Bias in the Playroom and Classroom

A client story about bias in the classroom and skin-color-hatred in the playroom

Posted Jun 29, 2020

The truck moved back and forth. Back and forth. From one side of the room to the other. Leo loved that truck. He looked for it every time he came to the office. It was yellow and red and reminded me of mustard and ketchup. He always started out with the truck and then asked to play a board game. He played by his own rules and I let him so that he could find a sense of control in his 4-year-old life, in which he was constantly demanding some power from adults. “OK Time for a game.” He pulled a game out from underneath the couch. He directed me: “Choose your player.” 

I, distracted by a text from his very protective, worried, and loving mother, said, “You can choose which one you want me to be.” 

He chose a white-looking-girl character from the pile and put it in front of me. 

“I’ll be… this one.” He selected the matching white-looking-boy character and put it at the ‘start’ area of the game. 

I broke from my usual non-directive stance to inquire about my assessment of his choice. 

“Leo, I noticed you didn’t choose a brown character for either of us. I like the character you chose for me, but I like the others, too. Why did you choose this one for me and that one for you?” 

“I don’t like the other ones. It is your turn now.” 

He handed me the dice. He watched me as I stared at the four options left in the pile, two white characters and two dark brown characters. 

Whilst having conventional gender roles, there was some diversity in skin color in the game. But Leo did not want to use those to identify himself or me. 

“What don’t you like about them, Leo?” 

“They have ugly brown skin.” 

There it was. I had been meeting with Leo for a few months. He was more guarded than many of the other 4-year-olds I usually experienced and harder for me to engage in play. The week prior to the “They have ugly brown skin” session, I had arranged with his school to visit the classroom.

He attended a very expensive private preschool costing about $50k for 3 half days in NYC which focused on multiculturalism and difference. On the side of the school building, a huge Black Lives Matter banner hung tall and proud (This was 2017. Earlier than many people had adopted it). I was shocked when I saw that sign. At the moment that I saw it, I found the sign to be more than just a sign on a building, but also symbolism that this was an amazing place for Leo to be educated.

In my 45-minute observation of Leo and his classroom, I experienced a beautiful morning meeting sung by the class in languages of the student’s families, watched Leo flit from table to table during “choice play,” and I sat in the cozy classroom environment created by skilled and warm teachers. 

“We want him to be successful. He’s so bright. He is like an engineer already; he’s so good at math.” The lead teacher who had worked at the school for 30 years was smiley and fun. 

“What are the challenges he is experiencing?” I asked.

“He just doesn’t seem settled after our Assistant Teacher went on leave. She was the only one he responded to. She is, you know...Black-skinned, like him. He just gets here in the morning and doesn’t want to cooperate. Our first activity is to go on the roof and he refuses.” 

I loved that race was already being put on the table. These teachers were conscientious, informed, and interested. 

“Doesn’t want to?” I felt like this might be where we could get a bit deeper into what was happening for him. What might be the triggers for him? Who does he respond to in the Assistant Teacher’s absence? What did she provide for him, besides matching skin color?

“Yeah I mean, some days, he’s fine. It’s hard to know what it is…. I know his mom is working really hard to help him. She is really great, I like her. But, I know things are hard for him, he lives so far away.” 

“He lives like 15 minutes away, no? In Harlem?” I asked, confused. I lived a few blocks away from Leo  and it had been a very quick trip to the school. 

“Well, yeah but he has to take the bus over here with his nanny. The other kids get dropped off by their drivers.”  

I was stunned. I was sitting in this progressive school, shocked and excited by hearing songs in my own family’s immigrant language, still enamored by the BLM sign outside, and this implicitly biased statement towards this child felt like a smack in the face to me. It existed here, too. 

This teacher was well-intentioned, motivated, and doing great work in the classroom. But he held deep beliefs about Leo, Leo's neighborhood, and his life as a Black child. The teacher felt that Leo's experience was harder than the other children's' lives. He then told me "We aren't supposed to know, but I think he is a scholarship kid." These ideas about Leo's family's ability to pay were unrelated to the issues at hand-- and the implicit bias about these factors were clear to me. 

I was then hit by Leo’s disdain for his skin in the playroom during our session.

After this session with Leo, I would thereby ask every child of color how they felt about their skin in the intake or soon after. The information I gather by the answers to that question are monumental to the work I do with children: 

“My mom tells me my skin is beautiful, but I don’t like it.”

“Sometimes I like it. But yours is lighter and prettier.” 
“I wish I was lighter like my mom. I’m too dark!” 

“Mmhm. I like my skin. It’s like chocolate.” 

This question is so important, that I ask it more than once, twice or even thrice in a relationship with a child. I ask it when kids are showing symptoms of depression or mood fluctuations, when kids are having social conflicts, and when they don’t want to go to school. I use it as a gauge to build self-esteem, to incorporate into scenarios we work on together, and to select books we read. I create rituals to empower children in the skin they are in and find ways to ensure parents are prepped with strategies to address it. 

The work is ongoing and can feel like I am up against a wall, but as a light-brown-skinned therapist working with children and adults, it is my duty to acknowledge and affirm the pressures of having dark and brown skin, even if it is not my experience, and to address, uplift, and encourage because the messages outside the therapy room are all too powerful not to.

Learning Corner: 

Implicit Bias: The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. -Kirwan Institute 

Biases 1) are unconscious, 2) are rapid and reflexive, 3) can be contrary to our outward beliefs 4) stem from messages we receive all throughout our lives

The teacher at Leo’s school indicated he held a bias about where Leo lived, that his life was harder because he didn’t get dropped off by a driver, and perhaps because he was a Black student. 

BLM & Black Lives Matter: A movement recognizing that Black individuals experience unjust systems of law, health, and more that put their lives at risk. Implicit Biases upheld by community members contribute to these risks. 

The school held this sign on their building which was a symbol of their beliefs, but the teacher in the building still showed signs of bias, which we all have and hold, some more harmful than others. 

Discussion Questions: 

What could the writer have said to the teacher to make the teacher aware of the bias?

What are the impacts on a child of color of a therapist who does not acknowledge skin color and race with children in the playroom?

What are the impacts on a child of color of a teacher who does not acknowledge biases they hold in the classroom? 

Why does the writer mention her light-brown skin in the article?


Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

Black Lives Matter