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Checking Your Bias, Power, and Privilege

Culturally Responsive Leadership
By Ryan Persaud
Checking Your Bias, Power, and Privilege

In the first article, A Framework for Your DEIJ Work, I introduced the concept of Culturally Responsive Leadership (Lopez, 2016), and why it was a useful framework for your diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) work. I would like to bring us back to our model (seen below) from Lopez (2016) to ground us in the learning around Culturally Responsive Leadership (CRL). We will be specifically looking at step one, which is critical self-reflection. In my experience, this is the starting point for any DEIJ work, as we must check our own bias, power, and privilege before looking outwards. Reflection on beliefs and values is a necessary step so that deep and equitable change can occur (Shields, 2019). Critical self-reflection is necessary in order to understand how our own perspectives impact not only how we interact with those around us and our environment, but also how we interpret those interactions.

(Photo source: Lopez, 2016)

Bias: It's in Everyone

We all carry bias within us and are even programmed to do so. Our reticular activating system, found within the reptilian brain, is responsible for alertness and attention. It is designed to signal changes in the environment, any relevant information connected to social status, physical survival, or strong emotions that might signal a potential threat or reward (Hammon, 2015). This reactive part of our brain is designed to make snap judgments for survival. However, these snap judgments can lead to bias. As Choudury (2015) states, "Implicit bias is a hidden or unintentional preference for a particular group based on social identity such as race, gender, class, ability, or sexual orientation" (pg. 49). This bias, rooted in the snap judgments mentioned above, can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

Some of these judgments and decisions occur outside our conscious awareness but can still have a systematic pattern. For example, being resistant to others who may look different than us. Furthermore, our experiences, whether we recognize it or not, have an impact on how we see others and view the world. We naturally try to compartmentalize and classify these experiences, including people, in order to make sense of the world and our experiences in it.

Power and Privilege

Examining bias is one aspect of critical reflection. This self-examination would not be complete without looking at the power and privilege that you hold or don't hold in society. This power and privilege can change based on context. According to Sensoy and DiAngelo (2017), "Power in the context of understanding social justice refers to the ideological, technical, and discursive elements by which those in authority impose their ideas and interests on everyone" (p. 96). Groups and individuals both pursue and exert power. It is important to recognize that given the situation or group with which we may be interacting or associating, we can be pursuing or exerting power. When we exert power, we are exercising our privilege.   

When academics use the term power in describing how society works, they refer to the rights, advantages, and protections enjoyed by some at the expense of others (Kimmel & Ferber, 2016; Johnson, 2006). Privilege is not available to everyone in society. Privilege and power are closely related. Privilege often gives a person or group power over others. Examining your privilege in both a school setting and in society at large is a necessary part of critical self-reflection. Recognizing this privilege can allow us to open up space for those that have been historically marginalized.

Why Examine Our Bias, Power, and Privilege?

Any meaningful DEIJ work must begin with stakeholders taking an inside-out approach. This involves deep and critical introspection around bias, power, and privilege (Choudhury, 2015, Lopez, 2016, Khalifa, 2018, Shields, 2018, Terrell & Lindsey, 2009). As Lopez (2016) states, "Culturally responsive leadership demands courage, risk taking, journeying, dealing with tensions, developing agency, and deep critical reflection" (p. 23). Confronting our bias, power, and privilege allows us to build a greater understanding of ourselves and others. Additionally, this enables us to work towards greater relationships in the school and community, which are more inclusive, more equitable, and more authentic. We are a product of our experiences, culture, and education and we naturally project this totality onto others. Being reflective on how we project ourselves and how others might interpret us is imperative to building a more inclusive school setting where all can feel accepted and belong.

How to Examine Our Bias

Now that we understand the why, what exactly does checking your bias look like? It should involve taking a critical observation of one's experiences, practices, values, power, and privilege and examining your broader political, cultural, economic, and social context. One option to undertake this work is through diversity training. This can include workshops, a book study, online courses, or working with a DEIJ consultant (ISS DEIJ Consultants), to name a few examples. Even if your school has an internal DEIJ coordinator (or similar), it may be a good idea to employ outside services as well. Burnout of your coordinator can be a real threat to your school's journey if the majority of the work falls on their shoulders. This is where a DEIJ working group can be effective (to be discussed in later articles). Examining who makes up the staff in our school, our social circles, and those we interact with can help us to examine our bias. We naturally gravitate to those like us, but when was the last time you sought out interactions with those who are different from you? Could this be impacting your bias? Being conscious of your efforts towards being non-prejudiced is a means to reduce bias. Making a concerted, daily effort, to check your preferences and curb your judgments is a habit that you have to build into your consciousness.

One last idea I would like to share is to look at your mentors. I am a huge believer in mentorship, and it has served me well to have them and serve as one. Who are your mentors? Is your circle of mentorship heterogeneous? This could be another means to examine and reduce your bias.

A Cyclical Process

This reflection on our bias should be something that we return to time and time again. As Khalifa (2018) purports, this is not a one time exercise, but an ongoing process; "First, critical self reflection must be embedded into the horizontal structures of schooling; that is, the work must occur more than once per year" (p. 73). Remember, bias is ingrained in our being genetically, through our experience, and in our environment.  If we want to make long lasting change, then we must do the hard work to change. This involves revisiting our bias, power, and privilege on a regular basis. It means being committed to change within ourselves so that we can influence change within our schools and communities.


Choudhury, S. (2015). Deep diversity: Overcoming us vs. them. Between the Lines.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.              

Johnson, A. G. (2006). Power, privilege, and difference (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Khalifa, M. (2018). Culturally responsive school leadership. Harvard Education Press.

Kimmel, M. S., & Ferber, A. L. (Eds.). (2016). Privilege: A reader (4th ed.). New York, NY: Westview Press.

Lopez, A. E. (2016). Culturally responsive and socially just leadership in diverse contexts: From theory to action. Palgrave Macmillan US.

Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. J. (2017). Is everyone really equal??: An introduction to key concepts in social justice education (2nd ed.). Teachers College Press.

Shields, C. M. (2019). Becoming a transformative leader: A guide to creating equitable schools (1st ed.). Routledge.

Terrell, R. D., & Lindsey, R. B. (2009). Culturally proficient leadership?: the personal journey begins within. Corwin Press.


Ryan is the director of IT and Innovation at the International School of Curitiba in Brazil.

Twitter: @ryanpersaud23
LinkedIn: Ryan Persaud

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