Implicit Cultural Bias: Looking at Invention

In a recent article  Four Ways Teachers Can Reduce Implicit Bias  published on The Greater Good Web Magazine from the Berkely Department of Education, Jill Suttie cites a recent study in which teachers were asked to observe a video of preschool students and asked to look for behaviour problems.  In fact no overt behaviour problems were being exhibited.  The study found that the teachers focused their gaze for longer on the African American children than they did on the Caucasian children.

Suttie defines implicit bias as ‘a behavior that arises from subconscious associations, which may even contradict someone’s explicit values. Implicit racial bias plays a role in many classrooms and schools with potentially devastating effects.’  That raises an interesting question, does implicit bias creep into my practice.

This question arose when I made the observation one day while reading a storybook to my Grade 1, or Year 2, students in our class located in India.  The students from Western backgrounds tended to be more actively involved in the readings than students from Eastern backgrounds.  Now here, I could fit into the definition of implicit racial bias as defined by Suttie.  Why did I choose, implicitly or explicitly, to categorize and define my students by the very nebulous and loaded terms Eastern and Western?  But I had a strong sense that there was something beyond race going on.  I wondered how the cultural literacy practices that the students were engaged in outside of my classroom differed from those inside my classroom?

the-first-drawingThe impicit nature of this bias requires that the first step be to make the implicit explicit.  No easy task to undertake.  To explore these questions I have employed the tools of Systematic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to compare two children’s books.  The first text,  The First Drawing and was written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein who lives in the United States.  This text finds its genesis in the thirty thousand year old cave paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in France. The reader is asked to imagine that they were a child living at this time and that they invented drawing.


all-about-nothingThe second text, All About Nothing was conceptualised and illustrated by Nina Sabnani and written by Deeya Nayar who both live in India. This text finds its genesis in the invention of the number zero in India approximately one thousand eight hundred years ago.  The book presents a possible narrative of how the concept of zero was invented.  Both texts share the similar features that they are children’s stories and provide an opportunity to illuminate and compare cultural narratives on creativity and invention.


and-you-look-at-what-you-have-doneIn the American text, The First Drawing, the child has become frustrated that no one else can see the images in the shadows and jumps up and traces them out on the cave wall with a burnt stick.  I have used red to indicate the who or what that is doing the action.


And you look at what you have done.

You have created the world’s first drawing.


Here, it is clearly the child protagonist who is the agent responsible for the act of invention.

img_3053In the Indian text, All About Nothing, the main character Muchu, a merchant and father and a husband, has awoken from a dream and has been listening to the mantra his wife has been chanting.  He doodles circles on his page cast by the sun coming in the lattice work.  It is his daughter who asks “Oh, is this a new number, Bapu?”   At this point he begins to realise an invention has occurred.  Again, red indicates the who or what that is doing the action and blue indicates who or what that the action is being done to.  What do you notice?


Something strange began happening to Muchu

His brain whirred loudly inside him.

It was saying something

but he couldn’t hear…

Muchu’s head buzzed furiously.

It felt as if it would burst.

It almost did.

There was one loud bang inside.

And then, oh, it was all so clear.


Similarly, in the introduction to the same story it says,


So Zero stayed hidden.  It waited impatiently to pop out of someone’s head.


In the American text the child is the actor.  In the Indian text Muchu is not exactly the agent responsible for the invention.  The agent is referred to vaguely as ‘something’ and then ‘his brain’ though not quite Muchu himself.  He is the agent only when he is trying to hear what his brain is saying.   In the introduction, Zero itself is explicitly the agent responsible for the act of invention.

So what’s the big deal?  In the American text, the child fights against adults who can not see the images the child sees and ridicule the child and even insinuate that the child is crazy.  But the child, through dogged determination, prevails and in the end the naysayers come to see that the child is correct.  The child/protagonist is the agent that does not bow to the naysayers.

In the Indian text the protagonist is not fighting the naysayers.  If anything, he himself is the naysayer.  He is awaking from a blissful dream and chanting a mantra and so is attuned with nature and in a state of harmony.  It is in this state that he is the conduit for the invention to come through.

Let’s go back and revisit the literacy event in which I noted that the Western students seemed engaged and the Eastern students seemed passive or unengaged.  It is rare that I read through more that a paragraph without stopping and asking questions. I want the students to engage with me, debate even.  I celebrate when a student suggest I am wrong.  Which of the two protagonist do these literacy practices reflect?  Yes, that of the American, Western text.  For the Indian students, if their past reference, likely implicitly so, is of not challenging and to be a conduit for the knowledge to come through, then in my questioning patterns they are faced with practices that go against what they have been taught are the practices of a good student.  When I say, as I did in my initial observation, that they are not engaged, could I say that there is a mutual misunderstanding for what it means to be engaged.  Is this a case where I am expecting one set of cultural practices, because that is what makes sense to me, and when I am faced with a set of  practices from another cultural context I fail to recognise those and label the student as deviant or not effective for failing to follow the expected practices.  Is this what it means to be implicitly culturally biased?

Yes, this is a very small sample.  But by reading the grammar we can start to see implicit pattern that we generally miss.  A next step may be to look at patterns using corpus linguistics that is, collections of billions of words and see if these patterns are shown to be prevalent through cultural texts.  My suspition is that they are.