could be seen as racist.

The report about to be released on unconscious bias in education and it’s impacts for Māori  has already been minimised by the PPTA President Angela Roberts:

While there were still significant challenges for Māori students she didn’t believe it was as bad as the latest report suggested.  “I think we’ve moved on a long way from the 90s, we’re not there yet, but we’ve made great improvement to how we engage with our Māori students and I think that the New Zealand evidence actually bares that out.”

I wouldn’t expect anyone who feels that they are on the left to admit that they might be biased against groups that they are often advocating for.  With the greatest respect, as a politically sympathetic citizen of those left wing advocates, I think some good hard self reflection is required.

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