I saw a meme once that read “Bias is the stories we tell before we know the truth.”
This feels true to my life experiences. People have narratives about who they think I am before they ever get to know me. Same goes for my son. They have a preconceived notion about single moms. About mixed race kids. About what they call “broken” homes. It is based in bias. In the stories they write about us, before they know the truth.
These narratives are present everywhere, of course, but they seem to sting the worst when they come from the teachers, mentors, and coaches that fill my son’s life with purpose and drive.
One teacher like this, in particular, seemed to really trigger my son. On the one hand, they cared about him very deeply. They were passionate about the kids, wanted to see them all succeed. On the other hand, the way they motivated my son was skewed by their bias for him. They constantly framed things as “You’re going to fail, unless….” Unless. Unless my son became something different than who he was. The threat of failure couched every care-filled correction or suggestion. It became very shaming. It happened in classroom settings, with friends watching. It happened on the field, with teammates around.
After one particularly painful incident, I felt I had to address it, and so I wrote the teacher a letter to try and help them understand how their bias for our family was affecting us. This was the letter I sent:
I remember when my son first met you and he came home and declared “that teacher is not mean like everyone says; they just care more than anyone else!” You two have had a complicated relationship since the start, but he and I both have always known from that first moment just how much you care. I have never doubted that your heart is in it one hundred percent, and that is what makes writing this letter so hard.
I feel as if you have written a narrative in your head about who my son is and what he needs. You have painted a picture of a poor, needy, “at risk” kid. Someone who needs to be fixed or saved. You are not alone – most everyone in our community has done this. When we lost his father, everyone made assumptions about what happened. And all the narratives that people created were in their head were bad – drugs or jail, immigration issues, outright dead or just a “dead beat” dad. I heard all the rumors. And all of them told a story of a father that had failed his son.
Not one person speculated that his dad had died of cancer or had a massive heart attack from working eighty hours a week. No one speculated he had to go back to Panama to care for his aging parents who could no longer travel. No one imagined a story that painted my son’s father in any kind of positive or caring light. And because of the speculation, my son gets treated different. He is the kid that people feel sorry for, the kids that everyone wants to save.
And I know, this comes from place of care. And I do believe that everyone at school cares deeply about all of our students. (This is why we stayed, when it would have been easier to leave. Because I see how much everyone cares.) But the paradox of “at-risk” kids is that when they feel like you pity them or want to save them, they feel shame and less a part of the group. When they feel the scrutiny of needing to be “fixed,” it makes them want to quit. In some strange way, you are actually creating the risk that you are trying to save them from. Because that is what is happening now. My son is ready to quit. Not just baseball or football or soccer. Quit school all together. I don’t think you have any idea how much harm can come from the good intentions of people who care deeply and want to save everyone.
I often wonder what would happen if, instead of seeing my son — that Black kid with a single mom — as a kid who needs to be saved from the wrong kind of life (an idea that comes from bias), if instead his teachers and mentors and coaches thought of him as a kid experiencing a tremendous amount of grief over losing someone that he loved a great deal (the actual truth). How would it change things for you?
Because something needs to change.
So I need to ask you to do this: When you speak to my son, ask yourself if what you are going to say will shame him, and if so, please change how you phrase your feedback.
And please don’t ever tell him he is failing. Or going to fail, if… Or going to fail, unless… Or going to fail, because…
Because the entire world has already started creating a narrative about how my son is going to fail (just like the stories they created about his dad’s failures). And he doesn’t need you – someone he has so much respect for – to remind him of the world’s narrative.
What he really needs is just a mentor — someone who is willing to care with one hundred percent of their heart — to understand that he is hurting, not broken. And we all know that is you.
Thanks for considering.
The teacher received the letter generously. And they did make changes in the way they spoke to my son. They began to consider the stories they were creating about not just my kid, but about all the kids in the class. And it helped for that year. And then we changed schools, and it happened again. Then came middle school. Again. Now high school… and it happens again.
Because every year, there is always (at least) one teacher who cares more deeply. One teacher whose heart is in it one hundred percent. One teacher who wants to save them (us?) all; who writes a narrative about who my family is, before they get to know the real us.
Bias. It is the stories we that tell before we know the truth.
One thought on “BLOG: On Bias, part 2”
Thank you, Cathy. You have a wonderful way of expressing your truth and caring without being confrontational. I believe it allows people to listen without becoming defensive.
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