Equity Work Needs Bias

Equity work needs bias. It just needs a new kind.

The notion that we must eliminate bias has paved every path that we walk as educators. As a community, we have spent significant emotional and financial resources attending to and trying to rid ourselves of bias. There is the Implicit Bias Test; there are anti-bias trainings. We reflect, journal, discuss, agonize about how not to be biased.

This anti-bias movement isn’t wrong. But it isn’t entirely right, either. Equity work needs bias. It just needs a different kind.

We think of bias as exclusion, bigotry, persecution — and it can be. But inherently, bias is simply a directional current. If we eliminated bias entirely, we would eliminate that current. Those at the top would remain at the top. Those who are excluded would stay on the margin. And the pain, suffering, and marginalization that exist as a result would continue to be our norm.

The biases currently at work in our culture — biases like white supremacy, racism, classism, and sexism — are powerful, and our country has a 400-year legacy of working, connecting, and simply being in an environment where they are paramount. They guide our habits and traditions, and our habits and traditions design our social conventions and relationships.

Bias is a force, and it is just as real and powerful as the forces Isaac Newton addressed in his third law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction). Movement requires not only force, not only opposite force, but an opposite force that is greater than the existing force. In the work of justice, especially in our schools, we need a responsive force that is so great and in such strong opposition that it changes all experiences, and especially the experience of the most marginalized and excluded.

One set of biases have created the world we experience in and out of schools. To create a new one, we need a new set of biases.

We need a new bias to inclusion.
Our culture is biased toward exclusion. The most exclusive is the most desirable; in fact, we think that if everyone has something, it’s inherently worth less. But what if what makes something special is the fact that everyone has it? What could be if we valued the experiences and opportunities that included all instead of a few?

Our bias toward exclusion creates distance, and distance makes us tolerant to suffering. Another person’s struggle is theirs, not ours. But with a new bias to inclusion, the suffering of others transcends the boundaries of place, space, and group membership. It impacts us even when it is not our direct experience. We accept that we are all in the same story. A bias to inclusion helps us understand the impact of our actions on the historically marginalized; it helps us recognize suffering in action, assess our tolerance, and explore the impact to our collective humanity. A bias to inclusion creates space to employ our gifts, privilege, and power to interrupt suffering, oppression, and harm when we see it.

We need a new bias to reunion.
Our culture is biased toward separation. In school, we are taught to distinguish, atomize, differentiate, and segregate — not just people, but also objects and ideas. We have created taxonomies and frameworks to categorize these differences, even developing a fallacious (and racist) branch of science that distinguished intelligence based on skull capacity. The notion that races are biologically distinct is a commonly held perspective and belief. This belief is resilient, notwithstanding proven evidence that race is not grounded genetics. School segregation is increasing and becoming the practice of the land even when the law of the land declared separate and equal unjust and unconstitutional.

Reunion starts with the self. Are the mind, body, and spirit in sync? Is the mind healthy and strong enough to filter what the body sees, hears, and says through a lens of love, rather than fear? Are the spirit and will strong enough to challenge the fears of the mind?

In our communities, what if we spent as much time considering our similarities as we do our differences? What if we spent more spent time reuniting ourselves and reuniting with each other? What if we were united and close enough to celebrate and stay curious about what makes us special?

Reuniting with ourselves and with those around us is the ticket into an economy of grace, where favor and forgiveness are currency. We extend it to each other without any accounting on our personal ledgers. We accept it from each other simply as humans in relationships, regardless of our socioeconomic or cultural position. This is the second bias that can correct our distorted relationships in ourselves and with others.

We need a new bias to the bottom.
Our culture is biased toward those at the top of the social hierarchy. The hierarchy of white supremacy and racism favors whiteness. The hierarchy of capitalism and classism favors material wealth. The hierarchy of the patriarchy favors maleness. And as long as our biases favor those at the top, we will exclude those at the bottom and continue to perpetuate our systemic disconnection.

If we adopt a bias toward the bottom, we create opportunities for the marginalized and excluded to participate in the design of organizations and social structures. We value their experience as expertise, and those at the top recognize their faults and blind spots. We acknowledge that a lack of experiential diversity creates a dangerous myopia, and we seek difference and discomfort as our best teachers. We become proximate to the suffering of the excluded and oppressed, understand our role in their suffering, and then do something about it.

Creating a new world is the penultimate goal of equity work. Changing ourselves is the ultimate goal. Bias has a place in this redesign — but only new ones.