Professors urge students to examine their implicit biases

Political science professor Timothy Lewis.

One professor’s recent experience with prejudice has sparked a campus-wide discussion among SIUE faculty about the implicit biases of students. 

Timothy Lewis, an African-American political science professor, said he has witnessed implicit biases in his students firsthand. Even so, he said that most of his experiences with students have been positive.

“The majority of my experiences with students are good, but there are those occasions where you have incidents that you are convinced, based on life circumstances and the fact that I research race and racism in my expertise, that you’re experiencing some manifestation of racism,” Lewis said. “It might not be overt racism, it may be something like an implicit bias, but you know that you’re experiencing that.”

Lewis said he has experienced racism and discrimination his entire life, so he knows what that looks like and can recognize it.

“Usually people that have experienced racism or homophobia or xenophobia have years of that experience, and so they may not in every instance be able to point to a scientific methodology by which they arrived at a conclusion, but by years of experience, you know what you’re experiencing,” Lewis said.

Lewis said he has recently experienced such an instance when a group of his students expressed fearing or being intimidated by him. At first, Lewis said he could not understand why his students would view him this way — he is shorter and weighs less than the average man. Lewis said he then began to suspect this perception of him may be related to his race.

“I began in the next class asking them ‘How many of you in grade school or your college have ever had a black instructor before?’” Lewis said. “And I think three of the 37 [students in the class] had a black instructor before. [For] the majority of the class, I was their first black instructor.”

According to Lewis when students constantly see only members of a single race within a particular position, they begin to associate that race with that space. This can then cause issues when somebody violates the expectations formed by these associations.

“When a person comes into that space that violates those years of experience, that student doesn’t know this, but subconsciously they’re uncomfortable, and that discomfort may cause them to say things or do things they’re not aware of that come across as biased,” Lewis said.

By discussing it openly within his class, Lewis said his students eventually acknowledged the possibility of having implicit biases.

“I think after the second class discussion, some were willing to admit, ‘Okay, maybe you’re right, maybe I do have an implicit bias.’” Lewis said.

After these discussions, Lewis decided to share the experience with other faculty members on campus. He did so through an email with the subject line “I am nothing to fear! I’m just Black!” The email sparked responses from several other professors, who expressed sharing similar experiences to varying degrees.

One respondent to Lewis’ email was Mohammad Shavezipur, a mechanical and industrial engineering professor. Shavezipur is originally from Iran, and he said he has experienced discrimination based on his ethnicity both in and out of the classroom.

“There was a girl sitting in the middle of class, and I could see she hates me by all means because anytime I made eye contact with the students, as soon as my eyes get to her eyes, she just turned her face like this and … wouldn’t look at me,” Shavezipur said. “Once, she came to my office with her friends [to discuss] a group project, [and] she did not enter the room.”

In response to discrimination like this and the looks Shavezipur said he often gets from students, he found a new way to address the issue — through humor.

“I started using comedy in my classes and joking about me as a Middle Eastern man,” Shavezipur said. “I use stereotypes [like] we ride camels, we haven’t seen cars — all stupid things that people think — and students seem to relate to it.”

Shavezipur said poking fun at these stereotypes has made it easier for students to feel comfortable with him. So comfortable, in fact, that Shavezipur said some students have started to joke back.

“People have called me in my class ‘You’re a terrorist’ as a joke, and I liked it,” Shavezipur said. “Not that I’m a terrorist, but I liked that we have broken this barrier … and we are able to joke about these stereotypes and students feel comfortable to do that.”

However, Shavezipur said he acknowledges that comedy does not work for everyone. He also said humor does not solve the underlying issue of discrimination and prejudices, and there is no easy fix for this problem. 

“This problem obviously doesn’t have a single solution, doesn’t have a simple solution,” Shavezipur said.

History professor Anthony Cheeseboro was another respondent. Cheeseboro said even though he is also an African-American man, he has not had the same experiences as Lewis within his own classroom. However, he said students do not express opposition to his ideas as often as he expected.

“I’ve had very few disrespectful students, [and] I’ve never had a student say they were afraid of me,” Cheesboro said. “However, having said that, I suspect that there have been times when students didn’t say everything they thought about something I said, because I used to be more openly political in classes than I am now.” 

Lewis said he has steered away from expressing political opinions in recent years because he wants students to be free to express their own thoughts; however, he said he still discusses controversial topics while teaching American history that he expects to spark stronger responses than they often do.

“In teaching American history, I talk about things that are controversial, things that are emotional, and I don’t get a lot of feedback,” Cheeseboro said. “And so, I suspect that there are times when students feel things that they don’t say.”

After reading Lewis’ email, Cheeseboro said he wondered if students not being vocal could be evidence that they are experiencing some fear toward him. However, Cheeseboro also said this is not something he thinks much about because there is nothing he can do to fix it on behalf of his students, and it is not his responsibility.

“For myself, if students are afraid of me, I’m not going to particularly worry about it because … I can’t control somebody else’s prejudice,” Cheeseboro said. “If somebody has racial issues, if somebody has issues about me as a black person, that’s really something they’re going to have to deal with. I can’t relieve them of those feelings.”

Regardless of the approaches of individual professors to address this issue — whether through discussions, humor or allowing students to figure it out themselves — Lewis said an institutional approach might also be necessary. Currently, there are no required programs for students about racial and ethnic biases, and Lewis said he believes there should be.

“Diversity is one of the values of the university, according to their value statement, and if it truly is, then we need to have trainings in place that at least let students know that they may or may not have implicit biases in some areas,” Lewis said.

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