S.E. Livingston: Discrimination 101: Are we making progress in eradicating prejudice?
"I used to think that all bad guys were black guys." This startling statement came from Annie, 5, as we drove home from church. We had not been talking about bad guys, black guys, crime or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The six of us halted conversa...
"I used to think that all bad guys were black guys."
This startling statement came from Annie, 5, as we drove home from church. We had not been talking about bad guys, black guys, crime or Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The six of us halted conversation, wondering if more pontificating was to come.
"How come you don't now?" asked Will, age 10.
"Mom told me so!" she replied with simplicity.
Can we change a prejudice just because our mom tells us to do so?
Annie has lived her entire life in Duluth. We have friends of all different ethnic backgrounds; one of her favorite playmates is African American. But white is such an overwhelming majority in this community that skin color becomes a variable. That is where stereotypes and prejudices begin.
A couple of years ago a big group of home-schooled children and I were having an "1800s" day. Because slavery was such an historical issue in the 1800s, and because my audience was all-white, we instilled a small lesson on discrimination.
When the kids got there, I had all of them put on a brown or blue necklace (corresponding with their eye color). I began to tell them how much more I liked brown than blue. I told them how much more I liked brown-eyed people than blue-eyed people. In fact, I said I thought brown-eyed people were better than blue-eyed people. Then the moms and I began to treat the children unfairly -- not meanly -- just unfairly.
We separated blue from brown and made the blue-eyed ones sit at a different lunch table. I didn't have enough plates at lunchtime, so I made the blue-eyed ones share. We served the brown-eyed children first and they got the best picks.
The mothers played along well. The blue-eyed mothers submissively bowed their heads and asked permission to eat, talk and sit. The brown-eyed mothers took liberty with telling people what to do, interrupting and being bossy. It took three minutes before one of the older children, mouth agape, picked up the slavery/civil rights metaphor. Within 10 minutes, the blue-eyed children began to look at me with hardened eyes. Within 20 minutes I had to step out of the room because the oppression and hard feelings were so thick. At 30 minutes we had to stop.
We then had a discussion about slavery, racism, God's love for all people and the Bill of Rights. I explained how my attitude was stupid -- not based on fact or morals, just ignorance. The children were relieved, but they didn't like it. We then spent the next couple hours having fun, leaving discrimination behind. I tried to soothe my relations with the blue-eyed children, but hard feelings went beyond that day.
It was a short classroom exercise designed to give children a taste of discrimination. We were trying to put them in somebody else's shoes a little.
The classroom exercise wasn't my original idea. A schoolteacher in Iowa did this exercise with her classroom in 1968 the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. To see a documentary of this original experience, visit www.pbs.org .
Are we making progress as a society in eradicating our harmful prejudices? Annie's statement made me think how powerful a mother's word is. But had I followed through with actions bigger than my words? Had I shown Annie friendships don't have anything to do with the amount of pigment in somebody's skin?
When walking down the street do I pause when I see somebody who doesn't look like me? Do I avert my gaze? Do I treat them differently, even if it's limited to body language?
My children are always watching to see how I handle these things and will base their ideas on what they see. So are yours.
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