Bias Among the Well-Intentioned

Winter 2010

By Christine Savini

In my work as a diversity professional, both as one school’s long-term diversity director and now as a consultant and workshop leader for many schools, I have found that building a diverse faculty has been, and continues to be, a profound challenge for most schools, even after decades of effort. It is my hope that the case study presented here, and the diagnosis and prescription stemming from that analysis, may shed light on one aspect of the challenges and some means to overcome it.

A Case Study

The following is a true story, which took place during one school year, with all identifying characteristics changed. 

Sunny Valley School (SVS) is a 100-year-old K–12 day school located in the suburbs of an eastern U.S. city. Nearly 24 percent of its 750 students are people of color. The head and board of trustees, having recently included support of diversity in the school’s mission statement, also wrote in their strategic plan that they are committed to further diversifying the 100 faculty and administrators at the school. Currently, there are seven professionals of color at SVS: an African-American admissions recruiter, two Spanish teachers from Latin America, a Chinese teacher from Taiwan, an African-American athletics coach, an African-American health center director, and a Latina diversity director. Members of the faculty diversity committee have pointed out that, while they value what the school has achieved so far in creating faculty diversity, at 7 percent of the adult population, it doesn’t come close to mirroring the school’s student numbers or the proportion in the school’s local area. They also note that there is no person of color teaching in the academic departments beyond the three teachers who teach their native language, and no administrator of color except in the diversity office.

Sunny Valley School has tapped a variety of sources to obtain résumés of diverse candidates. The school has asked placement agencies to send résumés of their multicultural candidates. Also, SVS annually attends the regional independent school diversity job fair, posts its openings on the local People of Color in Independent Schools (POCIS) listserve, and recently joined an area consortium dedicated to the recruitment of faculty of color. 

The head of school, Rachel Simon, is deeply engaged in a major capital campaign and building program, a major priority of the board. Devising creative ways of managing an independent school during a time of national recession is also occupying much of the head’s efforts during her second year in the position. At SVS, the head’s role in the hiring process traditionally has come into play only after a department chair or the long-term dean of faculty, Clark Chase, recommends a finalist to her as a department’s choice.

Amid this setting, a retirement has created an opening in the upper school English department. The department chair, Heather Stone, an SVS graduate, says the department is “looking for someone who could teach the range in grades 9–12. We would like someone with a master’s degree in English, some previous teaching experience, and particular strength in teaching writing. Another requirement is willingness to coach, or advise a club or activity. And the department is also very interested in having a diverse candidate pool.” There has been very little turnover in the English department during the four years Stone has served as chair. Having risen through the ranks in the department, her experience in hiring has been limited to filling a sabbatical replacement and a maternity leave. The head of school views this as an opportunity to diversify the English department. She is encouraged to hear the dean of faculty enthusiastically declare that the diversity director, Madeleine Rivera, “has been actively recruiting candidates of color from several sources for the position.”

Rivera presents the résumé of a candidate of color she received from one of the teacher recruitment agencies. Keith Wood is an African-American English teacher with 20 years experience on the secondary and college levels, who has spent the last five years at an international school in Paris. Wood wants to return to the States and spend more time near his retired parents, who live within driving distance of SVS. Because Wood has independent school experience as both a student and teacher, along with a B.A. from Wesleyan and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, Rivera considers him a wonderful candidate for the highly academic Sunny Valley faculty. The agency’s description also notes that Keith distinguished himself at the three independent schools at which he taught as a strong mentor of student writers, securing publication of his students’ work in many journals and successes in several national student writing competitions. 

Although Wood’s academic credentials and teaching recommendations are outstanding, both Chase and Stone express reservations about inviting Wood for a visit. The dean says, “Given his age, 45, he’ll be an expensive hire. I don’t know if we can afford him.” Stone adds, “Members of the department say they don’t think that, after five years in Paris, he’s looking at SVS seriously, given our location.” She also notes the male majority in the department and that most of the faculty is over 40. She goes on to say that, “What we really need is a dynamic woman in her late 20s.”

