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How Media Perpetuates Bias

In a minute, I’m going to give you a pencil and paper. I want you to draw a hill, with a home on it, with a garden in front, and a tree behind. Before you get started, I’m going to ask you to picture the scene in your mind, and answer some questions.

Now picture the scene. Imagine each component in some detail. Take 10 seconds to imagine the hill… now imagine the home. Imagine the tree in the back of the home…  and the garden in the front. Something should be growing in the garden. It is a garden after all.

          What sort of hill is it? Are there others nearby? What color is it? Are there grasses, flowers, rocks? What is the shape of the home, the style? Is it lit, or dark, inviting, or foreboding.  The tree in the back, what sort of tree is it? Does it bear fruit? Is it flowering? What sort of garden is it? What grows there? Is it growing now? What colors do you see in the garden?   

This is an activity I do with my students. If you followed along, you might well have picked your own scene. Maybe you picked a tree you saw growing up, or one you have in your yard now. Maybe you picked a house like the one you live in, or one you’d like to live in one day. The garden probably matched the house. If you pictured an old farm house, you probably have a garden with raised beds and vegetables. That’s a normal and natural thing to do. We remember more easily the things we’ve seen for a long time, seen often, and seen recently.

I’ve never had a student picture a home they’d never seen. Children are more flexible with their imagination, because they’ve seen less, and so fill in more. But even so, they rarely put a Scottish castle with a palm tree and a Japanese garden. There’s nothing that ought to preclude that, it’s just not what jumps most easily to mind when you’re asked to picture the scene. Our minds aren’t lazy, they’re just efficient. When I tell you that you’re going to be drawing this in just a minute, you don’t savor the opportunity to draw something from the depths of your imagination. Instead you pull up something readily available. We’ll come back to this efficiency phenomenon in just a moment, but first we need to talk about just how important our imaginations are.  

The imagination is the most wonderful playing field. Children of all ages play in their imaginations. As they age, they spend less and less time there, and become more and more rigid, but the importance of imagining never diminishes. At younger ages, children imagine themselves to be animals, to be superheroes, to be characters in stories they play out again and again. It’s those characters, those stories, that imaginary world that helps to shape their dreams, desires, and beliefs about the world. Through these stories they learn about relationships between friends, between enemies, between romantic partners, and between themselves and the world around them.

  Before a student is ready to be a professional writer themselves, they need to pretend at it for awhile, to work through what it feels like. Just the same way you might try on a new pair of shoes and walk around in them before deciding to take them home, children need to try on a new persona, a new idea, a new story. They play it out again and again, and find the rough spots that need refining, or the empty places that need filling. It’s through this story-based play that they start to use all of the things they’ve seen, from mathematics to geography. When they learn about Brazil and the rainforest, they tell themselves stories about exploring the rainforest, or living as an animal there. And as you might expect, some of these stories become favorites that get revisited for years, and others are short-lived excursions. But every journey into the imagination has value.

Exposure is an important part of that journey. You can’t act like a cuttlefish if you have never seen a cuttlefish. It’s an educator’s job to make sure that students hear lots of different stories, told many different ways, covering a wide range of topics, and with a spectacular diversity of characters and settings. Exposure allows students to learn things they could never have learned otherwise.

  Now let’s go back to that bit about the efficiency of our memory, and that activity I do with my students. It reveals something about how our memories work. We tend to recall things together that are presented together. And we tend to recall things more often when they’re presented more often. Those things are simply easier and more efficient to recall and so, more likely to happen. That phenomenon is called implicit bias. It’s an unconscious thing our brains do that is useful most of the time, and downright dangerous some of the time.

          When I talk to my students about bias, I talk about it like an infection. Just like an infection, bias thrives when it isn’t noticed, or when it’s ignored. Just like an infection, it hurts the person who has it, and the people around them as well. And notably for this paper, just like an infection implicit bias can spread from one part of our minds to another and from one person to another.

