Get Explicit about Implicit Bias

This is the second blog in a four-blog series on race and teacher expectations.  Access the first blog here.  

No matter how good our intentions to be free of prejudice, we all have implicit biases that can have a serious impact on our work in schools.

Implicit bias refers to stereotypes or attitudes that affect our decisions and actions. Unlike explicit bias, which is intentional and part of our belief systems, implicit bias is an association we have that is unconscious and unintentional.

Facts about implicit bias:

  • Everyone has implicit bias.
  • An implicit bias can be a positive or negative association.
  • Implicit associations don’t always align with our intentional beliefs. For example, a teacher may believe all races are equal, and also may unconsciously associate Latino students with low achievement.
  • We can change implicit biases through intentional engagement in de-biasing techniques. (Roberts, 2011).

Understand Our Biases

The IAT bias tests are designed to test our implicit associations. One test on associations with black skin, for example, engages us in rapidly connecting images of black faces or white faces with violent or non-violent images and words. It’s a fast test and results are based on timing, so outsmarting the system isn’t an option. The test effectively cuts past intentions to illuminate biases we don’t even know we have.

If you have not yet taken an IAT, please click this link to take one now. It’s a quick process, and as experience is the best teacher, I recommend you take the test now. Be advised, however: if you are proud of your explicit beliefs in equality, taking an IAT may be a humbling experience.

Humble Reflection

When I took the test, the results were a moderate positive association between black skin and violence. This was a troubling finding, especially for someone with a life focus of working for equity—but I’ll stop there. Being white and having test results that show racial bias immediately makes me want to list a lifetime of evidence supporting the idea that I am not racist. This impulse to be defensive gets in the way of deep reflection, so I will resist it.

Instead I am publishing my revealing findings to model what I believe we all need in conversations about race: humility. Awareness is the first step toward a solution. If we fight awareness of our own implicit racial biases, we are doomed to continue living with them. It’s better to be humbly aware, together, without blame or defensiveness, so we can collaborate on solutions.

Disconnect between Beliefs and Biases

If you find you have implicit biases that conflict with your belief system, you are not alone. “More than 85 percent of all Americans consider themselves to be unprejudiced. Yet researchers have concluded that the majority of people in the United States hold some degree of implicit racial bias” (Roberts, 2011).

Why Implicit Racial Bias Matters in Schools

Eighty percent of teachers are white, and 40 percent of students are students of color. When racial bias factors into how teachers perceive kids, kids suffer. Specifically, students of color suffer. As I shared in my previous blog, a new study (Gershenson, Hold, & Papageore, 2015) adds to the growing body of evidence about the effect of racial mismatch on teacher expectations.

Until we address implicit biases head on and systemically elevate teacher expectations for all kids, there will always be an achievement gap.

Blame or Ownership?

Reading about the systemic issue of schools having low expectations of students of color, it is easy to agree this is tragic. It is also easy to attribute the problem to other people. I might tell myself, for example: the teachers in that study were probably racists. It’s different in my school. Every white teacher I know wants all kids to succeed.

Given the disconnect between explicit beliefs and implicit biases, this response is natural. Many teachers who have low expectations aren’t aware they have low expectations, or that race has anything to do with their expectations. It is easier to point at overt racists as the problem than it is to get personal and ask what implicit biases we need to illuminate and change in our ourselves.

How Do We Overcome Implicit Bias?

In Verna Meyers’ TED Talk How to Overcome Our Biases: Walk Boldly towards Them, she advocates that we get out of denial and move toward what we don’t understand. To overcome biases about black men, for example, stare at images of amazing black men, move towards black men. Be in humble inquiry about your own biases and then look specifically for counterexamples you can use to reset your own associations.

Melinda Anderson addresses the idea of countering stereotypes in her article We Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students. In this important read, she goes beyond the well-researched argument that hiring teachers of color improves education for kids of color, to argue that a more diverse teaching force will positively impact the worldviews of white kids.

See links below for resources on addressing implicit biases in schools, and please comment to share more.


What was your experience with the IAT test?

Which strategies are most effective for helping educators understand and change implicit biases?


Join us for the next blogs in this series on race and teacher expectations:


III. Four Sentences to Stop Saying about Kids

IV.  Seven Ways to Raise Expectations for All Students

Sources and Recommended Readings:

Anderson, M. (2015). We Need More Teachers of Color—for White Students

Kteily, N. & Bruneau, E. (2015) Americans See Muslims as Less than Human.  No Wonder Ahmed Was Arrested. 

Gershenson, Hold & Papageore (2015). Who Believes in Me: The Effect of Student-Teacher Demographic on Teacher Expectations

Meyers, V. (2014). How to Overcome Our Biases: Walk Boldly towards Them (Video)

National Center for Education Statistics (2013). First Look Report

Roberts H. (2011). Implicit Bias and Social Justice

Staats, C. (2014). State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014


Additional Resources for Educators:

Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development by Enid Lee (Editor)

Cultural Proficiency books and by Randall Lindsey and colleagues

Courageous Conversations books by Glenn E. Singleton

How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You and more by Bonnie M. Davis

Implicit Bias Test


Photo Credit: Brain by Dierk Schaefer (CC by 2.0)


I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • LP

    January 27, 2016, 11:54 am

    Hello. This is all very interesting. Thank you for compiling these resources. I wonder if you have any information on biases between teaching staff within a school? In particular, white females teachers and white administrators” biases towards African American male teachers. For example, in urban schools where the overwhelming majority of staff including the administration are white (mostly female) and a few African American male teachers are on staff, and the student body is overwhelmingly made up students of color. Sometimes the African American male educators are expected to fill some type of such as an “overseer” type who hollars at the students to “keep them in line”. Long story short I’m interested in finding anything on biases between colleagues of diverse backgrounds. Thank you for any help you may offer.

    • Tonya Singer

      January 27, 2016, 2:10 pm

      Thank you for your comments, and for shining light on how biases impact teachers’ relationships with coleagues. I wonder if Lewis Bundy and Kikanza Nuri-Robins delve into this in their Corwin Book Fish of Water. I haven’t yet read it, but does look interesting in its exploration of the impact of dominant culture of an organization on individuals who don’t share that culture and are marginalized, targeted, or excluded. You bring up such an important issue that has many faces and impacts especially on teachers of color and males in education. I also recommend engaging the #Educolor community on Twitter in dialogue on this question to see what other resources and insights people share. I’ll keep an eye out for more specific research on biases between colleagues and post what I find here. Please post resources you find here, too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *