Bias is learned early, usually at home. Schools can offer lessons of tolerance and acceptance. Sponsor an “I Have a Dream” contest. Reach out to young people who may be susceptible to hate-group propaganda and prejudice.
Bias is learned in childhood. By age 3, children can be aware of racial differences and may have the perception that “white” is desirable. By age 12, they can hold stereotypes about ethnic, racial and religious groups. Because stereotypes underlie hate, and because almost half of all hate crimes are committed by young men under 20, tolerance education is critical.
Schools are an ideal environment to counter bias, because they mix youth of different backgrounds, place them on equal footing and allow one-on-one interaction. Children also are naturally curious about people who are different.
In the Classroom
Here are some ideas:
>> Acknowledge differences among students and celebrate the uniqueness of everyone. In Debra Goldsbury’s firstgrade class in Seattle, children paint selfportraits, mixing colors to match their skin tone. They then name their colors, which have included “gingerbread,” “melon” and “terra cotta.” They learn that everyone has a color, that no one is actually “white.”
>> Create an “I Have a Dream” contest, in which students envision and describe an ideal community. In North Berkshire, Mass., winning essays are reproduced and rolled onto highway billboards donated by the Callahan Outdoor Advertising Company.
>> Promote inclusion and fairness, but allow discussions of all feelings, including bias learned at home and the street. Establish a “peace table” where children learn to “fight fair,” perhaps with hand puppets in which conflict is acted out.
>> Promote diversity by letting children tell stories about their families, however different they may be. Diversity embraces not just race, but age, religion, marital status and personal ability. Remember that charting “family trees” can be a challenge to some children, such as those who are adopted or living with single parents.
>> Use art and theatre to help children understand the effects of discrimination and celebrate their differences. At Southeast Whitfield High School in Dalton, Ga., an ESOL class painted a mural on their classroom wall. The activity provided an outlet for immigrant students to share part of their culture and discuss the challenges of moving to a new country.
>> Teach older children to look critically at stereotypes portrayed by the media. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine a lawyer, doctor, rap musician, gang member, bank president, hair stylist or criminal. What did they “see” and why? Confronted with their own stereotypes, children begin to question how they’ve been shaped by the media.
>> Teach mediation skills to kids. At Mill Hill Elementary School in Fairfield, Conn., a group of fifth-graders, selected because of their reputations as bullies, respond anonymously to letters from younger students seeking advice on a range of school-related problems, like bullying and harassment. The program helps students develop empathy.
Beyond the Classroom
Tolerance can be taught to your community as well. Consider a case in Arizona.
Amid increasingly virulent anti-immigrant sentiment, the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) holds weekly public vigils in Tucson to honor those who have lost their lives trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
The group, which works to document human rights abuses along the border, also keeps a list of border deaths, including age and cause of death: age 26, dehydration; age 18, hit by a car; age 43, gunshot wound; age 25, drowned; age 19, heat stroke.
“It hits home, with the specific information,” said Kat Rodriguez of Derechos Humanos. “It shows the cost of the failed and flawed border policies of the United States, the human cost.”
Responding to Bias on Campus
While most schools have plans in place to deal with fire, bad weather and medical emergencies, few are prepared for bias incidents.
But there are many things you can do. As educators, it is critical that you speak up when bigotry comes from colleagues. In a survey of Teaching Tolerance readers, educators responded that the No. 1 source of biased language on campus was other educators. When teachers exhibit intolerant attitudes, students lose an important ally — and the harassers win.
Teaching Tolerance offers programs to help schools become “safe zones.”
Mix It Up encourages students to break down the social boundaries that create cliques and lead to harmful stereotypes and exclusion. During the annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day, students eat lunch while sitting next to someone they don’t know. Prompts from teachers or other students guide the conversation. Often combined with dialogue groups sponsored by Study Circles, Mix It Up at Lunch Day has helped millions of students across the country examine their own biases and overcome their fears of difference. Visit www.mixitup.org for more information.
Five Steps for Parents to Take
1. Examine your children’s textbooks and the curricula at their schools to determine whether they are equitable and multicultural.
2. Encourage teachers and administrators to adopt diversity training and tolerance curricula, including Teaching Tolerance magazine and other diversity education materials.
3. Encourage your children to become tolerance activists. They can form harmony clubs, build multicultural peace gardens, sponsor “walk in my shoes” activities and join study circles to interact with children of other cultures.
4. Examine the media your children consume, from Internet sites to the commercials during their favorite TV shows. Stereotypes and issues of intolerance are bound to be present. Discuss these issues openly, as you would the dangers of sex and drugs.
5. Model inclusive language and behavior. Children learn from the language you use and the attitudes you model. If you demonstrate a deep respect for other cultures, races and walks of life, most likely they will, too.