Confronting the -isms

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Overview: 

Social justice lesson 

Teaching social justice requires helping students confront their personal biases because studies show that tolerance training can backfire if not accompanied by an implicit/personal component. We used this activity in a university course, "Diversity Issues in Psychology," but it works well for high school, too.

Throughout the semester, students kept "Mindwatch" diaries of their immediate responses to people who were different from them. I asked them not to deny or censor their initial reaction, but to record it immediately. For each twice-weekly entry, students identified the origin of the thoughts (culture, family, media) and described how the reaction affected their behavior toward the "other." After 12 weeks, they explored patterns in their reactions.

Almost half of the diary entries targeted race, but students' diary entries also singled out people for appearance, gender, age, sexual orientation, class, disability, religion, regional difference and nationality.

In addition, students classified the "other" on the basis of appearance or mannerism (e.g., "The way he moved his hands, I assumed he must be gay"); predicted negative behavior on the basis of group membership or appearance (e.g., "I thought a black man who pulled into a gas station was there to rob it"); and devalued others because of their appearance or demographic characteristic (e.g., "Old people can't drive").

Students sometimes experienced aversion or annoyance simply because of a person's demographic group. They sometimes mentally "reprimanded" people for their behavior or manner of dress. In their heads, students advised others to learn English, eat less food or wear less revealing clothes.

The only time we read entries aloud was at our last meeting, when the individuals in my class knew and respected each other well. Some people cried as they related where a particular bias came from. Women who react negatively to heavier women, for example, often discover that it is their own fear of weight and preoccupation with their bodies that makes them so judgmental of others.

Looking at patterns in their reactions helps students identify and confront their personal biases so they can learn less discriminatory behavior. It's important to remind students that the process of developing tolerance goes on for more than one semester, but the payoff is real. As one student put it, "On the other side of every negative bias is a potential friendship."

Pam Gibson and Amanda Lindberg
Department of Psychology
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA