The human brain is an efficient machine which filters incredible amounts of data about the world around us from all of our senses in every second. For our brains to cope with this overload of information, we – from the moment we are born – create assumptions and ‘rules’ to help us to operate in the society around us.
At home, we are often exposed to people who tend to be reasonably similar to us. However, in schools and workplaces, we get exposed to a wide variety of people who are both similar and different to us in many ways. At school, children often meet other children who are somewhat different to them for the first time, and can often be quite candid in expressing this.
Much of the time, young children are open-minded when it comes to seeing and meeting people who look or behave differently to them. Children are often able to leverage their naivety constructively, identifying differences and being willing to overcome these positively and proactively.
If young children are able to do this, why then do we find ourselves in a society that is still so fraught with social injustice, inequality, and division?
Assumptions and Unconscious Bias
As we grow through childhood and onwards into adulthood, the types of assumptions we make get cemented based on the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of those around us. This influence comes from our immediate family members, our friends and extended family members, what we see on television and the internet, the news channels we are exposed to, and so on.
Importantly, we form certain views, beliefs and assumptions about the people in the world – around age, gender identity, physical and intellectual abilities, sexual orientation, weight, race, and many other things. These are the legacy of generations of thinking and behaving in social hierarchies where parts of society are treated as ‘other’, distrusted, disliked or excluded.
Sometimes we are conscious of the assumptions we hold towards certain groups of people, but often we are unaware of our own prejudices – they are unconscious, and therefore more insidious.
These unconscious ways of thinking and behaving that come from society at large will continue to create social divisions unless they are challenged – and that challenging starts on an individual level.
If we don’t strive to be conscious of them, to be aware of them and work to overcome them, they will cement themselves in our children and result in our children growing into adults with unconscious bias who then keep perpetuating the cycle.
In many workplaces and social situations where people with different identity aspects come together, unconscious and conscious biases around what these differences mean result in tension and trauma.
Microaggressions are one of the most common manifestations of this.
Microaggressions are everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Derald Wind Sue, PhD).
These are often not malicious or intended to cause harm. However, to those on the receiving end, they feel devalidating, discriminatory and excluding. These can take many forms, such as:
- Continuously mispronouncing someone’s name after they have explained to you the correct pronunciation.
- Having double standards for people of different races, genders, age groups, and so on.
- Listening to the opinions and suggestions of men in meetings and ignoring the women present, or not seeking the views of younger staff because the more experienced staff have all spoken.
- Denying the lived experiences expressed by a marginalised group because you have had different experiences in your life.
- Asking people with disabilities to publicly identify themselves.
Microaggressions in the Classroom
Microaggressions occur in the classroom, too. And making children more aware of the impact of them from an early age will give them many advantages as they progress through life.
By cultivating diversity in STEM and non-STEM schools, students could become more caring and empathetic. They are also able to raise their awareness to unconscious bias and emotional intelligence, which are also skills in great demand in the workplace. This can be done effectively by parents and teachers through modelling positive behaviours, such as:
- Avoiding making assumptions about particular groups, and gently calling out assumptions that children make as they make them.
- Setting high expectations for all children, encouraging them to challenge unconscious biases they may have about people in the classroom that look or behave differently to themselves.
- Work to build STEM diversity and create a safe environment in the classroom for people with marginalized identities, through helping students be aware of differences and consciously working towards fair and equitable treatment of each other.
- Be careful of using humour in ways which is appropriate, ensuring it doesn’t target or degrade people of certain identities.
Teachers and parents are in a leadership position when it comes to guiding children around awareness of, and response to, conscious and unconscious bias. This means that we, as teachers and parents, are responsible for facing our own unconscious biases and assumptions around the world, and reflecting on how we would like to behave to set examples for our children.
Learn more about the major benefits of diversity in STEM here.