A Thousand Tiny Cuts

Overcoming Implicit Bias to Promote Belonging 

By NAfME Member Alex Rivera

Alex Rivera presented A Thousand Tiny Cuts: Overcoming Implicit Bias to Promote Belonging at the “NAfME is ME!” 2022 NAfME National Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

How often have you “put your foot in your mouth” while teaching? You know, when you accidentally set up a dirty joke or silly phrase. When it happens, you may blush, sigh, or completely lose control of the class for the day. It’s frustrating, but on the bright side, you have a new story to tell your colleagues in the teachers’ lounge. We all have those hilarious tales we tell at conferences.

How often have you harmed a student because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, or disability? Undoubtedly, most of you are adamantly asserting your innocence. “I would never harm my students!” And I am sure you wouldn’t . . . on purpose.

Countless students in our music classrooms experience harm by our hands. There are phrases and “traditional” choral practices that are inherently racist, homophobic, transphobic, and/or ableist. In my session, “A Thousand Tiny Cuts: Overcoming Implicit Bias to Promote Belonging,” I aim to help attendees identify their implicit biases, understand how this manifests in the music classroom, and implement a plan to rewrite those biases.

Implicit Bias

Implicit biases are unconscious and typically formed in childhood. We don’t know we hold these biases, so it doesn’t even register when we say or do things that harm our students who don’t look or identify like us. It definitely registers for them, though. These harmful actions and words are called microaggressions. Microaggressions can cause emotional, mental, spiritual, and even physical pain. Our students who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), LGBTQIA+, and/or disabled experience microaggressions daily, most times without any recourse.

implicit bias and sketch of lightbulb on notebook with desk supplies

iStockphoto.com | Andrii Dodonov

We are not at fault for our implicit bias, but we are responsible for how that implicit bias is expressed. We also may not be aware of how something we say or do is harmful, but lack of awareness does not absolve us from harm. Impact is far greater than intent.

Researcher Derald Wing Sue described experiencing microaggressions as a “death by a thousand cuts.” Each time our students from marginalized communities experience microaggressions, it tears away at them, little by little. Our students cannot feel like they belong if we keep inflicting harm upon them.

What Does This Look Like?

Microaggressions in the music classroom typically fall into the following categories:

  • Lack of representation
  • Tokenism and Confirmation Bias
  • “Colorblindness” and Erasure
  • Misgendering
  • Infantilization and Saviorism
  • Lack of Access and Segregation

In my session, we will take a closer look at each of these categories, which practices fall into them, and why they cause harm.

How to Move Forward

Rewriting implicit bias, like laundry and taxes, is a lifelong endeavor. It’s a process that will be difficult at first but becomes easier over time. Once you’ve identified your implicit biases, you are able to move forward by diversifying your classroom and diversifying your points of view.

Diversifying your classroom Diversifying your points of view

Classroom decor should be diverse in many ways.

GirlConductor (Maria Ellis) has so many resources!

Consuming media (books, movies, music, etc.) by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and/or disabled people
Changing your teaching practice to reflect newfound knowledge on marginalized communities. Blurring the Binary is one of many fantastic sites to help you start on this journey. Engaging in meaningful conversation where you LISTEN instead of speaking. There are many groups on Facebook where people from marginalized communities are the privileged voices speaking on their lived experiences.
Buying and performing music composed/arranged by people from marginalized communities.

Institute for Composer Diversity Choral Database

Beyond Elijah Rock: The Non-Idiomatic Choral Music of Black Composers

Music Spoke

Seek out local or nearby public events celebrating people from marginalized communities. Reach out to your public library or tourism department if you need help finding these events. Go with the intention of learning and being exposed to diverse cultures, ideas, and practices.


There will be many uncomfortable moments. It is not easy to hear about the harm we have inadvertently inflicted upon our students. But sitting in that discomfort will help you more clearly see the areas where you hold implicit bias.

group of young people, mixed community

iStockphoto.com | Flash vector

We all want our students to feel like they truly belong in our music classrooms. Understanding where we’ve caused harm and how to fix it moving forward is a crucial step in ensuring that sense of belonging in all our students. I hope you will consider joining me in Washington, DC, for my session!

About the author:

Alex Rivera headshotNAfME member Alex Rivera (he/him) is a Vocal Music Director at Bartlesville High School in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He also serves as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Chair for the Oklahoma Choral Directors Association and as Director of Music Ministries for Disciples Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s of Music Education—Voice with Special Distinction from the University of Oklahoma. Alex is passionate about equity and social justice in the classroom. Alex is married to Callie, and they have three kids and two cats.

Follow Alex on Instagram and Facebook. Email: jalexrivera.music@gmail.com.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

September 26, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

September 26, 2022


  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)


September 26, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music
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