Rivera is disappointed at the decision, but moves on, encouraging Stone to consider a second candidate of color, this time a young woman she interviewed at the regional diversity job fair, Yvette Whittiker. Rivera learned that, as a high school student, Whittaker emigrated with her parents to Louisiana from their native Jamaica. She graduated with a 3.8 average from Louisiana State University in Shreveport, majoring in English and receiving teacher certification. She was hired to teach English in a public high school near Shreveport, where her principal and department chair praised her as their best teacher of writing. After three years of teaching, she attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, where she worked for two years as a teaching fellow in freshman composition, before completing her MFA in Creative Writing. While at Iowa, one of her short stories was published in The Southern Review

Stone tells Rivera that the department has strong concerns over what some members call “weak undergraduate preparation.” Asked to elaborate, Stone speaks of her attendance at “an unknown college.” She says there were also questions from some department members of “how American students would be able to decipher her Jamaican accent.” Rivera, who had met Yvette at the job fair, assures them that this is not an issue. Clark Chase responds by saying he doesn’t “really know how to evaluate public school experience,” and he isn’t sure what Whittaker could coach.

Rivera has begun to grow frustrated with the responses to the two candidates of color, and sets up a meeting with Chase, to whom she reports. Chase finds Rivera in the hall later that day and inquires about the meeting. Reminding him of the school’s commitment to diversity, Rivera asks him to reconsider Yvette Whittaker’s candidacy. She reiterates that she had met this candidate at the regional job fair and found her impressive. She also stresses that she is not asking the department to hire the candidate, but only to meet her. Chase tells Rivera that he will call Ms. Whittaker. A week passes, and Chase finally does call her, only to learn that she has just accepted a position at a nationally known boarding school in the same region. 

Stone has moved on to set up interviews for some other applicants for the position. None are people of color. When the head of school asks Chase about candidate diversity in the English department search, he replies, “We had two candidates, but one was too expensive and the other accepted a position at another school.”

At this point, we can speculate about what the head and diversity director can do in response to the situation. But why did the dean of faculty and department chair proceed as they did? At the beginning of the search, both the dean and chair verbally supported Sunny Valley’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. But something hindered them from acting as truly effective diversity allies.

Unconscious Bias

Most likely, both the dean and department chair were impeded by unconscious bias. Bias is a tendency to look at a situation from a specific and sometimes limiting perspective, based on past personal or hearsay experience. We all possess some forms of bias, which is part of normal thought processes. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and an expert on the psychology of race, says that all of us are affected by “the cultural smog” we absorb through media stereotypes, family influences, life experience, and geographic isolation. To become effective diversity allies, we need to develop an awareness of the cultural smog we have “inhaled.” Those of us who possess some form of privilege are often unaware of our biases. And those of us who have sometimes been the victims of bias (women, people of color, gay people, disabled people, etc.) may be unaware that we may have internalized societal bias as well. Since we are unaware of possessing unconscious bias, its manifestation is unintentional and often expressed in subtle ways.

When discussing the concept of unconscious bias in my consulting work with schools this year, I often heard some variation on the phrase “but this is the country that elected President Obama,” as if this proves unconscious bias is a thing of the past. Indeed, there has been a notable shift on the national racial landscape, but many schools have yet to experience the change. There are still few people of color who head independent schools. And while 40 percent of the Obama cabinet is composed of people of color, how many independent school administrative teams or boards of trustees look like the Obama cabinet? We still need to talk about how our unconscious bias plays out in our schools. 

Aversive Racism

One form of unconscious bias is aversive racism, a concept developed through extensive research by Yale Psychology Professor John Dovidio and Professor Samuel Gaertner from the University of Delaware. According to Dovidio and Gaertner, “Aversive racism is the inherent contradiction that exists when the denial of personal prejudice co-exists with underlying unconscious negative feelings and belief” about people of color, particularly blacks by whites. Those who experience feelings of aversive racism may regularly discriminate while maintaining a non-prejudiced self-image. The term “aversive” refers to maintaining a conscious commitment to principles of equity and finding the idea that they might be prejudiced to be aversive.

Project Implicit

Project Implicit — a study by Harvard University, the University of Washington, and the University of Virginia that has surveyed 4.5 million visitors in online tests of hidden racial bias — supports the research of Dovidio and Gaertner. Testing from 2000 to 2006 found that 75 percent of whites tested had an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias. (In 2006, they also found bias in white children as young as six years old.) The test involves measuring how reflexively a person associates positive and negative words with photographs of black and white people, and is well described in Chapter 3 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. (You can test yourself at: In another study by faculty at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and MIT, human resource directors were sent job applicant résumés to which names had been attached that were either “typical” of contemporary African-American names (e.g., Lakisha), or not overtly African-American (e.g., Emily). The result? HR directors were 53 percent more likely to invite the neutrally named individuals to an interview — even though, when interviewed, the HR directors felt that they would be eager to invite diverse candidates to interview with their firms.

