Breeding respect, unlearning bigotry, and deflating stereotypes

By David Wasser, middle school teacherWasser_sm

Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the first significant Civil Rights legislation in this country, we find ourselves again struggling against the pernicious forces of prejudice and discrimination. Not that prejudice and discrimination had ever gone away; but the past several years have brought us a string of particularly tragic and ugly reminders of what happens when our biases and stereotypes manifest themselves in our actions and behaviors.

The list of black men, women, and children who have died at the hands of law enforcement personnel just in the last two years is beyond disheartening. It is a national shame.

In the political discourse of this new election cycle, we see how easily and successfully some are able to invoke vile stereotypes to stoke and exploit the fears of millions of our fellow citizens. It is frightening to see just how small is the distance between a rally and a lynch mob, and how thin is the veneer that separates an advanced cosmopolitan civilization from one that is primitive and tribalistic.

Where have we gone wrong? How could it be that our annual commemoration of lofty

Martin-Luther-King-Jrwords and deeds has not innoculated us against the disease of bigotry? Where is the Promised Land that Dr. King claimed to see?

If my experiences have taught me anything, it is that the only effective way to combat prejudice and stereotypical thinking is personal contact with people from all variety of backgrounds. Bringing people together with others who are different from them – not just to sit and politely listen to a speaker – but to really live together, eat together, pray together, sing together, learn together, and work together, is the most effective antidote to the spread of stereotypical thinking.

I am forever grateful for having been born into a family that values travel and the cultural enlightenment that it makes possible. As a teenager, I was given the opportunity to visit Israel, where I lived and worked in a kibbutz. There I got to meet not only young Israelis of my age, but also young people from all over Europe, and many other countries. We studied Hebrew, worked milking cows and picking fruit, went sightseeing together, and celebrated every Friday night in the bombshelter-cum-discotheque. This sojourn led to a whirlwind tour of Europe, including a visit to France, where the warmth and kindness of every stranger I met blew my previous image of the French out of the water! A few years later on, I jumped at the chance to trek with a couple of college friends from Casablanca, Morocco along the southern Mediterranean coast to Algeria, then south and across the Sahara on the back of an open truck, and on into the West African nation of Mali. From Mali, I went and spent some time in Egypt before heading north to visit my old friends in Israel.

In every place I visited – despite cultural and linguistic barriers, despite different ways of doing things, despite different views of how society should be organized and governed – I found people who were friendly, generous, welcoming, curious, and intelligent. I found people who loved and believed in their way of living, and those who wanted to make a change. I discovered that what I thought I knew about certain places and people just didn’t fit the reality I was seeing. I realized that a stereotype is a just a two-dimensional representation of creatures that are multidimensional! I learned, also, that getting to know a person face-to-face is an experience a thousand times richer and more satisfying than hearing about a person through a second-hand account.

So how does this kind of personal connection with people who are different from oneself work to counteract the effects of negative stereotypes and generalizations? Speaking for myself, I know that whenever I hear or read something about a place I have visited and where I have friends, I have a different reaction than when I hear about people or places where I have no connection. In the former case, I think of the people I know and see their faces in my mind. I compare what I am being told with what I know, and I am therefore able to evaluate more critically the information being given. In the latter case, however, I lack the same frame of reference. I am much more at the mercy of whoever’s perspective is being shown to me, and all I have are the stereotypes I have picked up with which to assess the validity of the claims being made.

At MB, this truth is recognized and acknowledged through the TRIPs program. Students of the 21st century are stepping into a world where “interconnected” has almost become a cliché. Our students will certainly be interacting with people from all around the world in their daily lives. To a great extent, they already do! They do not need to travel far across the globe to encounter different cultures and ways of thinking. We have incredible diversity all around us!

It will be essential, therefore, to our students’ success in this world that they get out and meet it face-to-face. They need to learn to identify and reject stereotypes encountered in the media, in stump speeches, in board rooms, and in casual conversations. This is not so simply for the moral and ethical reasons, which are certainly sufficient; but also for practical reasons. Decisions and actions that are based on stereotypes – rather than a deep understanding of history, culture, values, and beliefs – are, at best, less efficacious; at worst, life-threatening.

Giving students the opportunity to travel, experience, and build authentic connections with people from all walks of life enables them to develop a clearer, more accurate, more nuanced picture of the world, and prepares them to fill the ethical leadership roles we so urgently need.

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