Is It Possible to Teach Children to Be Less Prejudiced?

Although diversity education is sometimes seen as a ploy to avoid litigation, some programs have had surprising success.
Patrick Giblin/Flickr

Kids start understanding prejudice by the time they’re three years old. They can distinguish between physical traits—hair color, height, weight, etc.—even earlier. But by the time children enter preschool, they can already tell how certain characteristics, like skin color or gender, affect how people see them and their peers.

As kids get older, this can lead to intolerance and discrimination in schools. A California Student Survey found that nearly one-fourth of students across grades report being harassed or bullied on school property because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. A survey in the UK found that 75 percent of girls aged 11 to 21 feel that sexism affects their confidence and goals. According to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 90 percent of LGBT youth report being verbally harassed at school, 44 percent physically harassed, and 22 percent physically assaulted.

Schools and other organizations have struggled to find an effective way to confront diversity issues. Although research has shown that talking about race, gender, and sexuality decreases prejudice—and avoiding those conversations encourages stereotyping—many people remain skeptical that diversity education can actually work.

My first experience with diversity education was with a program called Anytown, a week-long camp for teenagers that provides workshops and activities about prejudice and discrimination. The experiences I had there convinced me that, when it's done the right way, diversity education can work.

Anytown currently operates in more than 20 cities across the U.S. and has existed in my hometown of Tampa, Florida, for two decades. Its mission is to “empower diverse groups of young people to create more inclusive and just schools and communities, where all individuals are treated with respect and understanding.”

“I think youth as well as adults don’t realize how many discriminatory messages infiltrate our everyday lives,” says Jessica Estevez, the Tampa program’s director. “We want our students to leave with the knowledge of what happens when prejudices go on unchecked, when we choose to interact based on our stereotypes and we create systems that discriminate [against] whole groups of people.” 

In the past, diversity education has been seen as a tool for avoiding lawsuits. But even when organizers and participants actually care about these issues, it can be hard to have an honest conversation—people often feel too uncomfortable or scared to express their real point of view.

“Empathy and respect is developed through genuine dialogue about these issues,” says Estevez. “But there has to be a safety created in the space that respects each person’s perspective. ”

Research also shows that the more meaningful, face-to-face contact people have with other racial groups, the less likely they are to be prejudiced. That’s why Anytown is residential, requiring participants to eat, sleep, and shower in the same space for a week.  . 

“I’ve had students tell me, ‘Before Anytown, I would have never talked to so and so and thought they would have shared any kind of experience with me,’” says Estevez. “I think the residential experience really allows those kinds of changes to happen.”

But even in such a positive environment, diversity workshops can become hostile when the focus shifts from sharing experiences to dictating what people should believe and how they should behave.

“The way we’ve pitched diversity in the past was all about what not to say, how not to discriminate,” says DeEtta Jones, a senior member of the consulting team for Diversity Best Practices. “But it shouldn’t be about learning exactly what to say and what not to say. The goal is to put people in a learning space, not a scary place, and make everyone feel that this an exploratory, energizing discussion.”

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Amanda Machado is a writer based in San Francisco.

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