Online Professional Learning and
Technical Assistance for
21st Century Community Learning Centers

Bias, Self-Awareness, and Empathy: A Conversation About Preparing for Identity-Safe Environments

Angelica Robinson is a higher education professional who, along with her team from Tool Maker Productions, gave an impactful session at the 21st CCLC Summer Symposium in 2022. We invited her to come to answer some of our questions about how staff in out-of-school time can benefit from professional training that helps them unpack their self-identity with an end goal of creating identity-safe spaces for their students.




Y4Y: Please tell us a little about yourself and your work. You’re a Master’s candidate, for example — is your academic work closely related to your work in professional learning?

AR: Yes, I have worked professionally in higher education for about 14 years. Early in my career as a new professional in higher education, I worked at a school where little attention was given to the importance of diversity education and training for the campus community. Recognizing the need for such education, I requested to lead an introductory presentation for New Student Orientation, which I developed and titled Our Society, Ourselves. Following the success of this presentation, I requested and was later granted permission to teach an elective course wherein students and I could further delve into the subject matter of social norms and identity construction.

While it has undergone new iterations as times have changed and my knowledge of the subject matter has increased, the Our Society, Ourselves workshop still holds the same essence and is presented with the same intentionality today as it was the very first time I shared it. That is, we can build a greater degree of empathy for one another by understanding how we make sense of ourselves, especially in relation to others, and recognize the responsibility that we have to one another — as citizens of Earth — to honor, respect, acknowledge, value, and celebrate who we are as people. Empathy is what enables us to value others and understand that despite the brilliant, beautiful ways we may be different, we can always find similarities with one another in our shared humanity.

I’m currently working toward earning a Master’s of Science Degree in Higher Education at California State University, Fullerton in Southern California. This degree is intricately tied to my work in student affairs as the program takes a theory-to-practice approach in shaping our understanding of the historical systems and structures of higher education that inform the work we do, while empowering us as students to approach our understanding of our roles in higher education through a justice, equity, inclusion, access, and diversity lens.

Y4Y: The images you shared during your presentation at the 2022 Summer Symposium elicited emotional and sometimes visceral reactions from participants. Can you share a little about that exercise, the kinds of images you selected, and what the main goal of your opening exercise on self-identity is?

AR: I also am very intentional to select images that are timely, relevant, and recognizable to audience members. Sometimes the images are fairly simple, such as photos of mainstream musicians, or symbols that are commonly recognizable. This gets people talking, sometimes laughing, and in effect, loosens people up, and often makes people feel more comfortable to talk and engage in a discussion because we start with material and subject matter that is relatable. Typically, these images of well-known concepts or people, usually in stark contrast with an opposing image in a split screen, challenges participants to think about and voice their perceptions and even biases.

I really like this exercise because I think it’s a fun way to approach and confront the topic at hand in a manner that’s accessible and where everyone can effectively contribute. I think that it’s a very real possibility that some people may immediately feel “checked out” when invited, or even required, to attend a workshop that, in any way, addresses the topic of diversity. While many people may look forward to discussions around diversity, understandably others may feel intimidated or underinformed on the topic. Some may even feel that the subject matter doesn’t apply to them and therefore is of little value to them.

However, this exercise levels the playing field among all audience members, so to speak, because everyone has a reaction of some kind to each image when it’s presented before them. In all the years that I’ve presented this workshop, I’ve never had anyone express that they didn’t have ANY responses to any of the images. Whether or not someone wishes to speak out loud, this is an activity wherein everyone can participate. Also, since the presentation is titled Our Society, Ourselves, we open with a conversation that invites people to look inward while simultaneously examining societal structures and norms that influence how we interpret and make sense of other people, external stimuli, and the world at large. I think this provides a greater ease of transition for escalating the conversation to the more challenging areas surrounding diversity, such as addressing the impacts of racism, different forms of discrimination, and shifting paradigms.

This exercise is helpful, also, because the purpose of it is to illustrate that we do react to images and stimuli. Sometimes these responses take the form of an opinion or an assumption. Sometimes there may be a question or even confusion. But, nonetheless, there is a response. And, in the same way that we all respond to the images, we also all engage in this process when presented with new information and even when we see other people in life. We examine this phenomenon a little more closely in the very next portion of the presentation.

Y4Y: You made a compelling argument for the science behind those snap emotional responses. Can you please explain how it’s so universal that just about all of us are wired a certain way, whether we’re completely comfortable admitting it?

