When the Skinheads arrived at our large suburban high school a few years ago, they made a bold impression. The group of 10 or so boys -- some with shaved heads -- swaggered down the halls wearing typical Skin garb: swastikas on their belts and notebooks, heavy black boots and flight jackets. They defaced the school with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay graffiti. They openly intimidated peers and adults they perceived to be Jewish -- for example, by throwing pennies to the ground in an old-time gesture of derision for "money-grubbing Jews."
In an effort to diminish the group's negative impact and to emphasize the importance of a safe and respectful school environment, I started a club called the Identity Workshop. Our group, which met weekly after school, was open to any person opposed to bullying and bigotry. The club was not a forum for "us" against "them" or blame-placing; it was about ways we could empathize with others, examine the causes of bias, and effect positive changes in our school community. In a typical meeting, we might explore the relation between historical intolerance, as expressed in the Holocaust, slavery and the witchcraft trials, and contemporary forms of bias, such as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, that might affect us on a personal basis.
When a number of the Skinheads ended up in one of my English classes, I spent the entire 20 weeks focusing on racism and other biases. Our reading of such stories as "Battle Royal" by Ralph Ellison and viewing of films such as "A Soldier's Story" provided openings for heated class discussions on bigotry. Each week, I asked students to write papers recounting their own experiences and expressing their feelings about the bias issues we were discussing, and they were willing to let me read these papers anonymously to the class.
Some students described how they had been put down or attacked for being Jewish or Italian, and others told how they had been perpetrators, intimidating certain peers for being Black or Jewish. Several of the Skinheads wrote that they had gone to nearby New York City to look for gays "to bash" or to a neighboring town to look for Blacks "to beat up." Of course, I had no way of knowing whether this was fact or fantasy, but the remarks certainly provided fuel for our discussions.
When we invited the Skinheads to our Identity Workshop, six of them showed up, perhaps thinking they could impress and recruit. Club members first asked them to explain their beliefs. As the Skins tried to define and justify their White supremacist views, some club members countered with cogent arguments that began to unravel the young men's logic.
In response, the Skins tried to maintain that they were simply a "group of friends." Did they have a uniform? Well, yes, but it was casual. Did they have a purpose? Nothing but friendly comradeship.
"Like the Boy Scouts, right?" I asked.
While I know that sarcasm is not, in most instances, an appropriate teacher response, in this case it seemed necessary. My question helped erase any lingering mystique that may have surrounded the Skinheads. Club members told me later that this meeting helped them get a truer picture of these boys' own identity: a small but highly visible hate group whose ability to intimidate was based on their well-practiced techniques of bullying and whose association with the Skinhead cause gave them a way to gain attention and achieve some kind of warped status.
Since our school was so large, it was difficult to measure the impact that this pivotal meeting had outside the club. But afterwards, the group's ability to intimidate seemed to ebb. The students who were at the meeting felt less fearful, and it appeared that some of the Skins who were in my English classes became less certain of their stance, as well. One of the young men, who had grown up in a racist family, wrote at the end of the 20 weeks that he felt he would be able to break the cycle and someday bring up his own children not to be racist.
Although student participation in the Identity Workshop was sometimes small, the club succeeded in effecting concrete changes. Because our weekly topics were announced on the intercom and posted in the halls, it became clear that the school was willing to address social issues affecting students and staff. In the student handbook, we added clauses that prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians, as well as the use of epithets such as "faggot" and "kike." We also instituted peer counseling for students who persecuted classmates because of real or perceived membership in a particular minority group, and I conducted a 20-week in-service anti-bias training program for the faculty.
Perhaps most importantly, the Identity Workshop -- without any expenditures or curriculum revisions -- helped reclaim the tone of our school's atmosphere and made it clear that jokes based on stereotypes are not funny, that epithets are not permissible language, and that the exclusion or mockery of anyone because of his or her group identity is as unacceptable as "sticks and stones" have always been.