I am mixed race (half black, half white) and as a child I don’t remember experiencing racism or prejudice within my predominately white school. I was once called a derogatory term that was not related to my actual race but I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until high school and now has an adult that I began to experience it or at least become more aware of it towards others.
As a teenager I often had to point out to friends and their families that racism wasn’t only towards black people and that making assumptions about immigrants was equally offensive.
I remember once being in a friend’s car and her mother looking at the expensive car next to us at the traffic lights, eyeing up the Asian driver who must have been in his early 20s and saying “drug money”. She honestly didn’t understand what was wrong with this statement. She is a lovely person, but this is the problem… People have no idea they are prejudiced and assume they are not because they are kind. They exclaim “But I’m not racist! I’m a nice person! I have black friends!”
When I point out comments that are prejudicial, people are instantly defensive. I am not calling them a racist or implying they are malicious in intent. I am saying that the judgement they have made is unfair and based on skin colour, religion, age, gender, to name but a few and therefore prejudiced; as they do not know the person they have just judged. I am not claiming I am without prejudice. Everyone is prejudiced. The problem is when it is hurtful and offensive.
This is exactly why I think it is important to teach children about prejudice and discuss it.
I watched a programme once where several children were shown a picture of 4 smiling children, in identical school uniforms, they had never met. A white boy, 2 white girls, and a black boy. They then asked them a series of questions and asked them to justify their answers.
They asked questions such as “who do you want to be friends with?” to which each of the children pointed at the white boy or girl and said they want to be friends with them because “they look pretty”.
The question that stuck with me was “who is the meanest?” and each child, including the black children, pointed at the black boy and the justification was “he looks mean”. The only one who did this in reverse was a black boy. They then gave a back story to this child and showed that his mother went out of her way to ensure that she constantly used positive reinforcement about his own self image and provided him with black role models.
I was shocked because I couldn’t believe that EVERY child, bar the one educated about his own skin colour and why it shouldn’t be viewed negatively, chose the black child as the “meanest”.
I decided to conduct the same study in my own classroom two years ago. I found the picture above. The children look happy and excited and there isn’t a situation depicted so the children can’t read a subtext.
My school is within Inner London, is predominately black, with a mixture of other races, including white British, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Colombian and others.
After weeks of studying the Benin Kingdom, the origins of slavery and what the term prejudice means and providing examples I thought… I have educated them thoroughly, they will say straight away… “How could we possibly judge Miss? We know nothing about them!”
Of course this was not the case. I’m a teacher. They are my pupils. If I give them a question, they will try to give me an answer despite any misgivings any of them may have had. However I don’t think a single one of them had misgivings in the first place.
I recapped prejudice and how we shouldn’t judge people. Then I displayed the picture on the board.
I asked the following questions:
Who is the most popular?
Who is the least popular?
Who is the bully?
Who is the victim?
Who will be successful in life?
Who is the most religious?
Who will go to university?
Who will end up in a gang?
Who is the most creative?
Who will end up in a trade, such as being an electrician or hairdresser?
Who will earn the most money?
I encouraged the children to be honest in their answers. I labelled each child in the picture a letter and got the children to vote on each of the questions and made a tally. I then chose the child with the highest votes for each question and asked some of the children to justify the answers.
The child voted most popular has been the black boy for 2 years and the boy in the left hand bottom corner in my first year. Justifications for the black boy were that “he looks cool” and “he’s wearing a chain”. The other boy received justifications that “he looks friendly” and “I like his smile”. That same boy, that same year was voted most successful and to have the most money.
However, the child most likely to be in a gang has been the black boy every single year, for 3 years. Justifications were “he’s wearing a chain” and “he just looks like he is”.
The child most likely to be a bully has been the black girl for 2 years, and it was the black boy this year. For the girl I received justifications of “she looks mean” and “she has an evil glint in her eye”. For the boy I was told “he looks like he would get away with it because he is popular”.
The children have voted the white boy to be the victim of bullying for three years, with one reason “he’s fat”.
Not every vote was unanimous, but every vote I have mentioned was a landslide. After sharing the results of the votes I asked the children “do you want to know the answers” and was greeted with an excited cheer of “YES!” To which I responded.. “There are no answers. What have you just done?”
The children look around every year for a few moments, confused as to why I’m not instantly supplying them with answers and wondering why I have quizzed them if the right answer didn’t exist. Then realisation dawns. They have just judged children without knowing them.
Every year I am astounded that they find it so easy to make a decision and that the idea of prejudice doesn’t creep in on their thoughts until I point it out at the end. Especially as I remind them of what prejudice is seconds before I show them the picture.
Every year I am astounded that even though my class is predominantly black, they label the black children negatively.
Every year I am astounded that the results don’t change. But I will be more shocked if I ever have a class that have no majority vote for any of the children. Or even better, realise that they shouldn’t make assumptions and put up their hands to say “But Miss that is prejudiced!”.
Hopefully the lesson resonated with some of them and they will be less prejudicial.
Maybe one day.
Maybe after a lot more lessons.