Reflections on Confronting Unconscious Biases

Fall 2019

By Matthew Byrnes

byrnes1.jpgAfter searching for greater cultural and ethnic diversity and an additional pipeline for new students in an increasingly competitive market, Wooster School (CT) welcomed its first students from China in fall 2014. Since then, our program has evolved in many positive ways and has consistently placed all graduates in “best-fit” American universities. It’s hard now to imagine Wooster School without Chinese students and the depth and difference they bring to our community.
Helping to build and iterate a program for students from another country has given me the chance to deepen my understanding of the dissonance that occurs when we bring people from different cultures together in the context of a long-term commitment, like years of schooling in America. We’ve had to work hard to reach our Chinese students at the level of individual learning that is at the heart of our school’s ethos. Part of the challenge has always been language-based, but cultural misunderstandings related to the daily experience of school, like classroom discourse and teacher-student relationships, are always areas of growth for our newer Chinese students. As with many of our American students, we also are trying to reshape their nascent view of the existential. For example, we want to articulate that we believe relationship-building skills are more important to a life well-lived than the level of math learning achieved by the end of upper school. Thankfully, as the international student program has evolved, so too has our understanding of our Chinese students and ourselves, as individuals and as a school writ large.
Because of how human brains work, many of us who are not Chinese have an unconscious, overly simplified notion of what it means to be Chinese. Before having ever gone to China, my unconscious mind was likely to create a general picture of a Chinese person that included regimentation, insularity, a preference for the state over the individual, a paucity of creativity, and so on. Stereotypes inevitably live within our minds. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminded us in her iconic 2009 TED talk, the problem is not with the stereotypes themselves, but rather “that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
So, through the tangle of third-party agencies, visas, translations, Skype interviews, marketing, and multiple recruiting trips to China, one of our challenges at Wooster School has been to recognize our Chinese students as unique individuals, with their own stories. In doing so, we move away from our natural propensity to let initial stereotypes influence our decisions and behaviors and toward a more holistic understanding of our students and their experiences. For me, enriching my understanding of what it means to be Chinese—and a Chinese student in America—has been a process of recognizing many of the similarities that my family and I share with many of the Chinese students and parents whom we’ve gotten to know these past five years, and also becoming more appreciative of differences. Seeing the similarities as a means to expand beyond the stereotype was just the first step in an ongoing process—certainly not the final destination.

A Family Visit

The learning journey for any head of school with international students should begin with experiencing the country and culture firsthand. I took my first trip to China in 2007, have been back twice, and plan to return next year. My visits have been driven by efforts to find school partnerships, build parent connections, encourage philanthropic giving, and learn more about the Chinese educational system and market. Opportunities to interact off the recruiting circuit have deepened my understanding of the country and its people, leading to more thoughtful program leadership at home.
During one recent trip to China, my wife and I spent three days with the parents of four of our students from the city of Shenzhen, which has grown rapidly since its inception in 1979 as part of China’s first special economic zone (districts where businesses are exempt from certain trade laws). It is a beautiful city, well-designed, with a clear preference for sustainability. One highlight of our visit was a dinner hosted by a power couple—the father a president of a local bank and the mother an executive at the Chinese tech firm Tencent. Over the course of the evening, we talked with the parents about their pride of the green city they helped create and their roles as entrepreneurs and pioneers in a new Chinese environment, similar to our own Silicon Valley. We spoke candidly about the Chinese and American political and economic systems. We also talked about our kids, what they were good at, and how they struggled. During dinner, one of our hosts and I engaged in a spirited exchange of toasts with a favorite liquor called baijiu, which is served for celebratory purposes in a small glass. Aided by our interpreter and sometimes our own halting English, we went back and forth. With a twinkle in his eye, he came up with every reason under the sun to toast me, my wife, and our school. The dinner stopped being about work, though we did raise some money, and started being about having fun with an exciting, energetic group of people.
Throughout the rest of our time together, we continued to tell our stories and uncover shared understandings of parenting, schools, politics, and teenagers. We acknowledged some of our differences as well; for instance, a preference on the part of our Chinese hosts for state intervention, even if it meant that the government could regulate the amount of time that an executive working for a government-controlled bank could spend playing golf. The trade-off for them was a cleaner city, infinitesimal crime rates, and a comfortable standard of living. When I pushed back gently with some of the “hidden” costs of such a society, there was an acknowledgment and some equally gentle suggestions that our own system came with many hidden costs as well.
Most striking, perhaps, was our shared sense of disempowerment, of being pulled along by political and economic tides beyond our control. We could share our thoughts and our lived experiences, but even when finding common ground, none of us were sanguine about the macro-elements of the broader geopolitical landscape. Fittingly, we spent our final evening listening to a German rock band while celebrating a faux Oktoberfest on a grounded cruise liner surrounded by shopping malls, with a beautiful view of the bay and Hong Kong in the distance—all of us players in what sometimes felt like an East meets West reality television show.

