Nan Austin

Sticks and stones: Those unwitting words that wound

A diverse class of kindergartners listen to a lesson in this 2012 photo.
A diverse class of kindergartners listen to a lesson in this 2012 photo. Modesto Bee file

Ask me if I would rather visit the ocean or the desert, and I will pick a beach every time. I know that bias.

But ask me if toddler boys are more trouble than girls, and the answer is not so easy. My own daughter could have kept a staff of 10 always busy. In my experience, girls are more work. But “boys will be boys” stories are everywhere, so my internalized expectation might well be for boys to be more disruptive.

Which would win out if I was a preschool teacher? No one knows, least of all me.

Snap judgments we all use rely on implicit bias: Automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive decision-making. In my mind I would treat boys and girls all the same. I would always be fair. But would kids in the class feel that way?

The expectation that certain youngsters will misbehave, new research by the Yale Child Study Center shows, tends to lean toward an assumption that boys will be bad, black boys especially. Shown a video of children playing, eye tracking showed preschool teachers looked first and longest at African American boys when looking for problems.

“Although the behaviors of children may impact adult decision-making processes, implicit biases about sex and race may influence how those behaviors are perceived and how they are addressed, creating a vicious cycle over time exacerbating inequalities,” notes the study.

That is a long and lingo-laden explanation of implicit bias, a topic brought up during candidate debates, around police shootings and in community discussions of unequal school discipline. The term pops up in nearly every news cycle. Here is what it looks like in practice.

B.J. Scruggs spent time in her grandson’s kindergarten class at the start of school. While his teacher came highly recommended by other parents, the woman’s comments “set off little bells in your head,” Scruggs said.

The teacher told Scruggs her grandson was too active. “She said, ‘He’s too busy. He needs to learn to sit still or he’s going to jail,’ ” Scruggs recounted.

After a fire drill, several children commented on the alarm sounding like a siren. It sounds like ambulance, one said. Another said it was like a fire truck. Her grandson said it sounded like a police car, to which the teacher replied, “Oh, you should know what that sounds like,” Scruggs recounted.

“We live in a very settled, older neighborhood. Why would he know what police cars sound like?” Scruggs asked.

It helps to know that Scruggs and her grandson are African American. Given a Bureau of Justice Statistics report that nearly 1 in 3 black males will be incarcerated over their lives, compared with 1 in 22 white men, talking about her grandson’s future as an inmate sounded like racism to her.

It is entirely possible the teacher did not consciously connect that with her student. Her comments, in her mind, applied to any 5-year-old unable to sit still and stay quiet.

But in this context, they strengthened a negative stereotype that could counteract every positive effort that teacher made. It set them both up for failure.

We all have blind spots. To get past them, there is training to avoid unseen bias. Facebook provides a free primer at Implicit bias training does not aim to change opinions, but to make people aware they exist and how unthinking comments can sound to other ears.

Here is the reality: Most teachers in this area are middle class and white, while in many local schools most students are neither.

Stanislaus County by the numbers: Latino – 68 percent of students and 17 percent of teachers; African American – 3 percent of students and 1 percent of teachers; white – 29 percent of students and 76 percent teachers.

Beyond ethnic differences, few teachers come from homes where no one wakes up to get kids off to school in the morning, the last meal was yesterday’s school lunch, or homework has to be finished by nightfall or done in the dark. Not celebrating Easter or keeping young heads covered may not seem like things Americans do.

Districts increasingly are providing training for teachers to help them bridge those cultural divides. Modesto City Schools has trained administrators, security personnel and yard-duty monitors in what it calls cultural competency, but is just beginning to train its 1,650 teachers, Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson said.

“I think the difficulty is, it’s bias that’s unseen. How do we increase sensitivity?” she said Tuesday. The district is doing a series of speakers to explain the research and address problem areas.

In February, Johnson said. the district will bring author and UCLA professor Pedro Noguera to Modesto. Noguera’s specialty is race, schooling and the urban environment.

“I do believe it is a topic that has to be brought up many times. I really don’t think it’s a ‘once and done,’ ” Johnson said.

For Scruggs, the issue is not her grandson, who has moved to a different class. She worries what else is being said behind closed doors by teachers not hearing their own message. “This is a diverse area,” she said, “No one’s pure anything.”

The underlying messages we act on, the bias we show even when it goes against what we consciously believe, is something everyone is grappling with, Johnson said. “We, as a nation, are having to face this,” she said.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin