Sunday, June 21, 2015

You’ve Got to Be Taught

These are the opening lines to a song from the musical South Pacific written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1949.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

Racism is not natural. We learn to be racists. Science has established that racism is a “construct that is developed in our brains over time.” In other words, it is learned behavior.

How is racism learned?

One way racism is learned is through segregation. Here I refer, not to the legislated segregation of the Jim Crow south, but to the modern version of segregation that finds the races separated through economic inequity. The segregation that finds our schools, north and south, becoming less and less racially diverse. Interestingly, it is not familiarity that breeds contempt as the old saying goes, but familiarity that breeds tolerance and understanding. Brain scientists have found that the more diverse your peer group, the more tolerant your attitudes toward race.

Another way racism is learned is through symbolism. The flag flying in view of the State House in Columbia, South Carolina is symbolic of the subjugation of one race by another. It is a state sanctioned emblem of a racist heritage that is something that South Carolina legislators think should be celebrated. The legislature of South Carolina wishes to insure that its children inherit their legacy of racism.

Another way that racism is learned is through the denial that it exists. Many articles were written, and many pundits claimed that the election of an African American president proved that we were finally beyond racism. This, however, was nothing more than a game that has been played for decades in this country – the game of allowing the exception to disprove the rule. It is the “good n******” game. The idea that by pointing to one isolated example we can excuse ourselves from the racism that continues in every corner of the country.

It is hard to imagine a white president having a finger waved in his face in public, or having his State of the Union speech interrupted by a Congressman yelling “You lie!” or by having his twitter account greeted by thousands of overtly racist tweets. The election of an African American president has not proven that racism is over; it has demonstrated for a new generation of children how ingrained in our society it is.

Racism is carefully taught in this country, but because I am a teacher the question is can it be untaught? What can a teacher do to combat the American legacy of racism? I think we must acknowledge that our power to unteach racism is limited because of growing inequity, social isolation of the races and increasing segregation of schools, but still I must believe there is something we can do.

First I believe we must be good models of tolerant, open human beings. I am sure we all would like to consider ourselves free of racism, but are we really? We must take the time to examine the messages we send to children in the way we behave to those who are different from us. Schools, being institutions, have never been very tolerant of individual differences, whether those are learning differences, religious differences or racial differences. Statistics on school suspensions, for example, would point to a racial bias, just as our larger society’s prison population points to a racial bias.

So a teacher’s quest for doing something about racism begins with a close personal inventory of what kind of tolerant model we present to the children. It continues with establishing classroom practices that encourage tolerance. Here I think immediately of the Responsive Classroom design. Responsive Classroom is a well-designed, effective approach to social and emotional learning that helps children learn to respect each other through the respect they themselves are shown by the teacher. Children, who feel emotionally and socially secure in the classroom, are not only better learners, but are also on the road to becoming better people who do not blame their difficulties on some ill-defined “other.”

Secondly, I think of the humanizing power of good literature. As teachers who need to be choosing books to read aloud to children that raise our levels of understanding of all of humanity.  We need to have classroom libraries that invite children to explore diversity and to gain a better understanding of the hearts and minds of people of all different racial, ethnic and religious groups. Knowledge is not just power, knowledge, as scientific studies have shown, breeds tolerance. The available books are many and wonderful. This link will take you to Carol Hurst’s list to get you started.

Finally, I recommend the Teaching Tolerance program sponsored by the Southern Poverty Leadership Conference. I have used these materials in my own classroom and I have found them to be highly effective. Their website offers all sorts of high quality materials for building lessons on tolerance. Their kits and materials are free to teachers and valuable for everyone.

As teachers we often feel as if we are marching out into a hurricane armed only with a flimsy umbrella. When it comes to the storm clouds of racism hanging over the country, it may seem that there is little we can do. But if racism can be learned, then I must believe that tolerance also can be learned, and that the teacher is best positioned to provide those lessons in tolerance so desperately needed. Because with tolerance as well as racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”