          When you look at children’s books, you’ll notice that a vast majority of the characters in the stories, especially the protagonists, are white (92%). The structure of the story is often the same, with good guys and bad guys. Notice how familiar that last sentence sounded, and compare it to the same sentence ending with “good girls and bad girls.” Children’s book authors don’t deliberately add racist or sexist details, their implicit biases do. Unfortunately, those same details, the white protagonists, the default male in our language, the good vs bad, are the details children begin to fill into their own stories. As children, we very likely did the same filling in, and never stopped.

I used to jump off my parent’s stairs pretending to be Mary Poppins. I could be a powerful, magical, authoritative, feminine, hero. Slowly, one of those attributes became “off-limits” as I heard and saw more and more stories about people who looked like me. Again and again I saw powerful, magical, authoritative, heroes, who looked like me, right down to the straight light-brown hair. From superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Captain America, The Flash, and Wolverine, to detectives like Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Magnum P.I., and Hercule Poirot, from hero scientists like Enrico Fermi, to hero politicians like Abraham Lincoln.

Slowly but surely if became harder and harder to imagine the feminine part of myself being a “hero”. It wasn’t explicitly forbidden or taboo with my parents or friends, it just became distracting because it was more difficult to imagine and so drew energy away from the other story attributes. To pretend at femininity mixed with heroism became more difficult with time, just like imagining a Scottish castle with a palm tree and a Japanese garden. The implicit biases that led to the creation of those straight white masculine characters had infected my mind, and changed the way I thought. This is how the bias spreads.

But only one of those Mary Poppins attributes became “off-limits” to me. For my peers who looked like girls, they saw themselves portrayed as feminine again and again, but rarely as powerful authoritative heroes. How much more became “off-limits” to them? How much harder was it for them to imagine being a scientist, a professional mathematician? A U.S. President? How did their lives change, how did their self-concept change, how was their very existence informed by the implicitly biased decisions of the authors, directors, and producers of the media they saw, and heard, and read? That is how the bias spreads.

And for those students of color in my class, there were even fewer available models. For every 10 examples from which I could draw inspiration in my imaginary storytelling, my friend Christopher had nearly none. His skin was brown, and his hair was thick and curly. How many stories were there that showed him what he might be? That told the story of families like his? That gave him the metaphorical shoes to try on? How many times did he see people who looked like him represented as criminals, or sidekicks, or background to a white person’s story? That is also how the bias spreads.  

Now I am an educator, responsible for showing children the paths their lives might take. It’s my job to make sure, as best as I am able, that my own biases, my own history, do not become their futures. Selecting stories is more than picking my favorites, or the “classics”. I said earlier, “you can’t act like a cuttlefish if you’ve never seen a cuttlefish.” As an educator, it’s my job to show my students people, stories, and ideas which reflect their own lives, which show them possibilities for their future, and which give each of them the opportunity to imagine themselves in each story role.

As an Executive Director, it’s also my job to make sure that our curriculum, our teachers, our student body, and our families reflect the broader diversity of our community. When one of our community is limited, is confined, is left out by an unconscious bias that restricts them, everyone suffers. We must consider that bias as an infection, we must be mindful of its effects on our lives, and we must do everything we can to keep it from spreading to our children as it spread to us.

I try to remember a song when I think about bias and its insidious way of creeping into our imaginations. I try to remember the lines from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that so perfectly summed up what imagination ought to look like. “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”

          If we are myopic, or complacent, or if we deny our biases, then we will serve only to infect our children with the same implicit limitations of today. If we fail to note the fact that a rich white man, playing a rich white chocolate maker, is telling us to dream big, “anything” will ring in far too many ears as “anything within the boundaries of your race, gender, and class.” It will be all too obvious that only a rich white man could sing about changing the world with an expectation of success.

If we’ve done our jobs as parents, and teachers, and mentors to the children of this world; if we’ve helped to keep our biases from spreading; if we’ve opened up a world of pure imagination for our children; those words “anything you want to, do it!” will ring true. They will easily conjure up in their imaginations a more paradisaical place than we could ever imagine. And they will make the world in that image.

And yet here I am, a rich white man, writing to you about changing the world.

 David Ley

Executive Director/Educator