A while back, I attended a musical concert in the auditorium at a nearby high school. When I sat down in my chair, I noticed the letters “KKK” inscribed in the back of the wooden chair in front of me. After the performance, I found an administrator at the school and told him what I saw. He assured me it would be removed. Roughly 5 months later I went to another concert in that same auditorium and checked to see if the letters KKK had been removed as promised. They had not. So again, I had to find another top level administrator and make the same request. The following year, I checked again, with every intention of taking my concerns to the Superintendent if no action had been taken. Fortunately, it had.
After that experience, I wondered how many students and staff had seen the letters “KKK.” And given the inaction of the school's leadership over time, what did this say about the culture of the school and their priorities.
Often, people express astonishment when they find intolerance in their own neighborhood, school, place of worship, or even family. As a sociologist, I do not find intolerance in my own backyard as all that strange or surprising. It is part of our culture. We learn it, share it, and pass it on to our offspring. And the ways we express intolerance are as varied as the populations at which intolerance is targeted.
Many acts of intolerance, including incidents involving cross burnings, the painting of swastikas on property, and the distribution of pamphlets preaching hate, have been met by strong responses from our community. In many cases, we have spoken out loudly and repeatedly, both individually and collectively. However, we need to ask ourselves how we respond when intolerance is more subtle and private. Do we hesitate and ignore? Maybe we just keep quiet.
In the face of intolerance, remaining silent is not a neutral reaction. Rather, silence speaks volumes. To overhear one of the jokes cited earlier and say nothing is tantamount to putting your stamp of approval on the joke. Not long ago, an email was sent out to a number of people at my place of work. The email, described as a letter from a Cajun mother to her Cajun son, poked fun at Cajuns from Louisiana . Using ethnic humor, it stereotyped them as stupid and illiterate.
After receiving the email, I responded some two days later, describing why I found it offensive and why I felt it was inappropriate. At the time, I remember feeling very alone, since I was evidently the only one who responded. I thought to myself, isn't anybody else offended?
Research shows that when we overhear another person condemning racism or some other form of intolerance, we are more prone to do the same. By the same token, if we hear someone say nothing or condone intolerance, we will be more apt to follow suit.
It is uncomfortable to examine those situations in which we do not stand up to intolerance for one reason or another. Recently, I was silent when one of my colleagues at work used sexist language. After all, these were private conversations. My silence only encouraged him to do it again and again. Another memory takes me back to my childhood. One of my classmates in high school was named Vic. Vic was different - he buttoned the top button of his dress shirts, walked around with an attaché, and made a point of learning everybody's birthday. Indeed, some of his seemingly “weird” behaviors are shown by my son, who happens to be autistic. I remember my friends making fun of him, and yet I could not find the courage to intervene. I was more concerned with being “one of the guys” than standing up for someone whose only offense was that he looked and acted different.
Recent examples of combating intolerance are instructive. A few weeks ago, national retailer Abercrombie and Fitch created a line of “attitude” T-shirts. Printed across the chest of one of the T-shirts was, “Who Needs Brains When You Have These.” A group of young girls from Pennsylvania were infuriated by what these shirts were communicating. Working together, they started a chain letter campaign across the United States . Their purpose was to encourage a nationwide “ girlcott ” of Abercrombie and Fitch. Abercrombie and Fitch evidently listened, because shortly thereafter they pulled the T-shirt off the shelves.
Recently, students in some Carroll County schools observed “Mix It Up Day” – an event sponsored by an organization called Teaching Tolerance. Its purpose was to get students to socialize with other students with whom they do not usually “hang.” According to research, enlarging and diversifying our social circles can be effective in promoting tolerance and respect. However, this effort needs to be reinforced throughout the school year.
Over the years, I have spoken to hundreds of local students regarding diversity and intolerance. In one exercise, I ask them what their school might do differently to combat intolerance. Their recommendations, including the following, point to the importance of education:
“Teach us that it's good to be different. That's what is so good about our country. You don't have to be the same as everybody else.”
“Teachers need to say something when they hear something like prejudice.”
“Teach us about how name calling affects others; then we would think twice before calling someone a name.”
“Teach everyone about other cultures.”
“Respect people for who they are.”
What better way to confront intolerance than to start with the suggestions made by our youth. To my way of thinking, these recommendations need to become integrated into our school curriculum, and reflected in the behavior we model everyday in our own backyards.