A Lesson in Ones and Twos

Discrimination. How do we explain it to kids? More importantly, for those who live with privilege and don’t give it a second thought, how do we give them a taste of what it’s like – so they understand its effects?

This is a topic much on my mind lately, and I know I’m not alone in that. I think about where and how my own children were raised — largely in the urban southeast — and I’m glad of the diversity that was their “normal.” Likewise the broad spectrum of ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds that characterize their set of friends.

Like many, I’ve had my share of experiences when I felt sized up, shot down, and quickly dismissed — purely on appearance. This is common in adolescence, and while it may be more subtle in adulthood, my guess is it’s just as common. I’ve also had experiences wherein some piece of information about me — my age, my origins, or for that matter my politics — immediately resulted in someone writing me off. Let’s just say… all of the above feels lousy.

But feeling dismissed or ignored is a far cry from the more virulent forms of bias that we know run rampant in our society. Even without threat of violence, being consistently ignored or treated as inferior is damaging; it erodes confidence and esteem, and it breeds resentment.

While you may say that we all have some bias about something, I nonetheless return to the question: How do we teach our more “privileged” kids about the pain of prejudice — so they begin to understand its impact, and so they themselves become adults who do not practice it?

A few weeks back, a friend related an experiment that was taking place at the high school where he teaches. The ethnic breakdown of students is roughly 70% white (American), 20% non-US (European and Asian), 10% African American. The Hispanic population is virtually nil. In an attempt to show the students who have never experienced even the slightest bias what it feels like, all teachers and staff were asked to participate in the following exercise (summarized).

All students Grades 9 – 12 were handed out numbers at the beginning of the day — 1s and 2s — which they had to display. All teachers and staff were instructed to ignore students designated as 2s. They were not to be called upon in class, their questions were to be ignored or treated as less important, while their needs were to be put behind any and all needs of students designated as 1s.

Moreover, the adults were told to be especially kind and helpful to the 1s, which must not have gone unnoticed by the 2s.

Getting the gist?

The students were randomly assigned their numbers, and the 1s spent their day on the receiving end of every pleasantry and advantage.

The 2s, on the other hand, found themselves both subtly and not so subtly snubbed. They were second-class citizens. No matter how well they behaved, how politely they tried to deal with any situation, they were relegated to being “number two.”

The next day, my teacher friend asked his students what they thought of the experience. The 2s expressed that it was unpleasant and discouraging to feel as if they weren’t heard, weren’t seen, or weren’t taken seriously. It’s worth noting that many of the teachers were also stressed when asked to so blatantly discriminate against the students. Apparently it was a tiring and illuminating experiment for everyone.

I haven’t heard too many more details about the day, though there was discussion held afterwards conducted by the school administration. I am hoping to get more information, as I would like to know if specific changes in behavior have been observed. My own feeling is that this experiment would’ve been even more effective — albeit difficult to continue — had it lasted for three or four days, even a week.

Clearly, we shouldn’t wait until our children are in their teens before we talk about and explore notions of discrimination. Certainly, many children will understand it in a personal way as it is — if they are bullied for being “different” for any number of reasons. This typically includes pure appearance-based factors (overweight comes to mind; likewise, whatever kids may deem as “ugly”), not to mention ethnic background and sexual orientation.

But in some instances, as in the case of overweight, a child may be able to make changes that mean he or she is no longer the brunt of jokes or dismissed as second class. This is not the case for the color of our skin, or for that matter, gender. Both of these are what we notice first; the challenge is to cease making stereotypical judgments, to cease modeling and thereby teaching discrimination, and to cease raising children in learned hatred, utter ignorance, and environments that breed both. That last of course leads us into discussions of cycles of poverty and lack of opportunity.

As for the lessons in ones and twos, I only wish this experiment were carried out in all of our pockets of privilege. Surely, for some, it was an eye-opening experience.

I welcome your thoughts.