UGDSB 2018 Learning Fair with a focus on Social Justice
Keynote, Perception Bias
You’ve probably heard or read my story: poor, uneducated black girl from the wrong side of the tracks achieves her lifelong dream of getting into an Ivy League School, and crowd-funds her entire tuition in just two days.
It's a fantastic story. It made me an overnight sensation, and it is the reason I've been asked to speak today. But here’s the shocker, and I hope I won’t be sent home when I say this: that story isn’t true. It emerged and took on a life of its own through no effort of mine. It gained traction because it took the shape of a familiar story that people want to believe.
Does anyone know what my real story is? For starters, I didn’t dream of going to Harvard my whole life. I didn’t dream of it at all for that matter. My relationship with education was a rather tumultuous one. I saw early success in various jobs and startups, and I had a vision for myself that did not include post-secondary education. The truth is: I applied to Harvard to make a point about false perceptions. At the time, I was trying to demonstrate to my employer that perceptions and ingrained beliefs can hinder truth, reality, and outcomes. I wanted to demonstrate that they were wrong in thinking it couldn’t be done because their reasons for thinking it couldn’t be done were driven by the stories they’ve believed for years.
I was leading a project for helping undereducated women get into post-secondary establishments. Yes, I see the irony as an undereducated woman myself. The project was so successful that I proposed that we elevate the standard and help women get into Ivy League Schools, if that was their goal. I was given a big fat No from my employers. They said I’d be setting people up to fail.
I didn’t believe this, so I applied to Harvard in order to learn the application process and how the system works. I wanted to use my result as a demonstration and a tool to help me continue my work of helping other people achieve that dream.
That’s the story behind my application to Harvard. And the crowd-funding was the least challenging part of it. By the time I set up that fund, I was already a professional crowd-funder. I had already crowd-funded a number of my own startups.
Let’s compare and contrast my two stories.
In version one, I’m a poor black girl from the wrong side of the tracks who achieved her lifelong dream of getting into an Ivy League School, and crowd-funded her tuition in two days, inspiring a community, a city, a generation.
In version two: I’m an independent, driven, self-starting visionary who successfully launched multiple startups including innovative initiatives to educate underserved communities, and continues to thrive as a leader, educator, and voice for changing perceptions.
I know that my real story is not the rags-to-riches version that makes people feel good because it finally washes away all the social injustices I've faced my whole life. There’s an obvious belief that I had a lesser chance of getting into Harvard because I’m black and I’m poor. That is definitely true. It’s hard to get into to Harvard if you’re back and if you’re poor. But what is at the root of that belief? Is it that Harvard is racist and biased and snobbish? Or is it that black people are generally too stupid, and poor people are too lazy? Or is it something else?
The numbers definitely say that black students are a minority at Harvard. And poor students are also very few in numbers. The numbers imply that Harvard likes rich white people, and therefore I would be discriminated against if I applied. I’m black, and I was poor, and I am undereducated: a triple disadvantage.
But what the numbers don’t explain, and what most people don’t see because they haven’t lived that experience, is this: There are fewer back people who are exposed to the opportunity to get into Harvard, and exposed to the level of preparation required to actually qualify them to meet the demands of Harvard. It is hard to get into Harvard if you are black, not because you are black, but because being black has put you into a system that treats you differently, educates you differently, protects you differently. The result of those differences invariably manifests in lower quality school systems, lower quality education, fewer resources, and the constant reminder from the people and organizations that are supposed to be uplifting you that you shouldn’t dream too big because you probably won’t get there.
Harvard can’t create black applicants that don’t exist, and they can’t qualify applicants who don’t qualify, because that is its own brand of racism. If you accept more black students just to prove you’re not a racist establishment, or to fill some kind of quota that makes you look good on paper, that’s the height of racism. The solution is not to tell places like Harvard to go out of their way to accept more black people and more poor people. That defeats progress.
Harvard values me. They valued me as an applicant and they valued me as a student, and now they value me as an alumnae and fellow. I’ve been honored at Harvard for bringing to light these issues that I am talking about now. Harvard wants to fix the root cause of this almost as much as I do, and that’s a big part of why I belong there. Because I refused to accept the story that people told me of who I was. There’s the story of who you think I am, and there the story of you think I’m supposed to be, and by rejecting the stories, I got to where I am.
As a society we actually think we’ve come a long way. We have beautiful schools with excellent teachers, and these schools are multicultural and inclusive. Right? There’s no racism or bias in these places. Everybody has the same chance. That’s what our leaders are telling us now. That we’re an unbiased, inclusive society where everyone has an equal chance, especially here in Canada.
