Exploring Cultural Bias

This page offers a method of identifying and examining cultural bias in general, and examining the bias surrounding historically oppressed groups in particular.

Most of our cultural bias is benign. For example, I long held a positive cultural bias about the American Bison. It’s an iconic animal for Americans, and I assumed that it was noble, kind, and proud. Upon seeing one recently, I now infer that most bison are mean-tempered, foul-smelling, and dangerous. Given the distance I enjoy from these animals, my earlier bias was ill-founded, but it didn’t have a significant impact on my life or the lives of bison.

Goals: 

1. To help students identify and eradicate malignant cultural biases.

2. To help students track common sources (usually specific movies and t.v. shows) of negative cultural stereotypes.

3. To encourage students to root out ill-founded cultural assumptions and to be aware of the human tendency to dangerously oversimplify social groups.

In General

Cultural Bias is the set of assumptions we have about a given population. Bias can be positive or negative. Both lead us to make weak inferences, though negative cultural bias is a lot nastier.

The key logical fallacy in play here is hasty generalization, in which we weakly infer that the traits of a small sample can be applied to a large population: If one dog bites, all dogs bite.

In order to make generalizations, we have to pick traits for categories. The traits that matter are called salient, and therefore determining saliency is a crucial step of making a generalization. If a dog bites me, I could generalize that all dogs bite, that all animals bite, that all German Shepherds bite, that all German Shepherds bite when you pinch their ears, etc. Which trait you pick as being salient is crucial to the success of your generalization. Our history and traditions have emphasized race as a salient feature, and now it’s our job to show that this was a grave mistake. The salient traits determining the key labels and categories we use for one another are charged labels.

The psychologist Paul Bloom offers three tiers of racism. I’ll heavily paraphrase:

1. Public – You are racist and you don’t care who knows it. You spout racist theories, analyses, and jokes to anyone who cares to listen.

2. Private – You are aware that your racist world-view is alarming to others, so you keep it to yourself and a few like-minded friends.

3. Unconscious Associations – You don’t think you’re racist at all, but by growing up in a racist society you have internalized a large set of assumptions about various racial groups.

The following lesson is aimed at #3, though it will ideally have a significant impact on #1 and #2 as well.

Lesson:

The following lesson is from Sam Wineburg’s excellent book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. He uses the activity as the core of a research project. I modify it here in an attempt to maximize the impact for the students.

1. Ask students to take out a blank sheet of paper. A half sheet works fine. Section into three equal parts by folding or simply with a pen or a pencil.

2. Big rule #1: No looking at each other’s papers. It will throw everything off. I usually ask them to set up dividers or use a “don’t-look-at-my-paper” cover paper. Big rule #2: No questions may be asked during the activity. I like to make a few jokes here about bathroom breaks and emergencies, but in general, clarifying questions will also throw off the activity.

3. Ask the students to draw a Pilgrim in the first section of their paper. They should make it as detailed as possible. They will not be graded on the quality of their drawing or on the level of detail, but I like to encourage them to make it look nice.

3. When finished with the Pilgrim, ask the students to draw an American Indian in the second section. All of the rules above still apply. No looking!

4. When finished with the American Indian, as the students to draw a Hippie. Same rules apply.

5. Once this final picture is completed, ask students to put down their pens or pencils and take a minute to laugh at each other’s drawings. (They are going to do this anyway, so it’s good to just give them time for it).

6. Once the laughter subsides, the work begins. The goal is to mine the data for cultural bias. Clear a space on the board to record data for each drawing. Ask the students, ‘What elements do you think your Pilgrim drawings might have in common?” Write each trait on the board and ask the students to raise their hands if the trait is represented in their drawing.

7. For Pilgrims, record how many students drew a male and how many drew a female. How many included a buckled hat, belt, or shoes? How many included a turkey? A musket? Corn? Pumpkins? How many interpreted “pilgrim” differently? As a religious pilgrim going to Canterbury? To Mecca? I have yet to see anyone stray from the mythology of the American Thanksgiving. I have run this activity many times, and generally there is a slight bias in favor of men, but women are well represented.

7. Ask students to list the sources for their conception of Pilgrims. Usually this list includes grade-school pageants and art projects, cartoons, and commercials. There is a general sense of purity and abundance. Takeaway: Young Americans have a positive cultural bias for Pilgrims.

8. Mine the data for American Indians. Male vs. Female? How many Indian men are shirtless? How many wear a feather? How many have a weapon? How many are barefoot? Generally, students draw images of Native American’s they have seen in cartoons (see Bugs Bunny in Horse Hare). I have had two or three students draw a contemporary image, complete with slacks and a collared shirt, but overwhelmingly students draw a person wearing clothes associated with the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the drawings show young men holding weapons. Take a moment and ask students to list their sources of knowledge about American Indians.

9. Students tend to see the point pretty quickly, but if they aren’t moving quickly, it’s nice to have some facts and figures ready. I like to show them the remarkably regular website of the Navaho Nation Council and to remind them that “Native American” is a term collecting vastly different groups with different languages, histories, traditions, arts, and lifestyles. Groups as different as the Irish and the Turks are lumped together. Takeaway: Young Americans have a radically simplified and generally negative (in that the drawings portray people who look uncivilized and a little dangerous) cultural bias for American Indians.

10. Mine the data for Hippies. This one tends to have the weakest cultural bias, and students offer drawings that range from hip-hop artist, to hipster, to disco star, to the classic long-haired, peace-sign-emblazoned hippie that most adults can quickly conjure. Younger students have likely encountered few images of hippies and are unlikely to place hippies in an historical perspective. The lack of a strong cultural bias concerning hippies allows students to appreciate the strong biases for Pilgrims and American Indians.

11. Final step: Apply this lesson to contemporary oppressed groups. If you discuss cultural bias against African-Americans, the short film Ethnic Notions offers an excellent overview of pop-culture portrayals of African-Americans throughout much of American history. This can be heavy lifting, so I have thus far only shown this video to older students (11th and 12th grade). While teaching in San Diego, the lessons of this activity were fruitfully applied to portrayals of Mexicans. Local news spends a lot of air time on drug cartels and undocumented workers, which often seemed to be the primary source of information about Mexicans for non-Mexican students.

Future lessons might involve any number of vehicles for students to supplant cultural bias by building a deeper pool of experience. This might involve reading books by authors representing a certain race, ethnicity, or religion, finding ways to meet or interview community members representing these groups, or gathering deeper historical or statistical information.

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