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March 16, 2015 2

To Confront Racism, We Must Also Look In the Mirror

teenagers debateLast week, dis­turb­ing video emerged of fra­ter­nity broth­ers from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chap­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa laugh­ing while singing a racist chant: “There will never be a ni**** SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** SAE.”

The news comes on the heels of the recent find­ings from a Depart­ment of Jus­tice inves­ti­ga­tion in Fer­gu­son, MO which, among other things, revealed a deeply trou­bling series of racist emails by Fer­gu­son offi­cials. One email, for exam­ple, in Novem­ber 2008 pre­dicted that Pres­i­dent Obama would not be pres­i­dent much longer because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

With few excep­tions, peo­ple have denounced these inci­dents as racist. Imme­di­ately after the news broke, the pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­sity of Okla­homa con­demned the stu­dents’ behav­ior and sev­ered all ties between the uni­ver­sity and the local SAE chap­ter.  At the same time, the national SAE head­quar­ters shut down the local chap­ter. Ferguson’s munic­i­pal court clerk was fired and the chief of police and two police offi­cers resigned after the DOJ report was released.

It is cer­tainly appro­pri­ate to con­demn this racism and teach peo­ple to chal­lenge biased lan­guage, but it is not enough.  Today, thank­fully, such overt racism is much less com­mon than in the past.  Still, there is an under­cur­rent of much sub­tler, more deeply buried bias that still flows through Amer­ica.  While fewer and fewer Amer­i­cans would use overt offen­sive, deroga­tory terms, many of us—consciously or not—have implicit biases (uncon­scious atti­tudes, stereo­types or unin­ten­tional actions that we direct at a mem­ber of a group sim­ply because of that person’s mem­ber­ship in that group).

The implicit biases embed­ded in, for exam­ple, the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem or the seg­re­gated nature of the col­lege fra­ter­nity sys­tem, can be as or more harm­ful than this hate­ful and deroga­tory language.

From a very early age we learn to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between things that are the same and things that are dif­fer­ent: one of these things is not like the other one.  Sci­ence shows that we make the same snap judg­ments about other peo­ple, using what we know and what we assume to cat­e­go­rize things. While that gives us impor­tant tools in mak­ing sense of the world, when paired with soci­etal biases and stereo­types it can become harm­ful. As a result of sub­tle mes­sages through­out soci­ety, most people—whether or not they intend it, and often when they expressly do not—have some implicit biases.

Stud­ies have found, for exam­ple, that doc­tors are more likely to pre­scribe pain med­ica­tion for white patients with a bro­ken leg than African Amer­i­can or Latino patients. Law firm part­ners, when asked to eval­u­ate a memo writ­ten by a hypo­thet­i­cal asso­ciate, scored the memo lower and found more mis­takes when they were told it had been writ­ten by an African Amer­i­can.  Another study found that, in order to get a call for an inter­view, appli­cants with typ­i­cally black names (such as Jamal or Lak­isha) had to send out 50 per­cent more resumes.

It is easy to dis­miss the racism at SAE and in Fer­gu­son as an aber­ra­tion and some­thing we would never engage in our­selves. It is much harder to deny that we have any implicit bias, espe­cially if you take the Implicit Asso­ci­a­tion Test. Because implicit bias begins at a very early age and devel­ops over the course of a life­time, there are ways we can par­ent, teach and inter­act with young peo­ple to coun­ter­act these direct and indi­rect messages:

  • Make your home, class­room and school envi­ron­ment as diverse as pos­si­ble so that from an early age, you work to coun­ter­act neg­a­tive biases. This means cre­at­ing an inclu­sive and cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive class­room with books, class­room dis­plays, bul­letin boards, hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions, videos, sto­ries, text­books, etc. and make sure dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives are reflected in your class­room curriculum.
  • Affirm and reflect the dif­fer­ent aspects of iden­tity rep­re­sented in your class­room and help young peo­ple decon­struct assump­tions, stereo­types and labels they have about dif­fer­ent groups of people.
  • Teach stu­dents what overt and implicit bias are and seek their par­tic­i­pa­tion in pro-actively doing some­thing about it.

 

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January 14, 2015 1

Beyond the Dream, Teaching King in Context

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Day is Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 19, and many edu­ca­tors will take the oppor­tu­nity to teach about King and his enor­mous con­tri­bu­tions to our soci­ety. As edu­ca­tors, how we approach the teach­ing of this hol­i­day makes an impact on how stu­dents under­stand the larger con­text of the Civil Rights Move­ment and whether they make a con­nec­tion between the past strug­gles to the cur­rent day and their own lives. Here are some thoughts about teach­ing the topic in a mean­ing­ful way:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559

Cour­tesy of the Library of Con­gress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Col­lec­tion, LC-USZ62-126559

Focus on what Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. rep­re­sents.  King is an icon, a larger than life fig­ure and a tremen­dous ora­tor. These char­ac­ter­is­tics can lead stu­dents to believe that he sin­gle­hand­edly accom­plished the goals of the Civil Rights Move­ment or that they could never be like King.  It’s impor­tant to put King’s work into the con­text of the larger move­ment of peo­ple that he rep­re­sented.  Stu­dents need to know about King’s life, that he was a leader of all types of “ordi­nary” peo­ple, and it was them – peo­ple of all ages, all walks of life, all dif­fer­ent races and reli­gions – that made the Civil Rights Move­ment possible.

It is impor­tant to under­stand and teach that the Civil Rights Move­ment was a strate­gic, on-going  move­ment with spe­cific objec­tives.  Author Bryan Steven­son talks about the idea that peo­ple today often think of the civil rights move­ment as a 3 day event; “Day One, Rosa Parks gave up her seat on a bus; Day Two, Dr. King led a march on Wash­ing­ton; and Day Three, we signed all these laws.”  This sim­plis­tic view of the Civil Rights Move­ment leaves out all of the impor­tant ele­ments of strat­egy, strug­gle and the actual “move­ment” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sim­i­larly, it is impor­tant to be spe­cific when talk­ing about King and the Civil Rights Move­ment. Dr. King’s legacy can­not be under­stood with­out talk­ing about big­otry, race and racism.  That may seem obvi­ous, but often edu­ca­tors are hes­i­tant to talk about race.  With thought­ful prepa­ra­tion, how­ever, these issues can be raised in a devel­op­men­tally appro­pri­ate way.  It’s also really use­ful to be spe­cific about the aims of the Civil Rights Move­ment– not just a vague notion of “equal­ity” but a social jus­tice move­ment that was seek­ing to end seg­re­ga­tion, secure vot­ing rights, advo­cate for worker’s rights, and address eco­nomic disparities.

In this way, we have teach­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties that con­nect the past to cur­rent events.  Stu­dents can see both the suc­cess of the Civil Rights Move­ment while also con­nect­ing to what forms of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion and unequal treat­ment exist today.  For exam­ple, exam­in­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act allows for an oppor­tu­nity to ana­lyze the 2013 Supreme Court deci­sion which gut­ted the heart of that law or explore tac­tics like Voter ID laws which sup­press the abil­ity to vote.  Sim­i­larly, focus­ing on the impor­tance of youth involve­ment and lead­er­ship in all aspects of the Civil Rights Move­ment allows for an oppor­tu­nity to learn about cur­rent activism led by youth.  

We know that no edu­ca­tor has the lux­ury or time to focus on all aspects of King’s life and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment. Choos­ing one spe­cific aspect of King’s life or the Civil Rights Move­ment can give stu­dents more oppor­tu­nity to under­stand and explore, whether focus­ing on Selma or The Children’s Cru­sade or the San­i­ta­tion Work­ers’ Strike in Memphis.

These are just a few exam­ples of the many dif­fer­ent entry points for learn­ing about Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment.  For many, the “go to” entry point is to focus on King’s most famous and most quoted “I Have a Dream” speech, specif­i­cally the end with its lyri­cal, mov­ing rep­e­ti­tion. Because this speech has vivid imagery and phrases that make it easy to teach, it can also be over­sim­pli­fied. We need to go beyond “the Dream” for stu­dents to truly make mean­ing of King’s legacy.  King’s dream was deeply rooted not just in “the Amer­i­can Dream,” but also in that time’s con­text of dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and big­otry.  How­ever we choose to honor King’s legacy this year, stu­dents’ learn­ing should also be rooted in those con­cepts of injustice.

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December 17, 2014 0

Bring Malala, Ferguson, Unaccompanied Minors and Ebola into the Classroom

Malala.  Fer­gu­son. Immi­gra­tion. Ebola. Voter ID Laws. Cli­mate Change.  These are just a few of the top­ics teach­ers are reg­u­larly and actively bring­ing into their classrooms.

Unaccompanied Minors essay pic for blogWhether they teach Eng­lish, Social Stud­ies, Advi­sory or another sub­ject and whether they have five min­utes or decide to do a week– long study, teach­ers know that top­ics in the news will engage and inter­est stu­dents in a deep and mean­ing­ful way.  Research shows that cur­rent events instruc­tion has a long list of ben­e­fits for stu­dents includ­ing skill devel­op­ment in read­ing, writ­ing, vocab­u­lary, crit­i­cal think­ing, media lit­er­acy, speak­ing and lis­ten­ing.  It also helps to develop life­long informed cit­i­zens and inter­est in the news.

Young peo­ple want to be part of the pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion and talk about what’s cur­rent and in the news.  Cur­rent events instruc­tion pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to con­nect the present with the past; address impor­tant top­ics like bias, bul­ly­ing, diver­sity and social jus­tice; and build crit­i­cal social and emo­tional skills like emo­tions man­age­ment, empa­thy and eth­i­cal decision-making.

Julie Mann is a high school teacher in New York City. She teaches a Human Rights class and brings a wide range of top­ics, events and sto­ries to her stu­dents, most of whom are recent arrivals to the United States and Eng­lish Lan­guage Learners.

Malala Quote for Blog

In Octo­ber when Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize, Julie decided Malala would be a great per­son for her stu­dents to learn more about, as a youth activist who advo­cates for girls’ edu­ca­tion.  Julie wrote a Donors Choose grant to pro­vide copies of I Am Malala for all of her stu­dents and taught ADL’s Who Is Malala Yousafzai? les­son with her stu­dents.  Stu­dents learned more about Malala’s back­ground, per­spec­tive and what she stands for by read­ing an arti­cle and watch­ing her 2013 speech at the United Nations.  Then, stu­dents read and reflected on some of Malala’s most sig­nif­i­cant quotes, talked about their mean­ings and made posters out of the quotes.

Because many of Julie’s stu­dents are from the three “North­ern Tri­an­gle” coun­tries in Cen­tral Amer­ica (Hon­duras, Guatemala and El Sal­vador) most impacted by the chil­dren on the bor­der cri­sis which peaked this sum­mer, Julie decided to teach the Who Are the Chil­dren At Our Bor­der? les­son.  Stu­dents read sto­ries of two chil­dren who recently trav­eled to the U.S. by them­selves, watched a news video about the sit­u­a­tion, explored their own thoughts and feel­ings and finally, wrote per­sua­sive let­ters to Pres­i­dent Obama to con­vey their per­spec­tives, using “evi­dence” they learned to sup­port their points of view.

Ferguson student picture for Blog

As Julie’s stu­dents were deeply moved and impacted by the recent non-indictments of the police offi­cers involved in the deaths of Mike Brown (Fer­gu­son, MO) and Eric Gar­ner (Staten Island, NY), Julie again turned to ADL’s teach­ing mate­ri­als: Teach­ing About Fer­gu­son and Beyond  to help stu­dents learn more about the issue and sort through their thoughts and feel­ings.  She pro­vided back­ground read­ing, showed a Jay Smooth video  and had them look at rel­e­vant pho­tos while respond­ing to ques­tion prompts such as: What do you see in the image?  How does the image make you feel and why?  What are your hopes and wishes?

In explor­ing these three cur­rent events, Julie is teach­ing her stu­dents to think crit­i­cally, under­stand impor­tant events that are hap­pen­ing in the world, express their thoughts and feel­ings about the issue and do some­thing about it. For more les­son plans and cur­ric­ula resources, check out ADL’s Cur­rent Events Class­room.

 

 

 

 

 

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