A Poisoned Well; Turning Back the Tide of Prejudice

by Robert Kenneth Jones

I was aware of prejudice when I was growing up in Danville, Illinois during the 1950’s.  Not that Danville was dissimilar to anywhere else nor that the decade of McCarthyism was so much worse than previous ones.  But compared with the more politically correct era of polite-speak practiced for the last forty years there is an obvious difference.  Back then it was widely accepted that some folks were superior to others.  They were dismissed with statements like; “Well you know how those people are.”  I was never comfortable hearing such things, even as a little boy. 

It mystified me that groups of people could be categorized and so trivialized.

That just didn’t make any sense.  I remember being about eleven years old when my mother remarked that all colored people did something or another.  My snarky response was to ask her what color those people were…green…purple?  She wasn’t amused.  It alarms me that currently there seems to be an acceptability resurgence of such gross generalization and stereotyping.  Prejudice and practices of discrimination are on the rise once again.

Of course, all of us are prejudiced to one degree or another in that we draw conclusions based upon limited evidence. We have developed some antipathy towards those who might have done little to deserve it and overgeneralize occasionally. The difference is that there are people who cling to their animosities, don’t wish to change their opinions, and resist information that would alter their perspective. They tend not to tolerate opposing viewpoints.  This is particularly evident nowadays along political divides, religious teachings, and immigration concerns.  Racial and gender-related issues and sexual identification are ongoing concerns (among others).  Prejudice gets its legs in the form of discrimination.  The two often, but not always, walk hand-in-hand.

“We have to focus on our young people. we have to teach our young people we are a country of kindness and of reaching out.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell

Definitions of Prejudice and Discrimination

Dr. Gordon Allport, regarded as an expert on the subject of prejudice, developed what is known as The Allport Scale which measures its severity in five stages. He defined prejudice as “an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that group, and is therefore presumed to have the objectionable qualities ascribed to that group.” He also developed a definition of discrimination saying that it was demonstrated when the “out-group is discriminated against by denying them opportunities and services, putting prejudice into action. Behaviors have the intention of disadvantaging the out-group by preventing them from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc.”

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” ~ Maya Angelou

Prejudice is a belief system that lumps people into categories rather than recognizing them as individuals.  Due to the fact that someone is black, female, Muslim, LGBTQ, and so forth, the prejudiced person needs no further information on which to base evaluations. The distinctions and value of human diversity disappear. Finally, at some point, elevated status is achieved by degrading others.

Discrimination is prejudice in action. It means that another group or class is treated unequally which causes them harm. Groups commonly associated with being victims of discrimination include;

Race                         Disability
Color                        Age
Ancestry                  Sex/Gender
Ethnic origin           Gender identity
Creed                       Religion
Citizenship              Homelessness/Poverty

Discrimination can occur in the following forms:

  1. Direct Discrimination; occurs when a person with a protected characteristic is treated less favorably than others. For example, an applicant for a job has all of the necessary qualifications but is turned down because they are too old.
  2. Indirect Discrimination; occurs when there is a policy, procedure or rule in the workplace that puts someone at a disadvantage compared to others. For example, if an employer has a dress-code or rules on appearance which applies to all its employees it may indirectly discriminate against some of a particular religion, belief or are of a particular gender.
  3. Discrimination by Association; occurs when someone is treated unfairly because of associating with another who has a protected characteristic. For example, you are refused service in a restaurant because you are with someone who belongs to a particular race.
  4. Discrimination by Perception; occurs when someone is treated unfairly because it is assumed you belong to a group with protected characteristics. For example, a person is denied employment because they assume he is gay due to their misconceptions about how gay people look, dress or behave.

Teach Your Children Well

A classic rock song, Teach Your Children Well, by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young informed us that we have a duty to teach our children and listen carefully to them as well. This is such an important time for us to do just that.  Especially when it comes to issues of prejudice, discrimination, and racism which are poisoning our relationships today.

In point of reference, Pew Research recently recounted how the election of the nation’s first black president raised hopes that race relations would improve. But by 2016, following a rash of high-profile deaths of black Americans during encounters with police and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement, many Americans described race relations as generally bad. The political divide is so expansive in 2018 that one of the only things large numbers of Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that they can’t agree on basic facts.  With this in mind, knowing our children are being influenced by such negativity, there are some tools out there for opening their eyes, minds, and hearts. My favorite was developed by Jane Elliott.


The Elliott Exercise

On the morning of April 5, 1968 a boy walked into his third-grade classroom in Riceville, Iowa asking his teacher, Jane Elliott why a man killed Martin Luther King the day before.  Her students were all white kids and clueless about how such a thing could have happened. She was challenged to come up with more than an answer to his question.  And so began one of the most innovative exercises in prejudice and discrimination ever imagined in a classroom.

