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Addressing Unconscious Racial Bias in Schools

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“The Reality of Unconscious Racial Bias” by Sarah Fiarman and Tracey Benson in School Administrator, February 2020 (Vol. 77, #2, pp. 20-25),; the authors can be reached at and
In this article in School Administrator, leadership consultant Sarah Fiarman and Tracey Benson (University of North Carolina/Charlotte) share uncomfortable moments they experienced as school leaders. Benson, who is African-American, got pushback from an all-white middle-school staff when he presented data showing stark racial disparities in student achievement. “Are you saying we’re racist?” one educator asked, leading Benson to back off and adopt an indirect approach on racial issues in the school. Fiarman describes avoiding discussions about race and racism as a new principal, worried that she would make a mistake and lose credibility “as a good white person fighting for social justice.”
After leaving school leadership positions and beginning to consult in schools, Fiarman and Benson found that uncomfortable moments like these are quite common. “White people fear being called racist and education leaders fear the consequences of that reaction,” they say. “Most of us are stuck in what we’ve come to understand as a binary view of racism… On one side are racists who are bad people with malicious feelings toward people of color, and on the other side are people with good intentions who are therefore nonracists. Within this bad racist/good nonracist binary mindset, racism is something you can choose to be exempt from.”
But research has established that almost all Americans have unconscious racial bias, say Fiarman and Benson, and it influences daily interactions in schools: “who gets called on or gets probed for deeper thinking, who is chosen for a special job or recommended for honors or pushed to improve further in written and oral responses. Bias also influences who is reprimanded more often and who is denied empathetic listening or a second chance.” These small daily events accumulate over weeks, months, and years, profoundly affecting the experience of students of color and also perpetuating biases in white students.
Understanding the pervasiveness of unconscious bias – often counter to our espoused values – is key to reducing racial disparities in schools, say Fiarman and Benson: “Once educators are freed from defensiveness and realize that no one is questioning their intentions, they can engage in the daily work necessary to ensure students of color are consistently treated fairly and with respect, high expectations, and dignity.” They believe that two high-leverage steps by school leaders can make all the difference:
• Normalizing conversations about race and bias. “Few educators in the United States have experience talking about race and racial bias in mixed-race settings,” say Fiarman and Benson. “Many white people don’t have experience talking about or recognizing the impact of their racial identity at all, and some white people still mistakenly subscribe to a colorblind approach.” Everyone needs practice, and leaders should work to create a safe space for these conversations. One caution: too often educators of color are called on to lead this work, which is unfair and emotionally taxing for them.
• Gathering evidence of impact. Effective school leaders “understand that the issue is not whether racial bias impacts their students but where and how,” say Fiarman and Benson. “As a result, they regularly collect, disaggregate, and analyze data. They model taking responsibility for results by asking, ‘What is the learning experience of students of color in my district? How do I know? What do we need to change in our practice in order to get better results? How will we know whether the change is an improvement?’”

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02/21/2020 - Emily Meadows
Thank you for highlighting this piece. Unfortunately, it is not news that that some educators may be more concerned about being called a racist than they are about actual racial disparities in schools. As white educators, the onus should fall to us to correct this racial divide. We can only do so effectively if we recognize it.

Thanks again,

Emily Meadows