Executive Functions to Fight Racism

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This episode might get me in the good kind of trouble, and I’m okay with that. We’re getting uncomfortable because it’s the right thing to do. I have examples from over 15 years of teaching, and of course, I’ll change the names of my colleagues and students. But these are honest examples of how I’ve seen racism play out in school and how I have (and haven’t) used executive function to combat racism. I challenge you to absorb these ideas. Let them make you feel. Let them make you question. Let them make you change for the better. I’ll be there with you, changing too.

We’re going to talk about some of our executive functions and their implications for fighting racism. When we intentionally grow our abilities to think critically and act according to our actual values, we can make significant steps against racism. I believe that each of us has racist beliefs. Our brains get lots and lots of information, and we often unconsciously categorize what we observe. Depending on the types of experiences we have—the types of places we live, who we spend time with, how adults around us act in different circumstances, what tv shows we see—we are exposed to patterns, that whether true or not, stick in our brains. We often confuse these patterns with facts. Our job is to question our own thoughts, our language and behavior patterns, and change when we see racism in our own lives.

I’ll give you an honest example that I’m ashamed of now. When I was in college learning to become a teacher, most of the books and articles we read about reaching kids in poverty had images of black and brown students. I didn’t question this misuse of imagery until a few years into teaching. I came across an article about teaching at an impoverished school, and I felt uncomfortable with the image of a group of white girls sitting at a lunch table. I actually stopped and realized I unconsciously expected black and brown kids to embody poverty, even though my thinking brain knows any kid, from any background, can experience poverty. I hadn’t been alert enough to question the images all along, and that was racist. The people writing and publishing the articles had good intentions of helping people in poverty, yet they were also perpetuating racism. (I will note here that poverty disproportionately affects people of color, and that is not okay. But being black or brown is not and should not ever be a symbol for poverty). If I had put my flexible thinking to better use, I would have noticed and been able to address my own flawed thinking. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about today.

Emotional Regulation:

You will encounter racism. Your family, friends, or colleagues will tell a joke or use a term that spreads at least a poor understanding, if not hate. When you are able to self-regulate your emotions, you’ll be better able to address racism and maintain relationships with those who need help addressing their own racism, if you choose to do so.

Unfortunately, I have tons of examples from school and social parts of my life. And there are times when I handle it well, really poorly, and not at all. (I’m most ashamed of the times I didn’t speak up.) I’ll start with an example that turned out well. A former partner teacher and I were looking over our class lists before report cards. She mentioned with a very factual demeanor how sad she thought it was that the black families we had just didn’t care about school. She argued that you could see it in the students’ grades. I could feel the blood rush to that tell-tale vein in my forehead, my body felt hot, and I shook a little. But, I used a few deep breaths and stepped into the discomfort with questions. This strategy helped me suppress some of the mean things I wanted to yell at her and gave me a chance to get my head straight while also learning where she was coming from. I asked her what “not caring” looked like to her. I asked her what “caring about school” looked like in contrast. She was coming up short already and struggling to back up her claim, as I reminded her of several of the families who did indeed “care,” according to her measures, and were also black. She tried to dismiss the examples with, ‘yeah, but..” so I offered her some questions to chew on: could some families show caring in different ways? Could there be other reasons they don’t do the things you expect them to do? Then I claimed I needed to pee and got out of there for a while. My emotional regulation was about tapped out by then.

When, not if, you encounter racism, and you’re wanting to deeply address it with the person, asking questions is a great way to unroot their thinking while staying calm.

A time I didn’t handle it well was when I lost it at a party. One of my distant relatives used a racist term about Mexicans, loudly, several times. This relative also works in law enforcement. Instead of using the moment as an opportunity to help him grow his thinking, instead of modeling how to speak up for the few other party goers who also seemed unhinged over the term…I lost it. I yelled at him that he was racist and ugly and that he should lose his job. I used some potty words. I fumed. And then we left. I saw him months later but never talked about it. I’m not ashamed that I spoke up, but because emotions got the best of me, the message was lost and more easily dismissed. And because I heated up then left, I never got the chance to talk over his thinking with him. I don’t and won’t ever agree, but if I had opened the conversation, I would have had a chance to challenge his thinking and help him, maybe, open his mind.

If you’re angry, embrace it. Anger is great fuel for facilitating change. But, don’t let your anger drive your actions into crazy town. If you’re too mad to be strategic, take some time to cool off before fully addressing the issue. You can always just say, “Dude, that’s not ok.” Or, “You’re joking, right?” so that you’re not letting it go but you’re also giving yourself some think time. P.S. We learned the “Dude” strategy on a morning show, and I wish I knew who the psychologist was who said it. But the main idea is this: if you need to correct someone or address something, but it’s uncomfortable, start with “dude.” “Dude, can you please back up?” “Dude, what you’re saying is racist.” It works like magic to take the edge of what could be a conflict.

