The NJSBA Equity Council consists of board of education members, superintendents, district administrators, and representatives from the New Jersey Department of Education, higher education, and advocacy groups. The purpose of the Equity Council is to provide NJSBA leadership, members and staff with information about issues and field experiences related to equity in education in New Jersey school districts, as well as a national perspective on this issue. The Equity Council regularly provides information on best practices and helpful resources to New Jersey school districts. 

NJSBA Educator-in-Residence Vincent DeLucia coordinates meetings of the Equity Council. In today’s column, he addresses “microagressions” and forms of bias.

Have you or a female friend ever been the target of “cat calls” or whistles as you walked past a construction site?

When a man of color passes you on the sidewalk, do you clutch your purse or the keys in your pants pocket?

Are you aware that some people have lower expectations for students from certain groups or zip codes?

Have you heard the description of “illegal aliens” used instead of “undocumented?”

Those are just a few examples of the microaggressions students hear in classrooms, on playgrounds, and in the community. They are also examples of the manifestations of hidden bias that adults are subjected to at work, in social situations, or just as part of daily life.

Did you know that more often than not, they are manifestations of inherent bias?

Implicit/inherent/unconscious bias (the terms are interchangeable) can be defined as the unconscious attribution of specific qualities to a member of a certain ethnic/racial/social or other group. These biases are stereotypes that are influenced by our experiences. They are based on learned associations among various characteristics, traits and social categories, including race or gender.

An article published by the ThoughtCo. examined the impact of the following forms of bias:

  • Microaggressions are a manifestation of our inherent biases. They can be statements, actions, or incidents regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination that have harmful effects on members of marginalized groups including gender, religion, sexual preference, race or ethnicities. There are three categories of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
  • Microassaults are purposeful discriminatory actions, such as a verbal attack or avoidant behavior. These are primarily conscious, deliberate, overt, and intentional; the aggressor knows their behavior is hurtful. For example, while walking to class a student of color is subjected to a slur by a white student. A male gropes a female in front of peers who laugh it off as a joke.
  • Microinsults: Of the microaggressions, these are the most difficult to identify and the most common form of microaggression. These are subtle acts which convey contempt and disrespect for someone. These may be unconscious, are more subtle than microassaults and have harmful effects. Examples: When a comment is made implying that a woman or person of color or any disenfranchised group received a job due to affirmative action. Complimenting a U.S. born Asian-American for “speaking good English” is another example.
  • Microinvalidations are comments and behaviors that deny the experiences of marginalized group members, including comments or behaviors that have harmful effects on marginalized groups. Examples: Insisting that prejudice is no longer a problem in society. Telling a person of color they are being “oversensitive” to a racist comment that was made.

It is important to understand how we acquire our inherent biases and that people who use microaggressions usually mean no harm toward the person or group who experience them. It is equally important to know that any form of microaggressions can be very hurtful to the people who experience them. They can also contribute to an inherent bias of low expectations for students and adults of color or other disenfranchised groups.  These are also challenges that boards of education can address through their equity efforts.

In April of 2018, the Illinois Association of School Boards provided guidance to their local boards of education that described “10 ways school board members can move their district towards racial equity.” According to the Illinois School Boards Association, school board members as individuals and as a group must:

  1. have a strong commitment to racial equity
  2. adopt an equity statement
  3. know the demographics of their district
  4. be willing to engage in their own personal journey to expand their knowledge and understanding of issues of race
  5. be able to initiate and create structural changes that challenge the status quo and support equity for all
  6. as a board commit to develop goals and policies with a strong equity lens, and identify and dismantle policies that support the disparities
  7. ensure fiscal accountability and change school budget options to ensure they prevent disparities
  8. be data-informed
  9. develop partnerships and allies to achieve equity
  10. must anticipate opposition

These conversations are not easy. There must be trust, mutual respect, and an acceptance of the thoughts of all to facilitate the discussions that can change the experiences of all stakeholders in a district.

NJSBA Educator-in-Residence Vincent R. DeLucia can assist your board in equity efforts including through the facilitation of a seminar for your board entitled, “Hidden Biases: What We Think We Don’t Think, We Do Think!”