Bias: It’s Everywhere, and It’s Not Going Away

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She tells her students they’re biased. They can’t help it. And that’s okay.

She also tells students if they want to be good lawyers, they have to be intentional about how they deal with those biases.

Then, Tanya Washington, professor of law, gives students opportunities to become aware of, own and explore their biases.

She teaches Civil Procedure, Family Law, Education Law and Race and the Law, and she says bias operates in each.

“I don’t try to get them to get rid of their biases. That’s futile,” she said.

Helping students confront their biases, she believes, is an important aspect of preparing them to be lawyers.

“I’m training my students to be power brokers in a number of contexts,” Washington said. “I want them to be aware of where and how their biases inform their judgment and decisions, which can affect others in real ways.”

Tanya Washington with Tawanna Morgan and Cate Powell

From left, Cate Powell (J.D. ’15), Professor Tanya Washington and Tawanna Morgan (J.D. ’08) at Georgia State Law.

Her challenge is that students often don’t want to admit to being biased.

“It’s harder to be aware of our biases when talking to friends and family who share the same biases,” Washington said. “But it sounds differently in a classroom with a diverse group of people with different biases, and you voice a bias that characterizes someone in that group negatively.”

Students have said things that infuriated their classmates, made them cry, made some leave the room.

Washington uses these moments to make offended students aware that many out there share those biases they find so insulting, and she challenges students to learn to deal with them.

“What professors can do that a textbook cannot is create a space that facilitates learning, gives students permission to try to express their ideas and, even in correcting them, encourage their intellectual creativity.”

The only conduct code she imposes is that students respect each other, which is what she expects them to do as lawyers. “You don’t have to agree with everyone, but you do have to respect that they have a right to express themselves and to believe what they believe.”

Key to understanding their biases in her Race and Law class is the journals she requires students to write. Because she is the only person who sees the entries, students reveal a lot.

“I think I am able to help students transform their thinking,” Washington said. “I don’t take credit for that. What I take credit for is creating the space that facilitates the transformation.”

Students have told Washington her class was valuable because of what they learned about themselves.

The impact on Cate Powell (J.D. ’15) was “huge.”

“It was a powerful class,” she said. “It was the first opportunity for the most honest conversation we had as students.”

She confirmed the tension in the class. “It was tension in the best way because we experienced the conflict and then walked through it,” said Powell, a civil litigator with Hinton & Powell.

“To respect each person and their beliefs is really powerful. And we were talking about the cases as much as personal experiences. The class was giving us information on multiple levels.”

It ignited Powell’s passion for community engagement, and she meets with former classmates to discuss how they as attorneys can be active in their communities.

For Tawanna Morgan (J.D. ’08), the transparency and authenticity of a law professor who was a real person, a black female and a single parent “rockin’ a fro” were inspiring.

“Washington instantly became a role model,” she said.

A criminal defense and personal injury attorney with MA’AT LAW Practice of Tawanna Morgan LLC, Morgan recalls learning how the connotation of terminology creates barriers to acknowledging and understanding bias.

“It’s in the back of my mind that I and everyone else filter everything through our own biases,” Morgan said.

She handles bias against her criminal defense clients by humanizing them.

“To dispel certain assumptions, I want the prosecutor, judge or jury to look at this person as something other than the crime they are charged with and to question why they’re making a certain decision about this person.”

Such personifies Washington’s vision.

 

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