If you spent any time with me in 2009, you knew about Darnell.
I was a first-year teacher at an amazing little Christian school in Philadelphia, and Darnell was one of my third grade students.
I put my heart and soul into teaching that year. I started most mornings by kneeling on the classroom floor, begging God to give me wisdom. I loved my students. They were embarrassed when they occasionally called me “mom,” but it warmed my heart. We had fun together, and all of us learned.
But Darnell drove me nuts.
When he was in a good mood, he was the cutest, most charming 9-year old on the planet. But if he was having a bad day, he’d just flat-out refuse to do his work. He’d pout at his desk with his arms crossed and book closed.
I didn’t know how to handle it when he “gave me attitude.” It touched a nerve, one of my insecurities as a teacher; that I didn’t have “the look” that instantly made a kid freeze up in fear. I mostly managed students’ misbehavior with humor, a raised eyebrow, or a little extra attention, but when Darnell’s defiance was just too much, I’d send him to the principal for a pep talk.
Every single week at Bible study, I asked my Christian friends to pray for Darnell and me. I asked for advice and ideas. The kid was clearly brilliant, but I just couldn’t figure him out. I couldn’t “get through to him.”
That June, my principal told me that Darnell would not be returning for the next school year. His mother had suggested that I targeted Darnell unfairly because he was the only Black student in the class, that I was racist. My principal scoffed. She knew my heart. She knew my devotion to my students. She knew I wasn’t racist.
I didn’t say anything. It felt crummy. But it was summer, the end of an exhausting and mostly wonderful year, and I let it go.
Learning About Bias: The Beginning
Several years later, I heard about implicit bias for the first time. Or at least, I listened for the first time.
By definition, implicit bias is a prejudice that you don’t even realize you have. It’s totally subconscious. Everybody has implicit biases, so in that sense we’re all in the same boat.
Studies on teachers’ biases reveal what any middle school student could already tell you–teachers have favorites.
Researchers sitting in the back of a classroom put a checkmark next to students’ names each time the teacher calls on them, smiles, encourages, reprimands, etc. They’ve found some alarming patterns.
When teachers think a student is smart and capable, they smile more, nod more, give more specific feedback, and allow more time for answering questions. Without even realizing it, teachers give extra support to students who need it the least.
Teachers also have the same implicit racial biases as everybody else. Educators are more likely to give a severe punishment to a Black student than a white student with the exact same misbehavior. They are more likely to view a Black student’s facial expressions as “angry” compared to a white student. They usually perceive Black students as being dangerous and much older than they really are.
One of my favorite, real-life examples of classroom bias was a teacher struggling with a group of Black students who would not pay attention. When the teacher asked one of her colleagues for advice, they told her to look more closely at all the students. Sure enough, both Black and white students were goofing off, but the teacher had unknowingly focused on her Black students’ misbehavior.
The statistics paint a disturbing picture. Black students who have just one Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school. Black students who have two Black teachers in elementary school are 32 percent more likely to go to college than Black students who only have white teachers. Part of this is due to the “role-model effect,” but part of it is because Black teachers don’t have as many negative implicit biases about their Black students.
Of course, teachers’ implicit racial biases are only part of the problem of educational disparities. Black educators know their communities and are leading the way, but unjust policies have hurt Black teachers and Black students, and it will take resources and work to repair the damage done.
For nearly ten years, I’d scan an article here and there about implicit bias in education, taking mental notes and jotting down key points. One morning I came across an article that hit me like a lightning bolt.
Mia McKenzie describes how she’d always loved school, and her teachers recognized and nurtured her talent. They built up her joy and confidence. Then in the fourth grade, the author had her first white teacher. This teacher misunderstood the author’s confidence as arrogance, and punishment and defiance escalated accordingly. For the first time in her life, the author didn’t love school anymore.
I had done the same thing to Darnell.
I knew it instantly and with absolute certainty: I’d hurt a student entrusted to my care.
With other students’ outbursts, I’d pull them aside for a heart-to-heart and usually figure out what was really bothering them. But when Darnell did the same thing, I interpreted his actions as a personal attack on my authority as a teacher.
Let me repeat that: I felt threatened. I tried to control or squash the “threat.” The “threat” was coming from a 9 year-old. A child.
I’d seen the studies that teachers are more likely to perceive a Black student as “threatening,” but it took me years to connect this research to my biggest first-year teaching “challenge.”
I hurt a child in Jesus’s name. I hurt a child and thought I was a loving, patient, selfless teacher.
“Forgive My Hidden Faults”
The prophet Isaiah was right: even with prayer and good intentions, my best efforts with Darnell were like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
I’m grieved by my sin, and every once in a while I let that grief settle into my heart for a bit. It reminds me to be humble.
I was a racist, Christian teacher. I still am.
Those implicit racial biases are still knocking around in my mind and heart, looking for a foothold. Satan is clever, and he’ll happily use implicit racism to weaken my ministry without me even realizing it.
I have to be on guard, but I don’t have to be afraid. I’m a racist, Christian teacher who is forgiven and redeemed, and most miraculously–God can still use me for good!
I can learn and do better, and I don’t have to do it alone. I can ask God to help me find the people and resources who will push me to become more like Him. Amen!
Equipping Christian Leaders
People who believe in sin shouldn’t be surprised by implicit bias. If you’re sinful through-and-through, it makes sense that you have subconscious biases and prejudices. We need Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and each other to identify and root out sins we don’t see.
For centuries our society has been saturated with messages about race. Racism isn’t just political jargon, it is a spiritual battle against evil. When we don’t talk about implicit bias, we do a disservice to the Church and to the world.
During that first year of teaching, I wasn’t a hopeless idiot or malicious crone—I was doing what I had been taught. I’d been told to treat everybody the same, and that’s what I’d tried to do. Nobody warned me to watch for common implicit biases and how they might affect the way I treat Black students.
Christian pastors, missionaries, authors, doctors, and teachers must be taught about implicit racial biases. Every servant-leader who cares about people more than their own egos will be grateful for information that will make them more effective in their callings.
Christ gives us hope. Scripture urges us to seek God’s grace for “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12), “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5), and “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). With His grace, we can identify our implicit biases, expose them to the light, and love one another in “actions and in truth.”