Friday, January 5, 2018

Prejudice: Teach Your Children

Yesterday I spent the day in Los Angeles with my teenage granddaughter. Her brother is studying in yeshiva there, and between classes we took him out for lunch and dinner.  In the afternoon, we spent a few hours at the Museum of Tolerance, established by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.  It is an experiential museum, guiding visitors step by step through various scenarios leading up to and including the horrors of the Holocaust.  At one point, we were faced with two doors:  a red one labeled Prejudiced and a green one labeled Unprejudiced.  I asked my granddaughter which we should choose, and she said "Unprejudiced, of course".  But the door was locked.  Only the door labeled Prejudiced was open.  Hmmm....

Is prejudice inevitable?  It's certainly very hard to trace.  No one thinks they are racist or bigoted (except some very misguided souls), but somehow those feelings creep in without us noticing.  Even really kind, open-minded people harbor hidden traces of prejudice.  My daughter was once playing in our backyard with a little boy from across the street.  They were both about six years old at the time.  His family was Catholic and very fine people.  The boy said to my daughter, "You're Jewish, and the Jews are going to hell because they killed Jesus.  So you're going to hell."  I was shocked.  I knew he didn't hear that at home.  And I myself had gone to Catechism classes, and knew he hadn't learn it there.  What was up?  My daughter had no clue of what he was talking about, but in a matter-of-fact way I  told him that it was time for him to go home.  A few minutes later his mother came to my house in tears, unable to understand where he learned that.  "He's mixed up" she said.  

Fast forward a few years and I was the deeply embarrassed mom. To this day, I have difficulty even admitting that it happened.  My kindergarten daughter drew a picture in school.  When asked to describe it, she told the teacher (who wrote it on the paper), "It's a black man climbing in the window to steal a TV".  I was devastated.  I thought I was so careful to teach kindness and tolerance to my children.  My daughter couldn't explain to me why she had said that.  I went to school in tears, mortified to show my face.  But I wanted to hear from the program director, to learn where I had gone wrong.   She tried to reassure me that children pick up all sorts of things from television programs, adult conversations, etc.  She hadn't assumed that my family was racist.

If prejudice can enter our psyches subconsciously, how in the world can we prevent it?  I'm not convinced that we can.  What we can do is be hyper-vigilant, both with ourselves and our children, for any signs of potential prejudice.  Tolerance of other people requires active teaching.  We all feel most comfortable with people who are like us; differences make us uncomfortable, not "at home".  The role of teachers and parents is to constantly be on the look-out for opportunities to educate children about differences between people, whether racial, religious, ethnic, physical, mental, etc., always emphasizing that our similarities are greater.  Every life is sacred.  No one is better or worse than anyone else.  We are all connected.

One of the things that left a big impression on me at the Holocaust exhibit was the unconscionable  murders of children.  A few days before visiting the museum, I was at a park with my grandchildren.  They found a bug that made them scream.  They wanted to kill it, but I wouldn't allow them to.  I picked it up in my hand, showing them its legs, antennae, eyes.  They still thought it was ugly, but I made them understand that G-d created this creature just like He created us.  It has a purpose in the world.  We are not allowed to harm it.  As I looked at the pictures of beautiful, innocent Jewish children, I wondered -- if children learn to cause no harm to a bug, can they grow up to brutalize and kill a defenseless child?  

Children are open and curious.  They may say embarrassing things in public.  But we should welcome their comments as teaching moments.  We can teach them not to stare, we can model respectful language about things that make people different, and things that make us the same.  We can help them see that there is space for everyone in this world.  We all belong.  We all have the right to dignity and respect.

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