AR: I think one of the takeaways from this portion of the presentation is that it becomes undeniable almost immediately following the initial discussion of the images that yes, we do in fact have an impression of images, people, and other stimuli when presented with them. And, you’re absolutely correct that it can often be difficult or even uncomfortable to admit this fact. But, this is a great unifier — it’s something that we all have in common because we have been socialized to make sense of our environment and, by proxy, where and how we ourselves fit into a given environment. We have been socialized and taught to categorize information in order to make sense of it and know how best to navigate the world. This is a critical component of learning. This is why I make a point to acknowledge that it's not inherently wrong to form an impression upon seeing an image or another person, because it is practically unavoidable. We are taught through different forms of media, our own experiences, from our parents, and other influences how to perform these reflective processes, and these understandings shape our perspectives, our expectations, and our behaviors.

Y4Y: I’m going to make a quick plug for the Y4Y course on child and adolescent development for anyone who is more interested in theories on how children learn, but to stay on topic: In this work of exploring identity, I get the sense that an important step to living harmoniously with one another is to have some patience about snap judgments that may or may not stay with a person beyond a few moments when they see someone different from themselves. Is that fair to say?

AR: This is a very fair point, and I think you hit the nail on the head. I often receive the response from audience members when I ask them if it’s wrong that we make these “snap judgments” — that the snap judgment itself is not so much problematic as whether or not you act on the judgment and, if so, how you act or respond. And I would agree with this statement. That we may formulate an idea or even belief about someone immediately upon direct or indirect interaction with them is inevitable. But we first need to be mindful that this happens, so that we can be aware of it and recognize when and that it does happen. But how we move forward with respect to the initial impression we develop is where we can sometimes get into trouble. We should remain flexible when we develop opinions about others because, as we all know, first impressions may not always be entirely correct.

Y4Y: Let’s dive a little deeper into the psychology of “different.” In your session you brought up work by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Tell us about Derrida and how his ideas can help us unpack “different.”

AR: Yes, at the risk of oversimplifying his philosophy, Derrida’s idea is essentially that in the context of shared meaning and understanding in communication, there are some concepts that can only be understood in relation to their direct opposites. defines “binary” as “relating to, composed of, or involving two things.” When we use the term nonbinary, for example, this is referring to a rejection of falling into one of two rigid concepts that are directly related to one another.

Similarly, Derrida communicates that some ideas are binary in nature, such that the understanding of one idea is contingent on the understanding of its binary opposite. Some examples are terms like hot/cold, happy/sad, tall/short. In essence, if I communicate, for example, that I am happy, then the person or persons to whom I’m speaking will understand that I am not not happy. In this example, “not happy” can be interpreted or understood as “sad” or any equivalent synonym of the word sad. Therefore, if I am happy, then I’m not sad, because if I was sad, I would not be happy. Do you see how correctly understanding that last statement requires a clear comprehension of the definitions of both the words happy and sad in order for the sentence to make sense? It’s like you can’t have one without the other! The only way to capture the essence of what it means to be happy is to weigh it against what it means to know what sadness is. Their definitions depend on one another.

Applying this idea to the concept of identity, I argue, according to Derrida’s theory, that there’s a direct relationship between how other people view, define, or otherwise make sense of our identity, and the process we engage in to commit to and make sense of our own identities. As we grow up, a lot of our identities are determined for us — daughter, son, sister, brother, student, teacher, smart, cute, funny, etc. We are given labels that are associated with categories and related meanings. Furthermore, our identities are also shaped and defined according to the ways we’re similar to others, and also the ways in which we differ from other people. As we mature, however, we learn that we can evaluate these assigned identities and weigh them against what we believe and feel most closely aligns with our true sense of self. For this reason, the ability to categorize information, even as it pertains to a person’s identifiers or identity, can be an insightful tool that we employ that ultimately enables us to understand who we are in relation to others and vice versa.

We need to be cautious, though, about how we use this tool. While it’s beneficial in helping us to make sense of ourselves, this tool should not be used to narrowly define people according to very limited, normative ways of being. We need to be very careful not to dictate to others who they must be, but instead, allow them the flexibility to determine their own identities and acknowledge those identities with the same degree of respect that we wish for people to demonstrate toward us.

Y4Y: This is a great way of thinking positively about identity, and it seems more authentic than previous efforts at diversity and inclusion that promoted “color-blindness,” for example. Instead, we’re acknowledging and celebrating all that makes us who we are and who others are. What would you say are next steps in identity work that can help our out-of-school time practitioners begin to really cultivate an identity-safe space through their own exploration of identity?

