Mind Games By Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion “The trouble is that once people develop an implicit theory, the confirmation bias kicks in and they stop seeing evidence that doesn’t fit it.” - Carol Tavris, Author and Social Psychologist “Well, so we did the audit as you asked, and we found that 90% of the students that were suspended this past year were Black.” Ninety percent! My mind was moving quickly, very quickly in many directions, and the group was looking for me to respond. We were sitting in the administration building for the school district trying to bring understanding to a school district that for decades chose to ignore color. We were less than 500 yards away from one of the elementary schools in the district, a building in which children were taught how to properly use different colors of crayons. They were taught that zebras are black and white, bears are brown, frogs are green, but we do not see people in color. Color magically leaps over humans and lands on animals… I suppose. This illogical approach to community was now coming home to roost and nest. The school district sits on the edge of a mid-sized city and over the past few decades white flight had caused the district to “tan.” As white families moved further away from the city, many were replaced with families of color. A district that has historically been 95% white or more had evolved and changed. At this time, about 70% of the student body was white, 20% Black, 7% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. The tanning of a community had begun, and the district failed to assure the teachers, administration, and staff reflected the community. Instead, they chose not to see color. I guess they thought if they ignored it, it would go away and never come back. Wishful thinking for some. In a perfect school district, the teachers, administration, and staff should reflect the community where they live. In this example, if 20% of the district’s student body is Black, the hope is that those employed by the district match the student body. This district had 300 teachers, faculty, and staff. This meant about 60 employees should be Black. They had two! Their Black representation was less than 3% and a suburban mile from the 20% expected. As the district was struggling with this issue, my two sons were feeling the effects of the district’s neglect. It all came to a head for us after years of bias. In the span of three days my boys were both called the “n” word and no one at the school did anything to protect them. When I went to complain, I was rerouted to the Diversity Committee. I would later find out the Diversity Committee was made up of parents of color who had lodged complaints against the district for some insensitive actions directed towards their children. The Diversity Committee was purgatory: a place complaining folks go to complain but never resolve their issues. We were exiled to a classroom once a month where our concerns never made it past the threshold of the classroom. When that did not work for my family, I offered to get more involved. I offered to train the district in the area of Diversity and Inclusion for FREE! The superintendent liked “Free!” I held several meetings with teachers, faculty, and staff to help them see the world from a different angle. Many were very skeptical and, although polite, didn’t really see the need for such training. At the end of one meeting, I assigned homework, hoping this would bring clarity to some things. I asked each school to do a “diversity audit.” I asked them to go back to their schools and record how many children had been suspended over the school year or sent to detention. I asked them to also record the race of the individual as well. Logically, if we have a district that is 20% Black then only 20% of those being disciplined should be Black. Anything over a 20% representation would mean we have some work to do. I was anxious to see how the district faired. The meeting began and I asked each school to present their findings. When I asked the high school to report, they responded with 90%. They were suspending and disciplining the Black students 4.5 times what was expected. 90%! As I sat in the meeting wrestling with 90% in the silence, a teacher stood up. “Those numbers are due primarily to the fact that the Black students are consistently late, so they are sent to detention and after being sent to detention three times they are suspended,” the teacher responded confidently. Many nodded in support of his statement. He was defending the indefensible and suddenly my thoughts came back to me. “So, are you telling me that there is something about Black students that makes them susceptible to being late, much more so than the white students?” I asked. “The Black students encourage each other to be late,” another teacher fired back. I could not believe I was arguing with a group of teachers about objective information that was painting a very clear picture of their district. The numbers were crystal clear, yet the district chose to ignore this picture being painted. What was going on in the district could have made a great case study for implicit bias. Implicit bias starts as a stereotype, and then our minds search for information that supports the stereotype to reconcile the stereotype in our minds. The two stereotypes that were causing this issue were the stereotypes that Black people are always late and Black children lack discipline. These stereotypes caused some teachers to be hyper vigilant towards one group when it came to noticing when they arrived at class. The Black students stood out more than the white students they walked into class with. The Black students did not have DNA that encoded them to be late more than white students. Simply, the mind likes to be right, so when it finds information to support its beliefs, that information becomes more important, more noticeable. The aligning of stereotypes with supporting information melded into fact. When combined with the stereotype that Black students lack discipline, this ushers in an unconscious need to correct and discipline students more severely. The research of race and discipline in schools has been very clear. Children of color are disciplined more harshly than white students committing the same offense ( https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/research-highlights/2022/study-furthers-understanding-of-disparities-in-school-discipline ), yet this district was afraid to admit they might be in line with the research. Instead, they listened politely, pushed back when I got too close, and walked me to the door and never asked me back. My eldest son graduated from the district, and he would agree this was one of the most difficult times of his life. Every day there was a possibility that someone would say something offensive to him and he knew the school would not protect him. We transferred our youngest to a more racially diverse school for high school. The school celebrated their differences instead of ignoring them, and it was a great four years for him. His school was safe and he felt protected. The most difficult challenge in working with diversity and inclusion is the invisible monster we are fighting. When I was young, I remember having a tough time sleeping and my mind began to wonder. I began to hear what was not there and see shadows that weren’t. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was convinced something was in the room with me and would soon come to draw all the life out of me. As I got older, I learned to control my thoughts before they created a reality that was not there. It was a much better way to deal with my monster – I refused to give him energy to grow. We all have biases. They will try to paint a reality that isn’t real. Be open to the fact that others may experience life differently… and that’s okay. Be diligent, guard your mind, and don’t let it play tricks on you.