Educators bring implicit biases to the classroom which may impact discipline and development for students from historically disadvantaged households and communities, particularly students of color. Research has shown that some teachers show implicit (and explicit) preferences towards White students versus students of color. These implicit biases and lower expectations of students of color may negatively influence children’s early learning and development. With an IES exploration grant, Drs. Brian Boyd, Iheoma Iruka and Keith Payne are examining the relationship between malleable factors such as implicit bias, teacher expectations, and teacher-child interactions and student learning outcomes. Taking place in early education programs across 10 states and the District of Columbia, this study will examine links between implicit bias and school readiness skills in pre-school age children.
Bennett Lunn, a Truman-Albright Fellow at IES, asked Dr. Iruka about her work and background. Below are her responses.
How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career?
I am a Black woman, born in the United States but with parents who were born in Nigeria. I am the African diaspora that is rarely discussed because people see Black people as homogeneous. I was not always proud of my African roots or of my American roots – there is a double-edged sword in being a Black person in America and being an American Black in Nigeria. I was not always proud of being a Black person in America because of constant reminders about how much I have to overcome. I think my experiences as a Black woman in the U.S. with direct roots to Africa (my name is Nigerian), and who grew up in poverty (but did not know that then), give me an edge and a drive compared to those who just study poverty. Even when my papers and grants get rejected, I still know my experiences are valuable to me, my children, my family, and those fighting for justice. I bring all of who I am to my talks, papers, mentoring, networks, and partnerships. For me, there is no Iheoma without the village that I am a part of, my ancestors, my Nigerian and African diasporic heritage, and my experiences. I realize that my gender, race, culture, and other intersectional identities continue to shape my career and, most importantly, the journey I am on.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in education?
I see my research as part of a tapestry that shapes how people see others, especially those who are often made to feel invisible, like young Black boys and girls, their families, and their communities. I hope that my research is more than just “DEI,” which is the phrase of the season. I don’t mind that it is, but I hope it is not only for the moment, especially when discussing racial equity and anti-racism. I want my research and other collaborative work to be about seeing the humanity, the beauty, the joy, the assets, and the possibilities of those we often see and treat as invisible. Examining the role of implicit bias in the classroom is the focus of my current IES-funded research, and my most recent book, Don’t Look Away: Embracing Anti-Bias Classrooms, is a call to action for all educators, professionals, and others to not look away from the injustices directed at minoritized groups, especially Black people. We cannot look away; we must act and continue to act until justice has won. In the words of Malcom X, “Speaking like this doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression”. I hope my research, my talks, and my entire body of work cause researchers and those who fund research to look at themselves and ask how they can do better with the weapon they have–research!
In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
There is so much that can improve the enterprise of research and science. In early childhood education, as well as in other areas, it takes more than practice to create more equitable outcomes—research is needed to examine how systems create inequities. My RICHER framework, which provides actionable steps toward addressing bias and racism, is an ode to researchers and scholars, especially White scholars, about how they can do better in their science when their participants are non-white.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered and how did you overcome the challenge?
My biggest challenge is myself. While I have always had confidence in my skills, I was not always sure how direct I could be, especially with my White mentors, colleagues, and peers. There were times I felt I had to use coded language. As my journey has gone on, or because I am getting older and don’t have the energy to code, I have become more direct so the actions can be straightforward and clear. It is also crucial that I bring my lived experiences, including being the mother of two young Black children in America and wanting to see their experiences be even more equitable than mine. I want them to understand that their heritage, language, skin color, gender, and whatever other identities they have should be embraced because that will make them unique and motivate them to get through all the obstacles, including rejection, which are part of academia. I want them to embody Black joy!
How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?
Lean into the RICHER framework. You can’t truly support scholars from historically underrepresented groups, especially Black ones, unless you have a sense of critical consciousness. I would say that I have been fortunate in having mentors who did not question my skill or talent but created opportunities even before I thought I was ready. When I think about those specific individuals, I realize that they were mentors who supported many people of color. These mentors cared about me, not just the scholar but the person, and they still do. To support underrepresented researchers, you have to see “us,” not just our color or race, or ethnicity. Scholars of color are multi-faceted and bring a lot to the table because we have had to live in multiple worlds and speak multiple languages.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
First, find your village of peers, scholars, and mentors, whether through your university, professional organization, or social organization. You want a place where you can lay your burdens down, have joy, and just be your full self. Second, be truthful and authentic about your journey. Allow mistakes to guide you and realize that mistakes ensure growth and do not define you. And third, be sure to have fun and enjoy what you do. While the research I do is emotionally laden, it is joyful and motivational because I get to be part of a larger community focused on justice and asset-building. When I can bring my whole self into my research and work, I know I am doing the right thing. So always ask yourself, am I doing what I am supposed to be doing, and how do I know?
This blog is part of a series of interviews (see here and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. For other blog posts related to diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility, please see here.
Dr. Iheoma U. Iruka is a Research Professor of Public Policy and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This interview was produced and edited by Bennett Lunn, Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.