Ann Epstein, MD is a BPSI Psychoanalyst Member. Her below remarks originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.

On June 10, 2017, BPSI held the 25th annual Child Care Conference. The title was Implicit Bias: Differences Make a Difference: Promoting Racial Literacy in Early Education and Child Care Settings. The two presenters, Walter Gilliam, PhD, and Howard Stevenson, PhD, spoke in Wilson Hall to a very full house of over 150 attendees.

The audience, a diverse group of early educators, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and program directors, experienced a lively program that included an exploration of current research on implicit bias, a moving participatory inquiry into how we are racially socialized and how we might learn to become more racially literate through practices of mindful attention and storytelling.

In carefully crafted presentations, the speakers created a remarkable experience for attendees, revealing intriguing crosscurrents between psychoanalysis and issues of social justice by exploring both current research into the unconscious, where implicit bias becomes embedded, and techniques for recognizing, managing, and defusing racially charged encounters.

Implicit Bias

Dr. Walter Gilliam, Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale’s Child Study Center, who has achieved much recognition for his recently published studies on implicit bias in preschool teachers, began with an introduction to the topic of preschool expulsions in the United States. Preschool expulsion rates are surprisingly high, and black boys are 3.6 times more likely to be expelled than white boys. Using research, detailed anecdotes, teacher interviews, and videos, Dr. Gilliam helped us understand how larger societal forces can distort our perceptions of a child’s behavior and lead to damaging and unjust outcomes. For example, black boys are commonly perceived as four years older than their actual age. He carefully described what laid the groundwork for his research, and in the process the audience members were able to experience a powerful realization of how deeply implicit bias can affect us all.

Dr. Gilliam’s painstakingly crafted research into implicit bias tracks and measures eye movement and compares it with teachers’ conscious explanations of their behaviors and perceptions. Asked to view a film of preschoolers that actually showed no incidents of problematic behaviors, teachers spent more time watching black children than white children. Intriguingly, though not surprisingly, his research shows the complexity of implicit bias. It is neither two-dimensional nor always predictable: Results differed depending on the match between the race of the teacher and that of the child, and on the nature of the teacher’s knowledge about the child’s family background. In other research that holds great importance for our community at BPSI, Dr. Gilliam suggests that the availability of mental health consultation for teachers, and whether it is on-site or off-site, affects the rate of expulsions. In other words, what appears to be a problem of a preschool child’s behavior has, upon closer study, little or nothing to do with the child, but in fact has more to do with teacher biases and how we affect teacher perceptions.

Racial Literacy

The second part of the morning featured a presentation by Dr. Howard Stevenson, Professor of Urban Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and former Chair of the Applied Psychology and Human Development Division in the university’s Graduate School of Education. Dr. Stevenson took us on a moving personal journey through his own childhood and adult life to demonstrate storytelling’s power not only to break down barriers between people, but also to help people understand, manage, and recast the impact of racial encounters in their lives.

He prepared the audience by telling us that he was going to ask us to discuss with the person sitting next to us an episode from childhood in which we heard a message about race or difference. First, though, he offered to tell us a piece of his own story. With disarming openness and gentleness, he told a rapt audience about his early life in southern Delaware. He described with humor the differences in personality and culture between his African American father, who was from southern Delaware, and his African American mother, who was from North Philadelphia, and how these differences affected the way they each dealt with racial injustice. He traversed levels of complexity, moving from broad cultural differences to the intricate interpersonal and intrapsychic spheres. For example, in one anecdote he described childhood grocery-shopping trips with his mother, during which he and his brother, Bryan (who later became a civil rights lawyer), sat in the grocery cart. Knowing that their mother was likely to respond to a racial insult from the butcher or the checkout clerk with vigor, he and his brother tried mightily to distract her by loudly doing math problems. Here we can see the impact of the racial encounter not only on the parent but on the developing child and on the family system.

After sharing his own stories, Dr. Stevenson gave the audience five minutes to share their stories with one another. The auditorium was quickly abuzz, and many were surprised and moved by the stories they told and heard. Dr. Stevenson’s intimate and personal story had dispelled much of the tension and reticence that might normally inhibit such an exercise. He had demonstrated the point he was lecturing about: Racial encounters are stressful in unique ways, and we need to locate that stress, acknowledge it, and learn to regulate it in order to make meaning and “recast” the encounters in more effective ways. In his words, racial literacy “is not about blaming others or myself, but about how well I can read, recast, and resolve a racial conflict (and not run away).”

Before the morning ended, Dr. Stevenson took us on another journey. He played us a recording of an extraordinary conversation he had with his young son just after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. As he explained to the audience, the conversation unfolded as his son was watching the TV news coverage of the event. At some point in their discussion, Dr. Stevenson thought to record it, perhaps in some effort to steady himself during this difficult event. As his son asks him heartbreaking questions about how this could have happened, Dr. Stevenson tries to reassure, protect, and instruct his son. Both son and father are deeply upset, and Dr. Stevenson told the audience that even he, an expert and a leader in the field, had difficulty in that moment regulating his own reactions and remaining mindful.

Psychoanalysis and Social Justice

As psychoanalysts, we can sometimes forget that we are not the only people who think psychoanalytically, and that psychoanalytic principles can be of great use outside the consulting room. Using an interdisciplinary lens, the conference explored the working of the unconscious, the use of narrative storytelling to create meaning, the importance of recognizing the other as well as of oneself, and the role of mindfulness in self and mutual regulation. The Child Care Conference strives to bring the worlds of psychoanalysis and child development closer to the worlds of early education and care. It is equally important that we bring the social world into psychoanalysis, in order to understand ourselves and our patients, not only at the level of the individual and the family, but also at the level of society.

Ann Epstein, MD, is a child psychiatrist and adult analyst. She is on the BPSI faculty and is a Harvard supervisor at Cambridge Health Alliance. Dr. Epstein has a long-standing interest in early development, attachment theory, and the origins of intersubjectivity. She is a founding faculty member of the Infant Parent Training Program at JF&CS, a two-year training program in parent-infant psychotherapy, and one of the recipients of the 2011 Arthur R. Kravitz Award for their work applying psychoanalytic and developmental principles in training therapists to do psychotherapy with parents and infants.  Click here to watch her recent conversation with Sarah Birss, MD.

Ann Epstein can be contacted by email here


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