Bias, Classism, and Social Justice
The term “slam dunk” (also known as a ‘dunk shot’) was first used by former Lost Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn in 1972 during a game of basketball, to describe is a shot in which a player mightily jumps up with incredible enthusiasm and forces the ball through the basket. It is a sporting event moment and a crowd favourite. SLAM!! Cheer!! Roar!! Absolutely no question… That. Was. A. Score!!
Slam Dunk can often be used as a dynamic descriptor to express a hidden meaning. Essentially, if you say that something is a slam dunk, you mean that a success or victory will be easily achieved… or that something is a “sure thing” – an action with a guaranteed outcome, or at least an impressive achievement! I like to use the term slam dunk with students to get their attention about a sociological concept(s) that should be a ‘no brainer’. Something that they need to remember and should be obvious in the reasoning for embracing or enacting change as humans and for coexisting in a civil society.
Now, I know very little about basketball except for watching my boys play it for their high school teams growing up… But I do know that a three point shot is magical because it is a difficult shot to make. This is a metaphor, of course… A metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to make a comparison between two things that aren’t alike but do have something in common. But, this metaphor is all I can think about when I lecture on bias, classism, and social justice in the classroom. I hope you’ll hear me out.
A 3-pointer in basketball is a shot scored anywhere outside the three-point arc. A shot made from anywhere outside the line to the baseline on the other side of the court counts for three points (thanks Wiki for helping me contextualise that one). I think it is quite magical, and I remember many times when my son’s team would score a three point shot in a nail biter of a game. Everyone would leap up from the bleachers screaming and shouting with excitement until we were hoarse. The sociologist in me screams and shouts the same way when it comes to social and educational stratification. Specifically smashing bias and classism, and enacting social justice in the classroom. These are the three thinking points of a three point shot. The Slam Dunk, obviously is what I hope you’ll take away from this reflection.
Thinking Point 1: Unconscious Bias
That image above is powerful! I hope you will pause and take it in for a moment before you continue reading…
If you google the term bias, you will find a list a mile long! A bias is a disproportionate weight in favour of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is closed-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. Biases can be innate or learned. People may develop biases for or against an individual, a group, or a belief (Steinbock, 1978). Biases can be conscious or unconscious, and it is the unconscious biases that are so deeply ingrained in us that we often don’t even realise that we are contributing to the continuation of a bias as we go about our social interactions, day to day. Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias), refers to attitudes or social stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions—without our conscious awareness.
We ALL have BIASES, both conscious and unconscious. We are wired culturally and socially to make generalizations about all kinds of things that often bias our judgements and decision making. In many situations, these unconscious biases are a normal, healthy aspect of our cognitive ability. For example, perhaps you have been burned by an open flame as a curious child that reached out to touch the dancing flame… I am sure you learned very quickly from your experience that placing your hand over a flame is surely going to burn you and you won’t deliberately do that again!
There are other times when biases can cause us to act in ways that undermine our consciously perceived personal values and goals. Most often these are unconscious biases that cause us to make assumptions about a person because of an aspect of their identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, level of ability, etc. For example, perhaps you are a lone woman in an elevator that stops on the next floor after you get in, and two men of a certain racial profile enter. That moment when you unconsciously cast your eyes down, and make yourself very small in the back corner of that elevator so as not to draw attention to yourself, is unconscious bias. Even when you outwardly feel confident that you are in no danger and have never experienced any personal violence from this particular race or gender, you’ve acted upon an unconscious bias. If you look again at the image of the ‘shadow’ figure turning the man’s head away as he walks past a homeless man in the street… that is an example of unconscious bias. It is often a them and us scenario without you even realising that you are doing it.
We can also have unconscious biases that either favour those who match our own identity and look or act very much like us, or sometimes we favour the identity that we identify is most culturally privileged. These are learned biases that we’ve absorbed over time. They go deep and they are widely systemic. I encourage you to watch the documentary Coded Bias on Netflix for an eye opening experience of what I am talking about here.
You can watch a trailer of this documentary here.
