Breaking down bias barriers

25 March 2015
Prof Toni Zimmerman
Professor Toni Zimmerman

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he's about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can't operate—that boy is my son!" How is this possible?

This riddle was one of the many examples that distinguished visiting academic Professor Toni Zimmerman used in a public lecture, held at the Faculty of Education, to explain implicit bias.

The surgeon, of course, is the mother.

However, Professor Zimmerman says many people become perplexed over this riddle as their implicit bias associates surgeons with males.

Implicit bias is a mental attitude towards a person, object or thing, that someone is not aware of having.

Professor Zimmerman, from the University of Colorado, says teachers need to be aware of their implicit or unconscious bias when working with students as everyone deserves to be seen, heard and discovered for who they are – not who teachers assume they are.

“Science says we can’t stop it because it happens too fast, but we can recognise and replace it, ” Professor Zimmerman says.

In her motivational and interactive public seminar she discussed how teachers and classrooms must, at the core, provide fairness and safety to all students.

Using the ‘Big Eight’ - gender, race, sexual orientation, class, ability, age, culture and ethnicity and religion - she demonstrated how discrimination was not necessarily an act of consciousness.

For example, when providing examples of real life situations in class she often used white middle-class names. Although discrimination was not intentional, she was making some students feel invisible.

Her solution to ensuring all students are seen in class is to be transparent about who they are, where they come from and what they believe in.

“Being transparent about the individuals will show them that she [the teacher] cared enough about every person in the classroom … no matter what subject you teach.”

She says embracing cultural humility is not only beneficial for students’ safety and wellbeing, but for educational institutions to recruit and retain students.

Professor Zimmerman has extensive expertise in service learning and has led students to more than 15 countries to work within underserved communities. She has had the privilege to work with and learn from distinguished leaders in the field of human rights such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the Semester at Sea programme (who noted her work as compelling and essential) and Julienne Bond (civil rights leader who worked closely with Martin Luther King).

A further youth mentoring event at the University on Thursday March 26 is already booked to capacity.

Read 'Youth mentoring expert to talk at Parliament and the University of Auckland'