Flexible Thinking:

When you bump into a thought or assumption your brain has created as a shortcut, Oh, this person is this race, so she must be good at math, stop and examine it. Use your flexible thinking to move the idea around your brain a bit. Can you think of counter examples? Do you have evidence to the contrary? Is keeping this idea limiting yourself or others? On the surface, a generalization like an assumption of aptitude (that all people with ancestors from certain areas of the world are good at math), is at least positive. But, making a generalization like that as, say, a teacher, may limit how you support certain students in certain topics. It may even make you think a student is not trying their best, when in reality they are simply needing a little help.

On the topic of race and the classroom, I have another idea to chew on. (This will probably make you uncomfortable. Embrace it. That’s your brain sensing change or a threat to its current constructs of knowledge, and that’s ok. Remember how it felt to learn anything you didn’t want to hear? For me, it was hearing testimony about Cosby. That broke my brain for a few hours because it didn’t fit into my understanding of the jolly Jelly fanatic. Flexible thinking can feel as uncomfortable as physical flexibility. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It’s worth the effort).

When school administrators look at disaggregated data—scores that are separated by student characteristics, like gender and race, many notice that students identified as white or Asian receive higher scores on standardized assessments than their peers identified as black or Latino. This is a moment for flexible thinking. It would be easy to make assumptions that certain groups of students either don’t try hard enough or don’t value school. I mean, they didn’t pass our tests, right? Flex this thought a bit by questioning: how do we know our tests were fair for everyone? Have we examined classroom and school factors that would impact certain groups of students? Has knowing the patterns of high and low performance associated with groups of students made us treat these students differently?

In 2003, two researchers, Thernstrom and Thernstrom, came to a conclusion that resonated with me, as an educator and observer of school systems. They found that the most compelling reason that white and Asian students did better on standardized assessments was Western European and East Asian cultures align well with what American school systems value: obedience, mastery of content (ability to regurgitate facts), and personal commitment to excellence. So, say you’re from a culture in which interrupting is common in communication or which values teamwork over individual achievements; you’re going to clash with American classroom routines, expectations, and teachers. You may be treated differently or even removed to the office during portions of the day. The students who demonstrate aligned values get an advantage, and that could explain their higher test scores. I’d even bet that the tests themselves reaffirm some of the values.

I know that I’ve run into bias in assessments. I worked at school that had very little funding, and because of this, we were using assessments from the 90’s to evaluate if students qualified for special education services. My peers at wealthier schools, by contrast, used much more updated materials. One of my assessment prompts asked students to solve a math problem that involved purchasing cassette tapes, and I wasn’t allowed to go “off script” to explain what cassettes were (because doing so would make the tests not standardized). So, my students would score worse than their peers at wealthier schools as a result of test material differences, not their capacities.

 Another assessment subtest asks student to read short sentences and reply quickly if they are true or false. One of the sentences relays that a man has two arms. The test wants the students to agree and move on, quickly. While this is a timed test, I’ve had several students stop and point out that a man with a missing limb is still a man. Their scores go down because taking the time to speak up for people with disabilities means they cannot answer as many prompts. Their scores look worse on paper. Yet there is no measurement to reflect the fact that they are critical thinkers and advocates for others. If we just took their scores, held them as a realistic and true measurement, then applied them to all people in their ethic or gender groups, we would be so, so wrong. Yet, this is such common practice in education. And why flexible thinking can be one more way to combat racism in your own life.

I do believe schools are facilitating systematic racism, but together we can do better. We have to.

Grab that kid. Time for this week’s pep talk.

Hey Kid!

I bet you’ve seen a lot on social about racism lately. I bet you’ve even thought about some jokes or words you’ve heard. You may have even laughed at the time, to fit in or stay cool—maybe you even thought the shock of the joke made it funny. I think we’re all in reflection mode a bit, maybe feeling regretful that we put up with racist jokes or comments because we didn’t know what else to do.

Your grown up learned a few important strategies that you can use too! Depending on who is saying or doing racist things, you may want to deal with it right away, help the person try to change, or at least stop the racism you’re seeing.

First, if you’re not comfortable having a full conversation (maybe it’s the middle of class or at a party), you can try the “Dude” strategy. Just say “Dude” before you say what you want to say. It makes saying difficult things a lot easier. “Bro” works too. Like, “Dude, you can’t use that word.” Or, “Bro, that’s not cool. Leave her alone.” Practice at home a few times until it feels normal to speak up like that. “Dude, not cool” is an easy one you can practice and have ready for when you need to speak up. You will never regret being the person brave enough to stop racism.

If you are one-on-one with a person and you’re ready to have a conversation about racism, start by asking questions. Ask the person, “tell me more…” or “What do you mean when you say all ____ people are ____?” You can keep asking questions until the person runs out of ideas because their thinking is faulty. Or, you can leave them with a powerful question and walk away. Listening doesn’t mean you agree at all. It just means you’re there to help the person change.

You probably have seen patterns that your brain has connected with certain groups of people. In fact, I bet you could fill in these blanks: ____ people are good at math. _____ people are good at basketball. Your brain is taking what it sees and making the patterns into facts. The danger is when you think ALL people of one group are a certain way. So, when you hear yourself think or say something like that, take some time to question yourself. You’ll probably learn about your ways of thinking and you will definitely be making your brain ready to question and fight racism.

This won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Let me know your thoughts! All my love,


Photo by https://unsplash.com/@liamedwards