Why do we have this bias? Project Implicit found that “our brains make associations based on experiences and information we receive, whether we consciously agree with those associations or not.” What does this bias look like? In contrast to the feelings of open hostility toward black people that characterize blatant racism, the negative feelings associated with unconscious bias are more diffuse, such as feelings of anxiety or uneasiness. Sometimes the feeling is one of ambivalence. This is usually due to a tension between wanting to be supportive of equity, yet having internalized our “cultural smog.” 

How Is Unconscious Bias Manifested?

Unconscious bias results in a conflict between stated belief and actual behavior. A person may endorse equality and nondiscrimination and believe he or she is well intentioned, but act in a discriminatory way and justify those actions, quite sincerely, with reference to matters having nothing to do with race. Thus, at Sunny Valley, though the administrators’ words, backed by the mission statement and strategic plan, affirm their commitment to diversity, they avoid hiring, or even interviewing, the available candidates, citing reasons not connected to race.

In our case study, there were several examples of discrimination on factors other than race. The dean of faculty speculated, “At 45, I don’t know if we can afford him.” No one asks Keith Wood what salary range he may be looking for. Although the recruitment agency specifically noted Wood’s geographic preference for SVS’s area, Stone reported that her colleagues doubted that Wood would be interested in their area after working in Paris. Once again, no one talks to the candidate. 

The department head reminds everyone of the majority of males in the department and of their ages, moving the focus away from race. “What the department really needs is a dynamic woman in her late 20s.” But when presented with just such a candidate, bias continues, based on factors other than race. Despite the candidate’s graduate degree at one of the most distinguished writing programs, the department focuses on “weak undergraduate preparation at an unknown college.” The dean says he doesn’t “really know how to evaluate public school experience.” The chair claims that members of the department question “how American students would be able to decipher her Jamaican accent,” without ever meeting the candidate to see if her accent is understandable.

In questioning what Yvette Whittaker could coach, the dean ignores the fact that SVS faculty may also advise a student activity, and doesn’t learn what extracurricular contribution she could make, again avoiding candidate contact. The person exhibiting aversive racism may avoid interracial interactions. In our case study, neither the department chair nor dean of faculty interviewed either of the two black candidates, on the phone or in person, despite the fact that both completely filled the department’s requirements for the position. Chase delays calling Whittaker for a week, by which time she has already accepted another position.

How Can Schools Respond to Unconscious Bias?

First, schools need to have conversations with their adult communities about unconscious bias. Training on this subject cannot be optional if a school truly wants to ensure that all adults are effective allies for its diversity mission, and that its community is authentically inclusive. 

They also need to talk about unconscious bias outside of formal training — in board, administrative, and department meetings. Although doing so will make people uncomfortable initially, they must find the courage within themselves to take this step and trust in these conversations. As Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, “As a society, we pay a price for our silence [on these issues].”

Finally, administrators and faculty need to build in systems of accountability, creating written procedures and checking to see if those procedures are being followed. For example, at one school, a dean told me she was concerned about low academic achievement of black boys in the middle school. When I asked her about her conversations with the boys’ parents, she told me she didn’t contact the parents because she wasn’t sure how they would respond. Parents in this case were not given vital information about their child until term grades were completed, depriving them of information, and of the opportunity to partner with the school to support their child. In this case, if there were written procedures for administrators to respond to students having academic difficulties, one of which was to have a conversation with the parent, the dean would know that contact was required. Even when procedures are in place, everyone, especially key administrators, needs to be aware of the tendency to avoid implementation when unconscious bias is present. 

Written procedures for hiring, and documentation of the decision process are much less common in independent schools than those for student records, whether in the dean’s or the admissions office, but they are no less necessary. Returning to our case study, if Sunny Valley had written procedures requiring that, in every search, all candidates representing diversity needed to be contacted directly to ascertain their interest and availability, and that, given the competition for these candidates, contact must be initiated within a specified time of receiving the résumé, Keith Wood could have made clear his interest and salary needs, Yvette Whitaker’s oral clarity would have been confirmed, and the school could have made an informed decision about whether to proceed in either case.

Once we are aware what unconscious bias is, how it is manifested, and how we can respond to it, we can build an inclusive organization that gives everyone the opportunity to participate fully, and contribute their talents, background, and viewpoints to our schools.
Christine Savini

Christine Savini is principal consultant at Diversity Directions and director of the summer workshop, The Independent School Diversity Seminar. Diversity Directions has consulted to independent schools in 10 states, assessing school climate, mentoring diversity directors, and assisting with diversity strategic planning, recruitment and retention of diverse faculty, multicultural programming and professional development.