Through a Different Lens

This trip was far different from my first in 2007, when, quite frankly, I was utterly myopic on the subject of China and went there bereft of any particular lens but the stereotypical one inside my head. During that trip, I found myself dining with a group of American and Chinese school administrators in Beijing. I was the high school principal from a suburban New York public school district looking to expand and deepen the impact of the popular Chinese visitation program by finding a “sister” institution interested in hosting short-term homestays for our American students.
It was a typical formal Chinese dinner. The food—plentiful, varied, and delicious—was arranged on a giant wheel at the center of the table. When new dishes were introduced, they were immediately spun to the Chinese administrator with the highest status, who would offer the first taste to the highest-ranking visitor. Our superintendent, more interested in observing Chinese culture than engaging with it, would politely refuse the proffered dish, diverting it to those of us who were willing to try anything. Adding to the discomfort was the party official who joined us: a nearly silent, unsmiling presence seated prominently on the other side of the Chinese school superintendent. She was as gray and dour as my preconceived notions about communist China. Incomplete stereotypes were confirmed all around.
In a sense, I was like the first university roommate that Adichie remembers in her talk, who equated her, before having met her, with “a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.” On my first trip, communism framed my single story of Chinese people. I hadn’t thought about food and drink, family and love, fun, ambition, friends, or sorrow.

Being Human

I am thankful for how far I have come since that first trip. Despite the obvious and ongoing political and economic challenges both countries face, I am encouraged by the connections that continue to evolve. Regardless of rank, status, income, or home country, people crave connection and meaning in their lives; personal relationships form the bedrock of daily life. We yearn for work that contributes to some higher purpose, and we all want to feel safe. As parents, we experience a common anxiety: the fear that we aren’t doing enough for our child—more a biological than a cultural imperative. Often these fundamental human desires run counter to the predictable outcomes of our political and economic systems. In China and the United States, while the systems are different, the tensions are the same.  
Despite my growth in understanding, I sometimes still fall back on simplistic frameworks when I am working through an issue with a Chinese student or parent. Despite our school’s experience, the echoes of single stories about China still sometimes reverberate on our campus. I might hear from American students, parents, or colleagues—hardly any of whom have been to China—that our Chinese students are selfish, for instance, or are uninterested in American culture. 
I counter these constricting narratives by reminding people that it is challenging to live 3,000 miles from home; to learn and speak in a second language every day; and to be a new member of a host family, perhaps sharing with “brothers and sisters” for the first time. I also try to remember, and remind others, that complete conformity to American culture should not be a goal of our program. We should think of our understanding of cultures as Adichie encourages us to understand stereotypes—not as inaccurate but as incomplete. Perhaps we should all start by acknowledging that what our Chinese students do takes grit and resilience. Moreover, all of us in schools should never forget how “teenage” all our students are, with their underdeveloped frontal lobes, absentminded messiness, and screen-obsessed behavior. If they weren’t this way, we might all be out of jobs.

Connecting for Our Future

Finding ways to connect with parents and hear the personal stories of Chinese students can move a community toward deeper understanding of all of its members. Frequent outreach to parents through letters, phone calls, and even WeChat (a popular Chinese messaging app) can help to humanize connections. Treating each visit by Chinese parents, which are relatively rare, like a special occasion—always with time to meet with the head of school—also goes a long way toward creating a stronger bond. 
We still have much to do at our school, but each year we get closer to recognizing our Chinese students and parents as the uniquely complex people that we all are. Because we had previously been buying into the single story of Chinese math and science prowess, we were surprised by the number of Chinese students who gravitated toward our art program. Now, Chinese students are routinely recognized for their contributions in art and have become role models for other students—including American students—who aspire to college art programs. We have had similar epiphanies as our Chinese students have become more involved in student leadership and social justice causes as well. We have also come to an inconvenient truth: We need to find a way for our American students to have meaningful experiences in China.
Regardless of where we come from, when we spend time together and share our stories, it deepens empathy and expands connection. When we recognize our similarities as the social, communal beings that we are, we can begin to appreciate how culture influences and changes personal interactions and belief systems in different countries. This is when the deep learning can occur. Think about what we can learn when we work to go beyond the single story. How might the intermingling of so many Chinese and American stories help us to move away from the shallow and limiting single story that colors the perceptions of both nations and move us toward a more hopeful shared future?
Matthew Byrnes

Matthew Byrnes is head of school at Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut.