Interrupting Bias in Arts Education

In the last couple of years, as a result of the perspective my position and work allows, I have become more aware of the need to focus on diversity, equity, access, inclusion, and on the strategies we use to genuinely model and support those concepts with the young people we teach. It seems the city is also taking a stab at these concepts. From Mayor de Blasio’s vision for a more inclusive and equitable city, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) conducted a survey in order to build understanding of where the cultural community stands with regards to diversity. 987 cultural organizations provided information on 36,441 paid employees. The results were recently published. They found that while the city is better than the rest of the country, it does have room for improvement to employ a workforce in cultural organizations that is representative of the population of the city.[1]

Last year, just as the DCA survey was being launched, at the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable conference, Face to Face 2015, Sobha Kavanakudiyil, with Michael Wiggins, James Miles, and Courtney J. Boddie presented a session called Diversity in Leadership. The room was overflowing with people eager to listen, learn, and contribute.  It became evident how much of a need/desire there was in the arts education community to have conversations and reflections around diversity, not only of the leadership, but also in the strategies we use to effectively work with the diverse population of students. NYC public schools students represent cultures, languages and races from all parts of the globe.  (68% are black and latino, and 41% speak a language other than English at home).  Like the DCA results, the educators and artists working in the system are not representative of the student population.

As a result of the obvious need to continue the conversation, on Friday January 22, 2016 the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable hosted a Day of Learning: Equity and Access for all. This was made possible with the creation of the diversity task force after the 2015 Face To Face conference and spearheaded by roundtable board member, Piper Anderson.  I joined this group in the late stages of planning for this day. I was inspired by the sold out crowd’s commitment to being present to the conversations we were embarking on during this event. The goal was to explore the role of diversity, cultural equity and inclusion in arts education. I was glad to find a group of people, who are actively engaging in conversation and thinking through ways to take action in their lives and work in this city.

A big take away for me was the Keynote speaker, Bo Young Lee, who is currently the Global Diversity and Inclusion Leader for Marsh LLC. The title of her speech was: Decoding Unconscious Bias to Build Bridges.[2]  Through referencing herself, giving relatable examples, and using clear and descriptive language, she helped define and make visible what bias is and how it affects our ability to see. She spoke about the fact that bias is a human characteristic in all of us that is an evolutionary process. It is based on the fact that our brains, though receiving millions of pieces of data, can only process about 40 pieces at a time. As a result, the brain gets good at filtering data and creating short cuts for us to make decisions, determine what is important, and ‘right’.

Biases are gained and reinforced through survival needs, experience, and cultural environment. Ms. Lee stated that shifting our negative understanding of bias is important since it is in all of us. She also stated that what makes biases bad is that they can blind us from new information. We filter out data that can be relevant. If that new info goes against the bias filter we have set up in our brain, we filter it out before we are even aware that we are filtering it out. She spoke about the fact that we are not aware when we are being biased or non inclusive. For her: “We do not have experience of being wrong, but there is an experience of realizing that we are being wrong.’ Therefore the act of naming a bias helps to establish an environment that makes it visible and discourages it. Saying nothing serves to condone it.

She gave several examples, like how the act of learning how to drive initially requires us to be very conscious of our every move, eventually becomes unconscious. So we can get from point A to point B in a car without consciously thinking about how we did it; and how the perspective on hurricanes with female names tend to be considered as less dangerous, even though there is absolutely no correlation.  An example of bias she gave, that is relevant to this field, is on the leveling of the playing field when knowledge of the gender of musicians was eliminated in the orchestral audition process. The gender screen increased the probability that women would advance out of preliminary rounds by 50%.[3]

Ms. Lee’s presentation has helped me name potential biases that I have noticed and charged me with the task of publicly questioning them. It is my hope that by doing so, it will help me and others question and redirect these scenarios. Some of the things I have noticed are:

  • Teachers and artists calling on certain students repeatedly, or more often, while ignoring others;
  • Something I say in a meeting not being heard unless it is repeated by someone else;
  • Colleagues in the field and school administrators upon meeting me for the first time assuming I am a teaching artist and not a program director;
  • Teachers reprimand some students for certain behaviors, but not other students for the same behavior.
  • Non-western art forms and culture are less present in arts education. When they are present, they are usually contextualized in the ‘past tense’ or as a study that is external to current reality.
  • Teachers and artists underestimating capacities of students and therefore providing ‘prompts’ that actually prevents seeing what the student already knows or challenging the student to build the skills they need to be able to imagine, process, and express what they thinking.

Ms. Lee spoke about explicit bias (what we consciously accept) and implicit bias (what filters we have unconsciously developed over time) and the dichotomy between the two.[4]


From the chart you can see that when people have taken the Implicit Association Test. There is a difference between what they explicitly understand their bias to be (red line) and what is implicit and unconscious (blue line). The gap between gender and black drew my attention.

For Ms. Lee: “When we have biases, we create systems that tend to support our biases.” That statement got me reflecting on what biased systems have arts educators created or are we perpetuating in the education system? What values and culture are we validating? And how are they converting into systems?  Can we proactively work to interrupt bias and challenge teaching and learning strategies by:

  • Actively invite people with diverse perspectives, races, cultures and thinking skills.
  • Taking time to notice and correct microinequities (those small unconscious actions that demonstrate disagreement, distrust, superiority and lead to exclusion.)
  • Making the deliberate effort to listen to others and consciously working to learn about others’ cultures and worldviews.
  • Paying attention to how, and if, physical and meeting space is being non-inclusive. (who is at the table, how is the conversation structured…?)

I am grateful to the NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable and to the diversity task force for pushing the conversation forward and challenging my thinking.  I look forward to the work that is ahead.

Supporting resources:

Rudd, T. (2014, February 5). Racial disproportionality in school discipline: implicit bias is heavily implicated. Retrieved from Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity:

Dr. Robert Pianta: teacher expectations influencing student performance:

How diversity makes us smarter (AKA challenges bias):

Is character development really enough for urban youth? Shawn Ginwright July 2014 blog:

Don’t be Poor, be Happy, Shawn Ginwright, September 2014 blog:



[1] See the DCA survey results at:

[2] See Bo Young Lee’s powerpoint and video of her presentation via this link:

[3] Source:

[4] Source: Dr. Pete Jones


4 thoughts on “Interrupting Bias in Arts Education

  1. Thanks so much for your post. This is one of the most important issues of our time. So much of the needed action must take place inside each one of us, as uncomfortable as it feels.

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