Politics of Identity Class Reflects on Implicit Bias

By, Sindhu K. ’19 and Julie W. ’19

What is the definition of class? What kinds of gender dynamics affect the workplace? Can the US government’s weak response to Hurricane Katrina be attributed to racial tensions? During Mr. Braxton’s Politics of Identity class first semester, seniors sought answers to questions such as these in their exploration of race, class, and gender in the 21st century. Through case studies and personal reflection, we were able to develop our own perspectives on these pertinent social issues. However, these perspectives were challenged when Mr. Braxton put us in contact with the government class at Sidney High School, a high school in Montana, through a series of class video calls.

In preparation for our conversation with Sidney, we prepared questions that we wondered about our northwestern counterparts. What were the other students’ school days like? What were their opinions on our community’s major concerns, such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+ rights, and the current administration? How openly were politics spoken about at their school? The questions were numerous and probing, but the class had to limit its discussion with Sydney to much fewer topics for the sake of time.

The first observation that we made upon calling the Sidney class was the overwhelming whiteness of the group of students; the school seemed to have even less racial diversity than Winsor. When we asked the students more about themselves, we uncovered an array of other differences between our communities as well. While we have an urban campus that is surrounded by colleges, they had to drive for hours to reach many universities. While it’s usually a drive for us to hang out with friends, they lived in the same area and had their own local hangout spots. While our school events revolve mainly around concerts and community service, theirs are dominated by sports. However, our conversation soon turned to more weighty topicsincluding racial inequality, gender dynamics, and gun rights.

“How many of you have shot a gun?” asked Mr. B. One by one, almost all of the 16 year olds’ hands rose in the air over the blurry Facebook Video Call. Needless to say, our class was shocked to see such a large proportion. In comparison, only one or two students from each of our sections raised their hands. The questions continued (“How many people of color are at your school?” “What percentage of your students voted for Trump?”), and with each response, it became increasingly clear how unalike our communities were.

“It was certainly an interesting experience talking to the students from Sydney High School. I loved hearing their points of view on certain subjects,” said Kayla L. ’19. “However, we could not talk to them long enough to actually have a conversation about guns control or LGBTQ+ rights. In the end, all that was said on both sides of the conversation were vague blanket statements that almost solidified certain stereotypes about our geographic regions. I wish that we could have had more time with them because they had interesting and important points to talk about.”

Kayla’s feeling is one that was shared by many students in the Politics of Identity class. We were left with an important question: how can we gain a better understanding of cultures different from our own in order to bridge the divide between our cultures? The writers of this article decided to reach out to Mr. Brad Faulhaber, the teacher of Sidney’s government class, to reflect on our earlier conversation.

“There are certain classes where all but one student of the 25 kids in the class are core conservatives, so one of the difficulties as a teacher is that when we have conversations about gun policies or the wall, they’re all kind of in a group [mindset.] They won’t criticize or be upset because they all think alike,” said Mr. Faulhaber. “So what was nice about our conversation is that even though they could probably guess what you guys were going to say, it was nice for them to actually hear somebody else’s opinion.”

In a sense, this group mindset is one that Winsor’s community can also identify with. “This might be because of the fact that we live in the liberal bubble of Massachusetts, but a lot of us share the same views,” said another senior in the Politics of Identity class. “I do feel that people whose views are less liberal or democratic would be ostracized here.”

Her words hold true; the desire to bear arms, for example, is unfathomable to many Winsor students. We don’t see teenagers carrying guns around Boston, so the thought of universal gun rights may seem bizarre and frightening. But, according to Yarenci, a student at Sidney, guns are “a recreational thing in Montana. People actually carry them a lot in their vehicles, and there are people who live out of town and on ranches, so we do use them a lot. We also use them for hunting. If guns were totally restricted, then that would be a big problem in Montana.”

Yarenci is one of the only students of color in her school and is also one of the only students with liberal-leaning values. “I’m Mexican, and there are probably, like, 10 students of a different ethnicity here in Sidney.” We asked her whether it was hard for her to be in such a minority, instinctively assuming that the students in her class would alienate her for her different background and experiences. To our surprise, though, she answered, “They accept me, and they ask me why I think the way I do, and I give my reasons, and they see my perspective. I really don’t feel left out or discriminated against in any sort of way.”

Her response left us in a state of ponderous embarrassment. Did our implicit biases about conservative people lead us to believe that they wouldn’t accept or understand liberal beliefs? Speaking to Yarenci and her classmates not only helped us better comprehend their points of view, but also compelled us to examine our own perspectives and prejudices from a critical lens. At Winsor, we often joke about living in a “blue bubble,” but the only way to understand another point of view truly is to be willing to step outside of this bubble.