Here’s the rub, and reading this next bit might sting a little… We all have ingrained biases and beliefs about others that affect our students. Many educators struggle with unconscious bias in their roles at school, and often in ways that can unknowingly perpetuate bias that severely and negatively affects learners. Let’s face it, admiting that we are biased is extremely painful personally, and a hard pill to swallow. When it comes to inequality in schools, it’s easy and tempting to focus on external factors like socioeconomic status as the main culprate that contributes to inequality (don’t worry, this is covered in the next section… I try to be thorough). Learners are often talked about by teachers who make assumptions based on the student’s perceived status, called ‘confirmation bias’ that renders the student unworthy, unteachable, and/or unsuccessful. Have you ever overheard or participated in one of these conversations? It has to stop… But, it’s much more uncomfortable to tackle a topic like teacher bias, and so many of us just don’t.
This video by Rita Pierson is a MUST to watch. Seriously…
Below is a link to a blog that really gets into the nitty gritty of unconscious bias in the classroom/schools. Specifically related to achievment, race classification, and perceived gender achievement in certain subjects. I encourage you to read it!
What more can we do? Remember, we are educators who already devote so much of ourselves to teaching others and we have to be more aware. You’ve likely heard the quote ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Voltaire said it first, but Churchill made it famous. Well folks… as educators, we have a duty and responsibility to search the crevices of our minds to find those unconscious biases and bring them to awareness. Once you become aware of something, you can never again be ‘unaware’ of it. When it comes to negative bias, make it your mission to make the unconscious conscious and then take action.
Thinking Point 2: Classism
First, we should have a brief understanding of what social class is, as you’ll want to have an understanding of that in order to understand what ‘classism’ is. Sociologists define a social class as a group based on similarities in income, education, and occupational prestige. Members of the upper class have access to much more of all of these things, affording them many privileges based on their social class standing (Classism in Schools & Education, 2016).
Now, let’s talk about classism. Classism is a belief, a behavior and a form of systematic oppression of lower and middle class society to benefit and provide advantage to the upper class. Essentially, we treat people differently (more positively or negatively) based on who they are and where they come from… their social class position. It is a way of thinking and a way of acting toward varying social classes and is a form of explicit bias. This causes differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class and is so ingrained as a societal norm that people often don’t even realise they are perpetuating it (unconscious bias).
Watch this brief video for a better understanding of what classism is through the medium of film.
Classism.org explains Classism as a systematic oppression and control of perceived ‘lower’ class groups to advantage and strengthen dominant class groups. Classism is enacted through systems of policies and practices that assign characteristics of worth and ability based on social class. These policies are set up to benefit the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes which ultimately results in drastic income and wealth inequality. Classism is a significant contributor to social stratification. Remember, social stratification results from structural inequalities among social groups.
Classism in the classroom
Listen, times are hard, I get it. Many children experience the effects of classism the very first time they enter class. As early as 5 or 6 years old, and sometimes even in pre-school or nursery school. Many schools require supplies lists for children attending school at all levels, including pre-school. These lists include crayons, markers, folders, paper, glue sticks, scissors, highlighters, index cards, even Kleenex, toilet paper, hand sanitiser, and sometimes school uniforms. Some schools even require children to cover their textbooks with a specific cover that must be purchased, or worse… require the student family to purchase their own textbooks!
Working class families, children of disabled or unemployed parents, and families living in poverty, homeless, direct provision are struggling to feed, clothe and house themselves and their children. They aren’t able to afford many of the extras that schools require these days. Here is classism at it’s very worse… requiring children and families to enter school with their bags of school supplies to contribute to a stock pile in the supply cabinet. Can you imagine how a child who isn’t able to provide these supplies must feel in front of their peers? Having to come into school empty handed, without a bag packed full of supplies. It is humiliating and singles out the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ in an open display of inequity. It is immoral and wrong. Of course there are always families with the means who are willing to provide ‘extra’ supplies for families who do not have the ability to provide them, and I think this very generous and thoughtful… but bringing your child into the school laden down with bags and bags of extras is also perpetuating classism. ‘Look at our family and what we have!’ still feels just as demeaning to a family without.
