Ism Prism

 Learning Action:  The Ism Prism

(adapted by Pamela Dos Ramos from William Sonnenschein, The Diversity Toolkit: How you can build and benefit from a diverse workforce. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1999) 

Please refer to Our PhilosophyLearning Actions, and Facilitator Principles

Framing the Learning Action

A large part of understanding racism and racial discrimination involves coming to an understanding of how individuals often unknowingly participate in it. Developing this understanding means that we become aware of self in the context of racism - we become self-aware. Becoming self-aware  is an ongoing learning process, and begins with understanding how we were socialized, what influenced/s us, what are our assumptions beliefs and biases, and how were they  formed. Who, how and what influenced/s who you are and how you interact with others.

The Socialization and Ism Prism provides a means to help participants understand their biases. We all have biases and it is important to understand where we learned them, and what we can do to overcome them in order to build relationships with people who are ethnically or racially different from us.  (See Culture as an Iceberg diagram.)

Logistics - Things to Consider 

General Set-Up:

This activity can be done during the workshop or as a pre-workshop activity.  The handouts can be provided as hardcopy documents or placed online.

Minimum Time Required:

45 - 69 minutes. The set up for takes about 10 minutes - facilitator provides examples answers for partipants. Allow 10-15 as a minimum time for participants to complete the questionnaire. The bulk of the time is debrief. If you do use the small group component allow an extra 30 minutes.

Number of Participants:

This Learning Action is highly adaptable for small and large groups. Smaller groups can be given more questions, and larger groups fewer, for example. Based on our experience we would not recommend groups smaller than 6-8, nor groups larger than 40 (because of the challenges debriefing with large groups).

Age of Participants:

Junior High and up.


Ground Rules

Session ground rules

How the Facilitator Participates

The facilitator provides example of how to go through the questionnaire using their personal experience of answering the questions. During this process it is important that the facilitator provides personal examples of how to answer the questions as well as prompting other options for answering. The facilitator's experience with the questionnaire will help to normalize the process for participants.

How Participants Contribute to the Group's Learning

Participants fill out the questionnaire honestly knowing that they will not have to share their process unless they choose to.

Facilitating this Learning Action:

  1. Using the material in the Framing the Action section, explain why understanding bias is important.

  2. Warn participants that examining and understanding personal bias is not an easy process, and that this process might bring up issues that they find uncomfortable or upsetting, For example it is not easy to realize that your favourite uncle was/is biased and that you might have learned some of your bias from him. Reassure participants that they will not have to share any of the information from the questionnaire unless they want to.

  3. Ask participants to choose a group of people who is ethnically or racially different from them. They might choose a group of people based on having a bad experience with someone from the group, not knowing anything about the people from a particular group, or because they believe that they might have trouble working with or being friends with a person from that group. It is important that participants choose a group of people that has meaning for them.


  • Have each small group share their answers with the large group, or if you skip the small group, go through the questions with the large group modifying questions when necessary. Encourage participants to be specific with their answers.

  • For question 1 (Was this questionnaire easy or difficult to do? If easy why?   If difficult, what specifically were the difficulties?)

The difficulties participants might cite are; that it is not easy to learn that relatives had biases, that they played games that were racist, that there were gaps in their knowledge when it came to the group they had chosen and so on. Connecting participants' difficult experiences to systemic/institutional racism of the time is important so individuals do not get stopped by guilt. For example what were government policies and practices, or media images that may have influenced their parents or their own perceptions. The questionnaire will provide answers, but the facilitator may have to encourage participants to make connections to institutional racism or the larger picture.

  • Question 2 and 3  (Did most of the people in your group find the Ism Prism easy or difficult?  Were the difficulties mostly similar or mostly different for group members)

These questions are intended to assist participants to examine similarities and differences between group members. If the groups members are ethnically and/or racially diverse the differences in their answers may be more evident. If the groups are ethically and racially homogeneous participants may have experienced the difficulties in similar ways.  It is important to talk about why similarities and differences in understanding personal bias may or may not occur between white participants and racialized participants.  (See internalized dominance; oppression; and racism )

  • Participants who share surprises or "ah ha" moments usually provide opportunities for learning for everyone, either through their own insights or through connections that the facilitator can help them make.

  • The Ism Prism is not meant to "fix" personal bias, but to assist participants to understand their biases and to learn some alternative way of thinking about and addressing them. Being conscious of personal attitudes and behaviours helps make meaning of everyday experiences.


Based on our experience, here are some of the reactions we have experienced/observed in facilitating this action (some of which may seem a bit surprising at first, but on further reflection are not so surprising, and can be effectively addressed in the discussion/debriefing)

  • resistance from participants

  • focus may be placed on the group rather than on personal biases.

  • may attempt to rationalize bias rather than getting personal

  • participants may become silent.anger/frustration/confusion

  • expect participants to be at different places in their process of understanding and addressing bias. For example in answering the question, "What critical incidents happened during my life that might have affected or changed my perception of .....?", participants might respond either positively or negatively. It will be important for the facilitator to provide participants with an alternative perspective, not of their experience, but of the attitudes and behaviours connected to the experience in order to move them through the negative experience into understanding their resulting bias.

Facilitator Responses:

  • discussing resistance and rationalization that may arise with participants before they begin the activity may assist them to move through their resistance.

  • reassuring participants that there are no right or wrong answers and that they will not be judged on their answers or process may also help them to move through resistance.

Further work:  

Resources and Links

Further Reading

Learning Action: Cultural Influences adapted from Bonnir M. Davis, How to Teach Students Who Don't Look Like You. California: Corwin Press, 2007. Framing the Action