I came very close to proving that in the eight grade. During the seventh grade, I decided that the next year, I was going to be named valedictorian. Pretty decent goal right? I knew exactly what I had to do, and I did it. I worked my ass off, elevated my grades, made a model student of myself. I was well on my way. And I even aced the verbal presentation component. I worked on that speech for a year. The teacher that was judging the candidates was blown away with me, and she as much as told me it was in the bag. I was so proud of myself. And when I walked out of the school some of my friends were still outside, so I joined them and we were just standing there in a circle, talking before splitting off in our separate directions. And before we could even start to leave, we heard a teacher calling out to us to get off the school property or she was going to call the police. I turned and looked, and it was the teacher I’d just given my speech to, so I foolishly thought “oh, as soon as she sees it’s me and my friends, she’ll back off.” So I started to say something to her, and she turned and went inside, and a minutes later, the cops showed up. And we all got detention, for standing there on the school property. For the record, I was not named the valedictorian. I did not prove that everybody has the same chance after all. I proved that an existing story in that teacher’s head overtook the true story of the student she had just seen in her office moments before. It doesn’t matter if it was racism on her part. It was a commitment to a flawed belief, and she defaulted to that old belief. Her bias took over: A group of black kids loitering on school property spells trouble. Respond accordingly.
I think that’s where my tumultuous relationship with the education system may have taken flight. Unconscious bias is the most dangerous and the most prevalent. It exists inside of many, many people who do not at all consider themselves biased.
And it gets worse before it gets better. The road to change is a bumpy one, and when trying to do better, we sometimes make things worse. For example, back to my story, and the assumptions made about my experience. When the Toronto Star contacted me to do a story, they already had it written in their heads as the poor black girl from the wrong side of the tracks who dreamed of going to Harvard her her life. My crowd-funding campaign somehow became about my being black, and I’m sure that played a role in people giving as freely as they did. Sometimes that in itself is a form of racism. People helping me because I’m black. If the sentiment came from someone who fully understands how hard it is to get into Harvard as someone who has grown up amongst the disadvantages of a marginalized system, then, it comes from a place of understanding which is not biased. But if someone decided to give because they see that I’m black and they want to prove they are not racist, I raise my eyebrows to that. That shows us they are still buying into the stories, and they are acting from a place of bias.
When I got called to speak today, the invitation was framed this way: "We want you to talk about how racism plays into your story."
I was tempted to respond with, “Well, for starters, this phone call is how racism plays into my story.” I get exploited all the time just for walking around all black, by well-meaning persons and organizations who want to make a well-meaning point about racism.
Marginalized people in many communities are still fighting to overcome perceptions and biases that have permeated people’s minds for decades.
Some of these perceptions are ingrained in our political systems and policies. Our society has created a culture where marginalized people are underserved because we once believed they deserved to be underserved, and we haven’t figured out how to fix that. And in some of our attempts to fix it, we have possibly made it worse.
We sometimes go out of our way to try to make up for the injustices. Going back to my campaign and the question of whether people gave because I’m black, without really understanding why that should compel them to give. That means that their perception, their bias, played into their decision. Should they have stopped themselves because it is racist to give to a black person because she’s black? Either way, you’re acting on the perception, you're making a decision driven by the bias. And the sad thing is, I wasn’t trying to be black when I built that campaign. I wasn’t trying to be poor. I wasn’t trying to be uneducated. I was applying my exceptional business talents in advancing a goal.
The moment an action is taken, or not taken, based on the bias in your mind, that is the moment that injustice occurs.
As soon as it’s about my being black, there’s a bias at play. Whether that bias is, blacks don’t belong in Harvard, or whether it’s these poor black students are being declined by Harvard because Harvard’s evil and racist. Neither of those is true. But it is true that there is something preventing more black students from getting into Harvard. It just goes deeper than the stories you hear.
I’ve gone heavy on you, I know. I use my story because I know it so well, and because it tells the tale of perceptions over and over.
Here’s what’s definitely not biased: admitting that we don’t know what the real experience is for the marginalized groups we might be talking about.
Rather than trying to prove we understand them, let’s acknowledge that we don’t and that our understanding has been built upon the stories we carry around in our heads. Rather than trying to make up for injustices with overcompensations that actually perpetuate an even greater bias, let’s acknowledge that inside each of our minds, bias plays a role.
(end of excerpt)