AR: I think the best next steps are continued learning, conversations, and engaging with others. Additionally, we should all intentionally continue challenging our own assumptions and remain mindful of the biases we hold. Because identity is such a fluid concept, and people are always changing, developing, and growing, it’s important to give people the time and space to come into their own identities, as identity is a very personal thing to each individual. Today, people want to live their lives in a very authentic way, being true to themselves. True celebration of diversity includes recognizing and acknowledging that yes, there are ways in which we differ from one another, but that’s OK! Rather than operating according to the very flawed ideology that we “should not see color,” I advocate, instead, that we absolutely should “see color” and every other aspect of identity that represents people’s real, lived experiences — and engage with them as often as possible. Talk to people. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what you don’t know, but be sincere in your desire to learn more, and don’t be quick to assume. Seek meaningful dialogue and connection. After all, if you “don’t see color,” but also are not legitimately color-blind, how can it even be possible for you to celebrate diversity?! It’s not possible to celebrate something that you deliberately choose to ignore! The idea that one does not see color in the context of a person’s race, and all that is associated with race, is a microaggression that is rooted in performative rhetoric and does more harm than good.

I believe that in teaching and helping others to understand, value, and gain buy-in to the idea of diversity appreciation, you must make it very personal and relevant to them. I’ve been challenged at my workshops in the past by many people who quite vocally and emphatically believed that a workshop like Our Society, Ourselves is irrelevant to them because, they’re “not racist.” They wholeheartedly believed that being present at a diversity training was not only unnecessary, but was, in fact, offensive to them, as it seemingly assumed or insinuated that they were racist.

As I mentioned before, the opening exercise, wherein we talk about how naturally we can immediately react to images, and therefore to other people, demonstrates that while we may not be racists, we certainly carry biases. It’s important to acknowledge these biases and to be continually aware of how they are manifested in human ideology and behavior.

This closing exercise is a simple one that I believe illustrates and personalizes the impact of racism and discrimination. Everyone is a complex individual, and most people do not want to be wholly and completely defined solely based on just one aspect of their identity. Something I think is interesting is that in the exercise, participants are asked to choose for themselves which one area of their identity they would elect to be defined by if given the choice. But in instances of racism or discrimination, how you’re defined — how people choose to perceive you through a racist and/or discriminatory lens — and how they treat you as a result is usually according to an aspect of your identity of THEIR choosing, not yours. The aspect of your identity that is most salient to you may not even be acknowledged when someone discriminates against you on the basis of another aspect of your identity.

Just like in the exercise where I ask participants to think about the saliency or priority of the areas of their identity, and then slowly erase them until all of who they are is encompassed only by one aspect of their identity, I explain that the takeaway is that when someone discriminates against another person, what the discriminating person does, in effect, is to cross out, ignore, disregard, or otherwise overlook all of what makes a person who they are in favor of choosing to see the recipient of the discrimination through a singular lens. This activity is a potent reminder of the frustration and pain that’s felt when we are discriminated against or wrongfully judged, and it allows us to feel the weight of enacting this behavior toward others.

Y4Y: Any final words of wisdom or favorite resources on this topic — especially for program leaders interested in training staff to make the out-of-school environment truly identity-safe?

AR: Yes, I’d like to say thank you so much again for having me today! This was a fun conversation, and I look forward to continuing the conversation, moving forward! I also want to say thank you to all of my colleagues and peers — all of us that do this very important work advocating for justice, equity, access, inclusion, and diversity. We know it’s certainly not easy, but it’s absolutely worth all of our learning, teaching, and efforts because we work today in hopes of making a better tomorrow. As I say in the workshop, social constructs and paradigms are created by people, so collectively, we, the people, can be empowered to change these paradigms and shift narratives for the better.

You can view Ms. Robinson’s archived presentation, “Our Society, Ourselves: Roots of Tension Talkback,” in Y4Y’s 2022 Summer Symposium archives by opening the tab for Thursday, July 21. The presentation includes “Roots of Tension,” a 10-minute film that explores how personal biases can ignite conflict. For more information about how to arrange identity-safe professional development at your institution or organization, you can contact Ms. Robinson directly.

The You for Youth (Y4Y) Portal is operated by Synergy Enterprises, Inc. under Contract No. ED-ESE-14-D-0008 awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. All materials created or disseminated by the Y4Y Portal, including the contents of this Website, do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any product, commodity, service, methodology, technique or enterprise mentioned herein is intended or should be inferred.

The documents posted on this server contain links or pointers to information created and maintained by other public and private organizations. These links and pointers are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness or completeness of this outside information. Further, the inclusion of links or pointers to particular items is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed, or products or services offered, on these outside sites, or the organizations sponsoring the sites.