“If you aren’t angry about racism in America you’re probably white, because you don’t think it’s affecting you.” –Jane Elliott: Anatomy of Prejudice

Now, five decades later, Elliott’s experiment still matters and has been cited as a landmark of social science.  That spring morning 50 years ago, the blue-eyed children were set apart from the children with brown or green eyes. Elliott pulled out green construction paper armbands and asked each of the blue-eyed kids to wear one. “The brown-eyed people are the better people in this room,” Elliott began. “They are cleaner, and they are smarter.”

The following is an account of what happened according to Smithsonian:

Mrs. Elliott knew that the children weren’t going to buy her pitch unless she came up with a reason…and the more scientific to these Space Age children of the 1960s, the better. “Eye color, hair color, and skin color are caused by a chemical,” Elliott went on, writing MELANIN on the blackboard. Melanin, she said, is what causes intelligence. So, she continued, the more melanin, the darker the person’s eyes and the smarter the person. “Brown-eyed people have more of that chemical in their eyes, so brown-eyed people are better than those with blue eyes,” Elliott said. “Blue-eyed people sit around and do nothing. You give them something nice and they just wreck it.” She could feel a chasm forming between the two groups of students.

“Do blue-eyed people remember what they’ve been taught?” Elliott asked.

“No!” the brown-eyed kids said.

Elliott rattled off the rules for the day, saying blue-eyed kids had to use paper cups if they drank from the water fountain. “Why?” one girl asked.

“Because we might catch something,” a brown-eyed boy said. Everyone looked at Mrs. Elliott. She nodded. As the morning wore on, brown-eyed kids berated their blue-eyed classmates. “Well, what do you expect from him, Mrs. Elliott,” a brown-eyed student said as a blue-eyed student got an arithmetic problem wrong. “He’s a bluey!”

Then, the inevitable: “Hey, Mrs. Elliott, how come you’re the teacher if you’ve got blue eyes?” a brown-eyed boy asked. Before she could answer, another boy piped up: “If she didn’t have blue eyes, she’d be the principal or the superintendent.”

At lunchtime, Elliott hurried to the teachers’ lounge. She described to her colleagues what she’d done, remarking how several of her slower kids with brown eyes had transformed themselves into confident leaders of the class. Withdrawn brown-eyed kids were suddenly outgoing, some beaming with the widest smiles she had ever seen on them. Jane asked the other teachers what they were doing to bring news of the King assassination into their classrooms. The answer, in a word, was nothing.

Back in the classroom, Elliott’s experiment had taken on a life of its own. A smart blue-eyed girl who had never had problems with multiplication tables started making mistakes. She slumped. At recess, three brown-eyed girls ganged up on her. “You better apologize to us for getting in our way because we’re better than you are,” one of the brownies said. The blue-eyed girl apologized.

On the next day, Elliott reversed the exercise, and the brown-eyed kids were told how shifty, dumb and lazy they were. Later, it would occur to Elliott that the blue eyes were much less nasty than the brown-eyed kids had been, perhaps because the blue-eyed kids had felt the sting of being ostracized and didn’t want to inflict it on their former tormentors.

When the exercise ended, some of the kids hugged, some cried. Elliott reminded them that the reason for the lesson was the King assassination, and she asked them to write down what they had learned. Typical of their responses was that of Debbie Hughes, who reported that “the people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I have brown eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five minutes extra of recess.” The next day when the tables were turned, “I felt like quitting school. . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

It is easy to see that this exercise would be a powerful one to use in any classroom or group gathering of kids.  There are wonderful lessons and courses available at Study.com based on Jane Elliott’s experiment.

A Tide Turning Mission

While researching and writing this column, I found myself listening to and observing what people were saying on television and posting on social media.  The incidences of stereotyping and over-generalization seemed rampant to me.  I heard governmental officials making statements which belittle all Republicans on one hand and all Democrats on the other.  Cable news anchors paint wide brush strokes that condemn the actions of liberals or conservatives depending on which station you monitor.  Social media is full of such vitriol and contempt for one group of people or the other that it is hard to know where to begin describing it.  Prejudice is overflowing and seems out of control.

I believe we have a mission to be tide-turners in any way that we can.  Film writer and director Andrew Heckler who was recently involved in making the soon-to-be-released movie “Burden” which is based on the book “Burden: A Preacher, a Klansman, and a True Story of Redemption in the Modern South” that ‘you can only make an enemy a friend with love’.  He is right. And we can do that.  We can listen more patiently.  We can find common ground.  We can find the genuine in each other. It will take courage and determination.  But prejudice and discrimination can be eliminated if we have the will to do it.  Howard Thurman once said it like this;

“Now there is something in everybody that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in other people.  And it is so easy for you or me to say, ‘Anybody who looks like him or her or anybody who acts as this person or the other acts…’ there simply can’t be any sound of the genuine there.  I must wait and listen for the sound of the genuine in you.  I must wait.  For if I cannot hear it, then in my scheme of things, you are not ever present.”

Robert Kenneth Jones has dedicated his life to making people whole again. His work in helping others overcome addiction and childhood abuse spans over four decades. 

Posted by Robert Jones

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