These last couple of weeks there have been numerous protests regarding how African Americans are treated by police and by society in general. The point that has been being made over and over is that African Americans are not treated fairly in our society. Many people felt that with the election of President Obama that racism was over. Many people felt if a Black man could be elected President, how could our society be racist?
However, the racism and prejudice still continue. The death of George Floyd was a prime example that racism continues in our society. Additionally, the protestors are not just talking about obvious racism, they are protesting institutional racism which exists at many levels in our society. One place in exist is in our schools. Children and teenagers are not born with racism and prejudice, but we teach it to them as they grow up. We need to change how children are raised if we want to eliminate racism and prejudice.
One example is Jill Elliot’s blue eyed/brown eyed exercise. The day after Martin Luther King assignation’s, she put her third grade class through this exercise. At first she told her class research showed that Blue eyed people were better and made all the brown eyed children wear a necklace identifying them as brown eyed people. Within a couple of hours these third grade students, who they day before were treating each other as equals, were putting down the brown eyed children. The next day she said she had been mistaken and Brown eyed children were better so all the blue eye children needed to wear the necklaces. Again within a couple hours all of the Brown eyed third graders were forming prejudice attitudes about the blue eyed children and treating them according to these prejudice attitudes. This amazing exercise demonstrated how easily prejudice and racism are taught and how easily children will adapt to and treat others with the prejudice attitudes they have been taught by society. This was a very bold step for Mrs. Elliot to take, but it taught us a lot. Her exercise still works today. Oprah had Mrs. Elliot on a show and put the audience through the same exercise and 50 years later the results were the same. The thing many of us have found so amazing about this exercise is that with very little information prejudice and racism can take hold of people very quickly without people being aware of what is happening. In the original third grade class you had best friends stop being friends due to eye color. Thankfully the results were not long lasting. On the third day when Mrs. Elliot explained what she did the children stopped treating each other differently. However the point was clearly made how easy it is to teach children to be prejudice and how easy it is to keep prejudice and discrimination going.
The 1984 movie, The Breakfast Club, is another excellent example of how we teach children to be prejudice and to discriminate. In the movie five teenagers representing the common high school stereotypes, the rich popular kid, the jock, the nerd, the weirdo and the juvenile delinquent, are all together having to serve Saturday school for various mistakes they made at school. The teacher overseeing the Saturday school reacts to the teens according to the stereotype the fit. He asks them to write an essay describing themselves.
At the beginning of the movie the teens treat each other according to the stereotypes. As a result, they are rude to each other and put each other down when ever they can. They never stop to think how they are making each other feel even when it’s obvious they are hurting someone’s feelings. It’s all part of the stereotypes they have learned so it’s alright. In other words, they are already operating from a point of view that some people matter and other people do not matter. If they don’t matter you can say or do whatever you want to them and not feel guilty or any remorse.
However during the course of the day, they begin to notice and learn things about each other. They start to learn that they are not as different from each other as they thought. They begin to identify things they have in common and notice they have the same feelings as each other. Once they remove the stereotypes they started to see how similar they were to each other. However, then the question came up, what happens when they return to school on Monday? Could they maintain the friendships they made that day? Finally one person speaks up and says no due to the peer pressure. They felt they would have to continue to follow the stereotypes at school if they wanted to keep their other friends. Even though they had learned how wrong the stereotypes were and the friendships they were missing out on, they felt no one else would understand and accept what they were doing. Since this was a movie they were able to discuss the price they were paying conforming to the stereotypes and the friendships they were losing. At the end they decided to abandon the stereotypes and take the risk of no conforming to the norm, so they could maintain their friendships. Exactly what we need teenagers to do if we are going to eliminate racism and discrimination.
As for the easy, they wrote a group easy for the teacher. They realized that no matter what they said the teacher would still see the stereotypes; the princess, the jock, the nerd, the weirdo and the juvenile delinquent. I find the closing line very interesting because they state what they discovered during the day was each of them had parts of all the stereotypes as part of their personalities. Therefore, no one was better or worse, they were all equal and deserved to be treated equally. They also felt no need to explain themselves to the teacher because in their opinion he was going to continue to see what he wanted. It would not matter to him what they said. He already made up his mind about them.
This movie does an excellent job showing how teenagers learn to conform to society’s prejudices and discrimination. However, it also provides hope that if we take down the preconceived ideas that we may discover the similarities we share and celebrate the our differences. Wouldn’t the world be boring, if we all were the same? Also the United States has always been referred to as the great American melting pot. The meaning is clear our Country was suppose to accept all who want to join and contribute their unique cultures. When did we forget this point?
The children and teenagers are the future of our Country. We need to listen to them and we need to allow them to have experiences like the Breakfast Club. There is a group Challenge Day that does provide this opportunity for teenagers. As adults we need to be honest with ourselves about the prejudice attitudes we teach children. Parents demand that your schools make Challenge Day and other programs like it as part of the school’s Curriculum. We need to end racism, discrimination, people not being given a fair chance to succeed and especially people being killed.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 20 years experience treating children and teenagers. He is a founding member of the national Street Soldier Advisory Board and has worked with Challenge Day. For more information about Dr. Rubino’s work visit his website at http://www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page at http://www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.