There are ways to promote equity in your classroom and honour your students… all of them. There are always ways! Why not allow families to drop off school supplies in a community box/bin before classes begin and throughout the year? If your school is in need and cannot afford these necessary supplies for your students/classroom, why not use your privilege and your own education to act as an advocate and discretely petition organizations, businesses, etc to donate to your classroom. Many organizations look for ways to help every year. Isn’t it much more equitable for your students to at least enter the classroom on the first day all having the supplies they need already covered?
Being more aware of who is in your classroom matters… and actions matter. We have to start thinking equitably for ways to reduce classism in our classrooms. Again, remember the quote I provided earlier. ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ – Voltaire. We all have a duty and responsibility to fight classism. We can do this, one classroom at a time!
Thinking Point 3: Social Justice
I just love this definition of Social Justice by Bell (1997). It nicely sums up what social justice is from philosophical standpoint as well as a point of action. Social justice is both a process and a goal.
Social justice is concerned with the ways in which benefits and burdens are distributed among the members of a society. This includes the fairness in which a society provides, protects and recognises the means and qualities that people require to live a good life. Whereas, social justice education is concerned with achieving equitable and quality education for all learners. The impact of education, particularly to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged, cannot be overstated. It is a Constitutionally-protected right for all and contributes to the well-being of our citizens. Investment in education at all levels and throughout the life cycle can deliver a more equal society and prepare citizens to participate in a democracy (socialjustice.ie).
Are you beginning to see the connection I’m trying to make here? How bias and classism is detrimental to a socially just process for learning and equally detrimental to a socially just goal for education and society?
Watch this short video to learn more about inequality and social justice.
The focus of our education system must be to ensure people are engaged and active citizens and have the necessary critical and creative skills to navigate an ever- changing employment environment, can adapt to transitions as they occur and participate fully in society. This is especially important for children and young people today who have had their education disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and who, upon leaving formal education, will be entering a very different employment landscape than that of their parents (social justice.ie).
I encourage you, if you are interested in advocating for and embracing a socially just classrooms, schools, education systems and community, go check out Social Justice Ireland. They are an independent think tank and justice advocacy organisation that seeks to build a just society. They provide independent social analysis and evidence-based policy proposals, with the aim of creating a sustainable future for every member of society and for societies as a whole. In all things, they focus on human rights and the common good.
Finally, below are some examples (and there are many more that you can google) of principles guiding social justice in education (Sensoy & DiAngelo 2009)… including the belief that:
- Schools often reproduce rather than remedy the patterns of social exclusion and oppression seen in the larger society. Contributing to the perpetuation of classism, bias and inequity/inequality. Recognise it and respond!
- There are very real differentials in access to social and institutional power between varying group members, and those differentials exist widely in education settings. Recognise them and oppose the acceptance of this societal behaviour.
- While all people have socialized prejudices and can discriminate (here’s bias again), only the dominant group is backed by social and institutional power, which is multidimensional and constantly operating, being contested, and renegotiated, especially within schools. VOICE matters!!! If we have a voice and we have freedom to express ourselves, do it… no matter how difficult it feels.
- Those who claim to be for social justice must also be engaged in self-reflection on their own socialisation into patterns of oppression and continually seek to counter those patterns. Reflect and enact a daily ‘self’ check. Believe me, it is important to your learners.
These are an essential element of lifelong learning, and is not achieved just because you’ve read an article, or completed a workshop, a conference or module in social justice. It is an awareness that must be practiced daily. Change begins with you.
Slam DUNK! … and the crowd goes wild!
Bell, L. A., Washington, S., Weinstein, G., & Love, B. (1997). Knowing ourselves as instructors. Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook, 299-310.
Classism in Schools & Education. (2016, August 31). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/classism-in-schools-education.html.
Sensoy, O. & DiAngelo, R (2009). Developing social justice literacy: An open letter to our faculty colleagues. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(5), p. 350.