Schools become a place to learn not just geometry and grammar but also community building and social interaction.
As with the workplace, schools also often have policies or rules that govern interpersonal relationships; use them as a tool in speaking up.
Many schools also have resources, lesson plans and activities aimed at raising awareness about the damage done from bias and bigotry. Perhaps no setting offers more opportunities for learning.
Make sure your school embraces an environment that encourages compassion, understanding and acceptance of difference. Consider creating campaigns against name-calling or the casual bigotry that fills some school hallways.
Peer pressure also often is a strong motivator, in both positive and negative ways, at school. Allies are important; seek them out, and be an ally for others.
A Teacher's Bias
An 18-year-old woman is one of seven Jewish students at a large high school in the Southwest: "One day in chemistry class, we were bargaining with the teacher to not have a test the next day. I happened to have 50 cents in my pocket, and I said, 'I'll pay you 50 cents if you don't give us a test tomorrow.' Some kid in the back said, '50 cents is a lot of money to a Jew.'"
The young woman says the teacher took her aside later and told her he was offended by the student's comment, but she wishes the teacher would have said something in class, for all to hear.
Two teachers, one white and one Asian American, are in the hall at school. The white teacher, looking disdainfully down the hall at a group of African American students, says of the group, "Those students are always so disruptive." The Asian American teacher says nothing —"which didn't help," he writes — because he isn't sure how to respond.
The principal of a school, handing out award certificates, stumbles over Cambodian and Vietnamese names. She laughs about "how hard it is to pronounce these foreign names." Teachers who have made an effort to learn the names wonder what they can say to the principal.
Ask for leadership.
If a teacher or administrator fails to set a good example — or sets an outright bad example — call upon that person's high-profile role in seeking change: "You're the teacher. People look to you as an example. If you don't speak up, no one will know it's wrong to say those kinds of things."
Appeal to school spirit.
Use your school's mission to challenge a leader's biased or disrespectful comments: "This school is dedicated to providing every student with an education in a safe and welcoming environment. We need to honor that."
Model good behavior, and provide assistance when others struggle: "I've worked hard to learn to pronounce my students' names. I'll be happy to help you learn them, too."
A senior in high school who is overweight says she has been the target of harassment and bigotry for years.
"It started in middle school, when classmates would tell me my life wasn't worth living and I should just end it now. And it's kept on right through high school. Kids can be really mean sometimes. It's not just adults. I don't understand how anyone can be that mean to someone else. I just don't understand."
Respond to the bully.
Some people find power in "owning" their identities. For them, a response could be, "I like my body the way it is." Or, "This is who I am, and I'm comfortable with it." When bullying is ongoing, practice non-aggressive ways to respond; brainstorm witty or humorous comebacks.
Create a safety net.
Stay close to friends or adults. Let them know what's happening. Students, teachers and others often are willing to stand together against such bigotry. There truly is power in numbers.
Does your school have an anti-harassment policy in place that applies to this situation? Or anti-bullying rules that could be used to address the bad behavior? If so, apply them. If not, lobby for such policies.
A central California woman writes: "I'm raising my grandson, who is 8; he calls me 'Mama.' I'm at least 20 years older than most of the parents of his classmates, and when I drop him off or pick him up, the other kids notice that difference. He tells me they make fun of him, asking why his 'mother' is so old."
A man writes about an elementary school parent-teacher conference: "My wife and I both went, and the teacher leaned toward us and whispered, 'I can always tell the children in my class who have two parents at home.' She meant it as something nice to us, but my son's best friend happens to be being raised — and raised well — by a single mom. It made me wonder how the teacher treated my son's friend in class."
Work with individual speakers.
When someone makes a comment that excludes or minimizes a type of family, point it out. "You mean every one-parent household is bad? Is that what you're saying?" Or a simpler question: "What do you mean by that?"
Ask the administration for specific changes.
Instead of "Parents Night," ask administrators to consider using the more-inclusive "Family Night." Request that school forms be changed to accommodate many kinds of families, instead of "mother/father" contact information, for example, use "caregiver/guardian" contact information.
Ask for help.
If a child is being bullied, teased or harassed at school because of family differences, notify school administrators and seek assistance from school counselors.
Advocate for resources and training.
Lobby to have library resources and classroom curricula that include positive examples of non-traditional families, including grandparents as parents, single-parent households, adoptive families, foster families and families with gay or lesbian parents. Discuss the issue with the school principal or a guidance counselor, and ask for staff training on issues of family diversity.
From a 20-year-old African American college student in South Carolina: "I've been called an 'Oreo' all my life: 'Oh, you're black on the outside, but you're white on the inside.' Or, 'You're so white.'"
A black high school student in Pennsylvania wears braids to school. Sitting in the cafeteria, some other black students speak loudly about her: "She really thinks she's black now." The student says she often is called "too white" by other blacks.
Some Native Americans share stories of being accused of being "too native" by their peers, as do some Latinos who say other Latinos have accused them of being "too ethnic." Similarly, many gay students speak about being perceived as "too feminine" or "too queer" by other gays.
Affirm your pride.
"I'm proud to be African American, always have been, always will be."
Respond with questions.
Challenge in-group stereotypes the same way you would cross-group stereotypes: "What does that mean — 'too' ethnic? I don't understand what you mean." Or, "Where does 'too ethnic' begin and 'not ethnic enough' end?"
Get to the root of it.
Many in-group slights are actually extensions of racist and sexist stereotypes. Point out that accusations of being "too feminine" or "too gay" support and promote sexism and homophobia. Anything that hurts or marginalizes one member of a group hurts or marginalizes all members of that group.
It's a casual insult heard in schools everywhere: "That's so gay!"
One teacher says whenever she hears such language in the classroom, she asks, "What was homosexual about it?" Then she uses the moment to discuss the use of slang and derogatory slurs, including racist and sexist language.
"They know in their hearts they are wrong to use that word in that way," a second teacher says. "They just need someone to stop them in their tracks."
Teachers, too, can be the perpetrators, the ones who use the bigoted language, prompting students or other teachers to speak up.
Determine the extent of the problem.
As a social science or club activity, survey students about biased language at school: what they hear most often, who they hear it from, how it makes them feel and what they're willing to do about it.
Implement a 'words hurt' campaign.
Get students, teachers, counselors and administrators to sponsor an assembly, or a weeklong or yearlong education campaign, about the damaging effect of hurtful words.
Support student mediators — and use peer pressure.
Train students in conflict resolution techniques, and ask them to work with peers to marginalize the use of biased language.
When slurs are exchanged in the classroom, interrupt whatever lesson is being taught, and start a new one on language, respect and cultural sensitivity.