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 first-grade class in Seattle, children paint self-portraits, 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.
If you can't love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else. Can I get an Amen?