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.

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.”

To create these open-ended discussions, Anytown leaders use the life experiences of participants as case studies to explore various issues. Everyone has the opportunity to share his or her story, listen to other people’s stories, and then make his or her own conclusions.

“One of the unfortunate pitfalls or byproducts of poorly implemented diversity education is that it can often become very be militant, or be perceived as ‘this is right and this is wrong,’” says Estevez. “Rather than penalize, exclude, or judge personal beliefs or ideas, I think it’s more effective to meet people where they are, give them a safe setting where they can explore something, and go from there to help them find their own place of truth.”

People can also feel resistant to these kinds of conversations if they feel singled out or not included. But the point of Anytown is that “diversity” touches everyone. The program includes workshops on race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, sexuality, gender, age, ability, and class. In one exercise on able-ism, students are assigned a “disability” for a day—like being blindfolded, or having their hands covered and out of use—to understand what some people with physical disabilities may experience on a daily basis. In a gender workshop, leaders read statements about gender expectations and ask participants to stand if they relate to the statement.

“People need to see themselves in these conversations by learning the nuances that make each of us different,” says Jones. “When we have a broader perspective of diversity, this opens up ‘access points’ and makes people see themselves as personally connected to diversity conversations. Then they can connect the dots and figure out ‘what does this all mean for me?’”

But just changing one person’s attitude isn’t enough. Research has shown that over two-thirds of media coverage of discrimination focuses on individual, isolated incidents, rather than historical and systemic discrimination. Anytown takes a different approach, trying to provide a broader context for how people think about discrimination. Participants explore the policies that prevent members of the LGBT community from getting certain jobs, the varied levels of access to financial and educational resources in different communities, and the effect generational wealth has on education, health, and property. The program also includes sessions on genocide and mass atrocities, discussions on media stereotypes, and activities that help students identify different forms of privilege. This helps participants understand how their actions affect others, but also how others are affected by their environments.

One week of productive conversations isn’t enough to end discrimination, which is why Anytown encourages students to keep talking about these issues. “We underestimate how long it takes. Some tend to want to check off learning about these issues in a one-hour session, or believe them to be easily solvable and manageable, instead of admitting that these are tough issues and will require collaborative effort, research, soul-searching, and vulnerability,” Estevez says. “If this is about creating sustainable change, that takes time to cultivate.”

The program has had promising results: Researchers at the Center for Children, Families, and Communities at Central Michigan University found that participants showed signs of greater “diversity acceptance” and “collective identity” after completing the workshop. They were also more willing to make diverse friends. With the right kind of curriculum and conversations, maybe diversity education can work.

Correction: Due to a coding error, some paragraphs were switched in the originally published version of this piece. We regret the error.