A Thought Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong…

This week I’ve been arguing quite passionately that there is no need for classroom teachers to know which of their pupils are in receipt of the Pupil Premium fund. The rationale behind this belief is that such knowledge might trigger an unconscious bias that leads classroom teachers to view students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as academically or behaviourally deficient. Of course, no teacher wants to admit that they might be biased against anybody, particularly any students they teach. Teachers should be saints, after all.

This morning, I thought about how I might get teachers to examine any unconscious bias they might hold against students from low-income backgrounds and so this tweet was born:

I gave no information about distances, or safety, or street lighting; only the fact that one route goes through an estate, and the other doesn’t. For me, choosing the second option was a potential indicator of a class bias because only a negative view of council estates could lead one to instinctively choose the second option.

Note: I’m not so stupid as to realise that this thought experiment could be hugely flawed in any number of ways – I did appeal for help to make the thought experiment ‘tighter’:

I didn’t actually want answers to the question. Confronting biases is uncomfortable, and I would never expect or ask teachers to share such information online. For what it’s worth, I’d always take the second option. This is in spite of the fact that my house is on a council estate, which means I am burdened (or empowered?) with the uncomfortable knowledge that I too could be class-biased.

When I used the pronoun ‘you’ in the original question, I meant it: I wanted people to consider their instinctive response to the question in the context of their gender, beliefs, religion and experiences, because these are all things that impact on the way we form our individual biases. So, if you are a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack, then I wanted the question answered as a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack. Similarly, if you are a man, who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night, then I wanted you to answer as a man who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night.

My tweet was met with a large number of caveats, on my timeline and via DM, which I soon dismissed as ‘boring’:

• Which route is safer?

• Which route is quickest?

• Who am I with?

• I wouldn’t walk either because I’m a woman

• Are statistics available on crimes that have taken place in each route?

I shouldn’t have called these caveats boring, but I did because I felt that people were intentionally detracting from my original point.

The adjective was also borne out of frustration because I felt utterly patronised, when it came to people’s comments relating to gender. Many people, mostly by DM, and some publicly, explained to me that women couldn’t answer the question because they would never even consider walking alone at night.

I didn’t just feel patronised – I was boiling with anger. I know it’s not safe for women to walk alone at night. I really, really know this.

Of course, I will never fully ‘know’, because I am a man. But I feel that I try very hard to understand: I go all over the country talking about gender and the way negative aspects of masculinity impacts women so appallingly. During the research for the ‘Sex and Sexism’ chapter of my book, I interviewed many, many women who have suffered vile abuse, in an attempt to better understand the female perspective on this. I felt that people were suggesting I was unthinking and uncaring, and that was frustrating for me.

I was wrong though.

My question, although well meaning, was male-centric. It didn’t take into account that many women never have walked alone at night because of the threat of male violence, and even those women who have walked alone at night, the negative emotions invoked by such an experience made answering the question impossible, because it’s entirely impossible to separate gender from the hypothetical scenario. The question excluded women and so I am sorry for posing it as I did.

But being sorry does not mean I am any less angry or frustrated. I am human. And it’s human to feel infuriated when you mess up particularly when you mess up in an area to which you devote a lot of time, money, and emotion.

Also, I still think that people need to realise that despite how I come across on Twitter: despite the selfies, and the baseball caps and the hastily written tweets that are posted without proper thought, I’m not stupid. I don’t need to be told that it’s unsafe for women to walk alone at night. I’m not an idiot.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that still, I see things through the male lens. I can never take for granted what being a man grants me. Even something as trivial as this morning’s tweet was loaded with gender privilege that excluded women.

On a positive note, whilst I’m upset by all this, I realise that this is a learning curve. And I will learn from it. So thanks to all those who have engaged without deliberately patronising, and I’m sorry to all those my tweet offended.

N.B – Here’s a (hopefully) improved version of my original thought experiment:

It’s the daytime and you are walking home. There are two possible routes to take, both of equal distance. Do you take…

1. The route through the council estate?

2. The route through the street with an average house price of £500k

Try not to think too hard about it. Go with your immediate, instinctive answer. This could indicate a class bias. Couldn’t it?

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