BIPOC Students and Bias in Higher Education: The necessity of unlearning biases to optimize outcomes for BIPOC students

The realities of bias against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students in our nation’s predominantly White colleges and universities are hidden in the ways we have been taught to give feedback and to regard race in the classroom. This article explores how this bias harms the way that BIPOC students are able to learn and how we, as instructors, can be a part of the solution. 

Written by Ariam Tesfaye

Bias against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) acts as a roadblock to opportunity, a barrier to resources, and, ultimately, places limitations on how BIPOC are able to succeed. 

But, what about in the realm of higher education? The realities of bias against BIPOC students in our nation’s predominantly white colleges and universities are hidden in the ways we have been taught to give feedback and to regard race in the classroom. This article aims to uncover how this bias harms the way that BIPOC students are able to learn and how we as instructors can be a part of the solution. 

At many higher learning institutions, there is often a “failure narrative” at play. Dena Simmons, Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, writes that this storyline causes BIPOC students and their teachers to “internalize the idea that such students are inherently deficient and in need of a teacher or some intervention to save them from themselves.” This narrative starts as early as K-12, where the foundation for learning is laid. School districts that serve predominantly nonwhite students receive $23 billion less in funding every year compared to their predominantly white counterparts. These are the same schools that are overpoliced and often have little to no mental health services available for their students. 

While a lack of funding and an abundance of policing play a major role in making it unsafe for BIPOC to learn, hardship is further reinforced by the cycle of academic feedback they receive.

In many ways, educators are conditioned to consider BIPOC students differently. Because of this unconscious bias, the work of BIPOC students may be evaluated differently by instructors when offering feedback, without even realizing it. Positive feedback bias refers to the tendency to avoid giving negative feedback to BIPOC students by white instructors because of the fear that doing so will feed into negative stereotypes of BIPOC students. 

On the other, however, there may be an overuse of academic feedback as a response to “non-traditional” language or writing. In either case, the different treatment given to Black and Brown students suggests that something is missing in their ability to self-critique and properly express their own ideas. Over time, this treatment compounds and translates into impostor syndrome, causing an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt and fear that one does not have the ability to absorb and analyze ideas “properly.” 

Impostor syndrome among BIPOC students is heightened by the minimal presence of nonwhite faculty on campus. Across the nation, 76 percent of college and university faculty are white, while 45 percent of students are not. If students are unable to see themselves as teachers, how can they envision themselves as being capable learners?

If the classroom is meant to be an accessible and inclusive space for BIPOC, our teaching practices must reflect the shared understanding that race is not a barrier, but rather an essential and unchangeable part of who we are which makes us experts in our experience. In a case study of 27 California school district instructors, it was found that having low expectations of Black and Brown students led to the reinforcement of “harmful ideologies which perpetuated whiteness as the racial construct of college-going abilities.” Instructors who practiced a higher degree of race consciousness, however, reported a pedagogy that emphasized positive traits such as self-respect and the view of education as a vehicle for furthering the principles of humanity.

Teaching is a heavy task, but if education is meant to shape the future then it must include all who are a part of the present. Incorporating elements of anti-racist curriculum, first asking ourselves the questions we ask our students, seeking knowledge and mirroring practices of BIPOC colleagues, these are ways in which we can unlearn our biases and move towards more unified teaching methods. 

Ensuring that BIPOC students feel comfortable in the arena of higher education is not a choice. If education can truly create opportunities, then we must do the work to recognize our BIPOC students as an essential and fully capable piece of the equation.

About the author: Ariam Tesfaye is Content Coordinator and Executive Assistant to the Chief Product Officer at Packback. Ariam is passionate about amplifying the voices of Black people and ensuring that pathways to opportunity are accessible for all who seek them. Before coming to Packback, Ariam graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a BA in African-American studies and communication.

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