Confronting Prejudice

Bullying is unfortunately another face of prejudice that goes unaddressed in school, in the workplace and in our larger community. It is a social problem that, unaddressed, will not go away. Recently, there was much ...

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Bullying is unfortunately another face of prejudice that goes unaddressed in school, in the workplace and in our larger community. It is a social problem that, unaddressed, will not go away. Recently, there was much written about a thirteen year old seventh grader who was tormented the entire school year. His mother documented all of the incidents. She went to the administration for support and corrective action. She felt that her pleas to protect her seventh grade son fell on deaf ears.

As the school year progressed, the bullying intensified. His life was threatened and he was hit in the head with a rock that caused a concussion. In frustration with the school district, the mother initiated a lawsuit against the district.

The seventh grader decided to take things into his own hands. Instead of running away, he decided to stand up against bullying. He created a video to wake others up to his plight. His You Tube posting received over 6,200 views in less than a week. He's also handing out blue bracelets in school that say, "Stand up to bullying." He is definitely a courageous and creative kid who is confronting a problem that most adults would probably run from.

There are effective anti bullying programs being implemented around the country. The programs teach students about standing up for themselves. They clearly give the message to tormentors that bullying of any kind will not be tolerated. Every school community should know where to find such resources when they are needed and should not wait for a student to be victimized.

However, bullying is only one face to the growing problem of prejudice and discrimination. In the 1960's, the passage of civil rights legislation reaffirmed that all people are equal, no matter what their race, color, creed or national origin. In principle, it put an end to the notion of separate but equal. In simple terms, that meant that everyone was entitled to a quality public education. It meant that people of color were welcomed into restrooms, restaurants and hotels without being given separate, substandard accommodations. We know that unfortunately, the law has not always been equally enforced and that a wide range of entities have not been held accountable in this regard. Even major religious traditions were discriminating and hid behind religious belief to justify discriminating behavior.

Discrimination continues to rear its' ugly head in an escalating fashion. It is troubling to think that people will not look at Barrack Obama's political platform because of the color of his skin.

What is even more troubling is that it is not politically correct to be prejudiced due to color. However, many are and will mask it until they have the privacy of the voting machine.

Hillary Clinton seemed to be the choice of the Democratic Party a few months ago. Much was said and written about gender issues. Many felt the nation was not ready for a woman to be president. Some dismissed her because of her personality, but never really looked at her achievements and her ability to govern and lead. Some got stuck on who she was married to and her gender. Some do not believe that a woman is strong enough to lead one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Still others are dismissing John McCain as a presidential candidate because of his age. They've made the mental decision that a certain number disqualifies you from sharing your gifts and talents as a leader.

If one was to ask a group of college students about race, gender and age, most would say they should not be a factor in who is capable of leading us as a nation. However, if you were to press the conversation further, you would discover that most of us carry subtle biases that definitely color how we see the world and the people in it.

The subtle biases are infecting us in exponential ways. These biases do not stop there. We judge and exclude people because of how they look or possibly how they speak. Maybe we exclude people because they battle a wide range of disabilities. We make judgments about their competence when our information is incomplete and oftentimes blatantly erroneous.

We have allowed the media to dictate what is socially acceptable when it comes to dress and style and the look of a person. If you don't look a certain way or have a certain physique, you are not considered cool. How many struggle through adolescence with external issues that have nothing to do with the substance of who they are? They feel out of place because they are not a snapshot of what the media has defined as the look!

How quick are we to judge by externals and then because of those judgments, we exclude people unfairly? We judge people by their sexual orientation, their career path, their economic status, their drug history and their criminal past. Too often when those issues are raised, they block us from ever getting to know the real person. What do any of those issues have to do with knowing the heart of another human being?

Fear, power and control are infecting us everywhere. Most of us want to be in control when it comes to life situations. Being vulnerable is frightening. Too many people use their personal power to control their fear, and at times, treat others disrespectfully.

School programs on bullying, prejudice and discrimination are only effective if our students see positive, respectful and inclusive behavior from the adults in their larger community. Sadly, most of our young people mirror what they see. Children are not born to be prejudiced. It's an attitude that they learned, usually by observing it in the adults within their lives.

TJ is fifteen years old and a tenth grader at a local high school. He comes from a good family. Both of his parents are hard working and well educated. At the beginning of tenth grade, he and a group of friends got into trouble due to graffiti. They thought it was funny to paint a Nazi symbol on a Jewish family's driveway. Needless to say, the family called the police. After some investigation, TJ and his friends were arrested and charged with a hate crime.

As word spread throughout the community about what had happened, some felt the adults were making too much of a childish prank. The boys were interviewed. They claimed they did not intend to harm or hurt anyone's feelings. When they were asked about the Holocaust and the horrors of Hitler, they knew their history well. For many involved in this circumstance, this made it even more troubling that theses boys would engage in such horrific behavior.

Despite some parents wanting the whole ordeal to be dismissed as an immature prank, it wasn't. The boys were put on probation and given extensive community service. In another troubling circumstance, a teenage boy was harassed and tormented to the point of violence because kids in his neighborhood became aware that his mother was gay. Those boys were charged with harassment and assault. They too, were put on probation and given extensive community service.

We must begin to confront the subtle prejudices that are fueling the escalating negative behaviors in our communities. As adults, we need to speak out against these subtle prejudices that are coloring how our children are seeing the world. We need to model for them behavior that is respectful and inclusive not exclusive, without judgment and discrimination. They must see within us attitudes that are tolerant of peoples' differences, no matter what the circumstance.