Defining One's Worth

Every fall, in my introduction to sociology class, I begin with an exercise on prejudice. The first part of the exercise deals with role-playing. The students are asked to imagine being on a cruise ship ...

Print Email

Every fall, in my introduction to sociology class, I begin with an exercise on prejudice. The first part of the exercise deals with role-playing. The students are asked to imagine being on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic. Each student takes on a character other than who he or she is. The class is broken down into groups of seven. One student from each group volunteers to be the facilitator. He or she is instructed to discuss within his or her group how they might select a member from the group to stay behind on a sinking ship.

Each student is encouraged to think about why his or her life is important and why he or she should be given a seat on the lifeboat. Although the conversation starts out very lighthearted initially, it quickly escalates into some intense exchanges. Students are quickly faced with the complexities of making some life and death decisions.

What is amazing to see is how students unconsciously place value on a person's worth based on his or her occupation and age. Many judgments are made on how useful a person might be in order to determine whether or not he or she should have a place on the lifeboat.

No matter how many times I engage in this class activity, every class, without fail, places value on the well-educated and those with power and influence. The old and those with no real professional training seem to be the most disposable. We quietly, but clearly, convey that a life's worth is defined not by one's character and integrity, but rather by one's function!

Needless to say, most students are taken back by the outcome of this exercise. Before the exercise began, most students wanted to believe that they were not prejudiced based on occupation, position and/or power.

After the exercise, I asked students to indicate by a show of hands, if they were prejudiced. Most raised their hands and said no. I then asked them if they thought the question about prejudice was centered around race and/or religion. Most thought the question pertained to race.

The prejudice question was a general question that had nothing to do with race, religion or economic status. Rather, it was a general statement about our human condition. We are all prejudice in various ways. What we do with that prejudice makes it positive or negative.

Supporting your high school football team is a form of positive prejudice. Supporting socially isolating a person of color is a form of negative prejudice. Negative prejudice is politically incorrect, but subtly present and infectious all around us. It wears many different faces and comes in many different forms. We are not born with it, it is an attitude we learn.

Unfortunately, it starts out very subtly. Most children grow up respecting racial and religious differences. Depending on where one lives and how diverse one's school is will determine if one grows up with latent prejudice. Too often our prejudice is expressed in negative language, slang terms that people dismiss as humor in bad taste.

All in the name of jest, we use stereotypical phrases to describe people's ethnicity and religion. Unfortunately, for some it's not humor but one's definition of another. That definition creates distance and does not bring people together.

Most of us would like to believe that hate and discrimination are things of the past. Unfortunately, in our own community, hate is on the rise. There have been a growing number of incidences around anti-Semitism and racial intolerance. A few years ago, the KKK attempted to have a rally at the Smith Haven Mall. The organizers saturated the North Shore with their propaganda. In the end, that strategy blew up in their faces. Public outrage caused them to withdraw their request for a permit to assemble.

Racial profiling continues to rear its' ugly head in various quarters. Many of us have a bias profile of the poor. We immediately think most of our poor are people of color and/or the undocumented. In predominantly white communities, when we see a group of young people who are not white, some among us immediately think they are up to no good.

Teenagers who can't live at home are often judged to be a problem. Many adults immediately believe that the teenager is the problem and not the parent. Oftentimes, my experience has been the opposite. I am seeing a growing number of teenagers who are decent young men and women who need to leave their homes for survival. Cosmetically, their parents seem appropriate. However, underneath that faade are often destructive and reckless adults who don't know how to parent their children. The healthiest thing some of these teenagers have done is to leave those lethal environments.

How many times have we judged a teenager by appearance, the length of his or her hair, the kind of clothing he or she wears and whether or not he or she has tattoos and body piercings? Too often, those externals block us from getting to know the person underneath those appearances. Some of us make disparaging remarks that run the risk of blemishing a young person's reputation and impairing his or her spirit.

In November 2008, we will elect a new president. The campaign trail for the election is already heating up. Many of our biases and prejudices are emerging around religious intolerance, sexual orientation, immigration and gender. Our nation is being littered with much negative propaganda about so many issues. Instead of propaganda addressing real issues, it is attacking people, their character and integrity and is often distorting the truth around issues of concern.

As we look at some of the candidates who are running for president, like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mint Romney, do we see them as human beings running for the presidency or do we see a woman, an African-American and a Mormon? How much does one's gender, religion and color shape how we see them?

As adults, we must lead by example. Children are not born prejudiced. They learn it from us as adults. A number of years back, a young high school student was displaced from his home. His father was overbearing and physically abusive. The boy was athletic and an excellent student. He found support and a nurturing environment in a local community residence. That environment empowered him to thrive as a student and as a human being. He graduated from a local high school at the top of his class and earned a four-year scholarship to a college in the South.

At the end of his senior year, he was hanging out with a group of friends, playing music. A teacher he respected came over to them and started to talk to them. The young man was wearing a t-shirt from the place where he lived. The teacher asked him where he had gotten the t-shirt. He proudly responded, "from the place I live in!" The teacher said, "I'm surprised, you don't seem the type."

The young man was devastated. He couldn't believe his teacher had said that. The teacher realized that he hurt the young man's feelings. He didn't mean to do that and apologized. He admitted that he was unintentionally stereotyping.

Today that young man is the director of a not-for-profit organization in the Midwest that supports young people at risk. He is committed to giving back to his larger community because during his time of need, his community gave back to him and didn't judge him because of his human circumstance.

As a community, we must have the courage to give voice to the voiceless among us, who for a variety of reasons are prejudiced against!