I confess. I play Words with Friends and Puzzly Words. If there is anyone left who does not know what these are, they are digital variations on Scrabble. In the morning, I check my email, read Inside Higher Education and the daily Chronicle of Higher Education summary, and then play a few rounds of these games while I sip my coffee. I have never been much for any board games other than Scrabble (well, I love Banagrams, too), so when these came along they fit my fun criteria nicely.
A few years ago, I noticed something while I was playing. As we all moved from impersonal screen names to our Facebook photos, I could see images of the people I was playing. As it turns out, these digital games had greatly added to the diversity of my game partners. It gave me pause, not just because my own circle of friends is so homogeneous (a worry to be sure), but also because it unearthed a previously un-noticed assumption I had about Scrabble. Invented in Connecticut, in my unconscious mind I saw Scrabble as a white game. It was a startling realization.
I never knew I held that thought. Indeed, it never surfaced until I had contradictory evidence. As I saw my word game partners broadening and becoming wonderfully diverse, this bias rose from my unconscious. I took the time to acknowledge the thought, felt more than a little ashamed of it, and then embraced the change in my point of view. I eagerly look forward to the seeing the diversity of my online partners and the sense of commonality it engenders. This change was relatively easy to make because it was virtual, I could acknowledge the error of my ways privately, and because I care to change the biased assumptions I find buried in my mind.
It was a simple thing to surface this bias. Seeing images of my partners fostered the discovery. As I played this morning I noticed the diversity once again, and it reminded me to ask my colleagues who are busily preparing for the start of the fall semester to look at their course materials. Are they wonderfully diverse? I know you are rushing and making final edits to your syllabi, but can you take a moment to look at your readings, slides, films, and examples and see if you have been inclusive? This simple step could be the start of uncovering all sorts of unconscious biases.
I know I have written about the inclusivity of course materials before, and it does bear repeating, but I would like to acknowledge another piece of the inclusion puzzle today. You see, this morning’s reading of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle was not encouraging when it comes to our ability to create environments that support inclusion. I won’t list all the recent articles, but here’s what is coming through loud and clear: In our efforts to be inclusive, we don’t seem to be successfully creating the space for the reflective process that I went through in the privacy of my home. This missing piece appears to be fostering anger and defensiveness instead of reflection and inclusion.
Selecting course materials that reflect a breadth of cultural experiences and the contributions of the many is an excellent first step in creating an inclusive environment. It can encourage students and faculty to notice assumptions and, perhaps, reflect on biases they did not know they had. This private reflection can be very productive. We know from our attempts to use less gender-specific language (chair instead of chairman, firefighter instead of fireman) that the change in language can make our thinking more inclusive. Including diverse images and authors is likely to have a similar effect, so this is an effort worth making. However, once we start talking about it, well it is no longer a private process. The conversation piece is much more threatening, particularly if the bias we discover is one that deeply offends our sense of self and/or the sensibilities of others in the room.
Yet, the conversations are so important. We must figure out how to have them in ways that are not alienating. We have to understand that while some of us have benefitted from “privilege,” we have not all benefitted equally. Some of us have been so excluded that we don’t even know how to begin. And none of us is without bias. The variation in access to wealth and power and education means conversations about those privileges must be nuanced. Entering discussions with all of this in mind is paramount to creating an environment in which conversations that address bias are about discovery, not accusation.
Now listen, I am not blind to the real structural racism that we are dealing with as a culture. I understand the force with which we need to be seeking real change and asking for nuanced conversation is cold comfort for many. However, as I scan the reports on higher education I am worried that we are skipping a step. As educators, we need to create the space for reflection and the room to breathe as we all come to terms with each new hidden bias we discover.
There will always be hidden biases. Each new bias discovered opens the door to the next one, and that is a good thing. It is, indeed, progress. But discovering them will always be uncomfortable. So we need to get better at this part, the part where we learn together without demeaning anyone. It is hard, but it is an effort worth making.