What will you say? What will you encourage students to say?
The best way to be ready to speak up is to prepare. The more you and your students can identify stereotypes and explain why they are hurtful—or just inaccurate—the easier it will be to respond the next time you hear one. Remember, your response can have an impact.
Here are some prompts to get you started, along with background information to help you address the inaccuracies.
An elementary student holds up the corners of his eyes and says “Ching chang chong ching” as a Korean student walks by.
Making fun of someone’s physical appearance, especially in cases where the traits being mocked are related to race, ethnicity or cultural background, is dehumanizing. The same holds true for mocking another language.
How can a student bystander respond? What about an adult overhearing the taunt?
A parent is angry because your classroom is inclusive. “I don’t understand why my son has to do group work with a retarded boy. Why aren’t they in their own classroom?”
Because children use the word “retarded” as a slur, it should be discouraged. The child has an intellectual disability.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates the least restrictive educational environment. In many districts, that means inclusive classrooms. Learn more about it at idea.ed.gov.
Explore whether the parent has curricular or pacing concerns that prompted the remark and address those.
How can you make it clear that you are attentive to the needs of the child and also appeal to the parent’s sense of fairness?
During a service project planting trees at a local park, you hear a group of students laughing as one of them complains, “Why are we doing this? This is what Mexicans are for.”
The idea that any one ethnicity is particularly suited to any one profession is a form of stereotyping.
Mexicans, like every other group of individuals, occupy a range of positions in a variety of industries.
Students from middle-class, dominant-culture backgrounds may enjoy unearned advantages that allow them to feel above particular tasks, even those performed in the service of others.
What does this student understand about stereotypes and privilege? What do those who were laughing understand about them?
During a staff meeting, some teachers cheer when the principal announces that students from a nearby trailer park will be attending a different school next year.
Teacher attitudes matter. The stereotype that students from a particular neighborhood, or those who live in poverty, are low achievers or disciplinary problems can have a real impact on their achievement and behavior. Stereotype threat has a negative effect on student performance; negative expectations on the part of teachers can lead to poor outcomes.
This is a good scenario in which to employ the “tell me more” strategy. Ask role-playing teachers to explain why they clapped. Be ready to provide information on how teacher expectations influence student performance.
What might the principal in this case do? What might an individual teacher do or say?
On the way to lunch, you hear a girl say to her friends, “C’mon bitches, let’s go eat.”
When the targets (in this case women and girls) of a pejorative word reclaim it and use it endearingly or as a sign of solidarity, it’s often defended as language re-appropriation.
There is much debate over whether the original sexist, malicious intent of the word can be undone by this in-group usage. Sometimes re-appropriated words backfire and perpetuate the stereotypes the speaker wishes to debunk. Sometimes the words are used for shock value.
Why did this student choose that word? What other words could she have used? How can she be gently stopped?
A lesbian student comes to you, upset. A classmate told her that homosexuality is a sin and she is going to hell unless she chooses a different lifestyle.
The right to be safe and welcomed at school applies to all students, including LGBT students.
Bullying or coercion, even if based on sincere religious belief, has no place in school.
How would you advise the girl to respond? What else can you do?
During group work, you hear a boy say to a girl, “Stop PMS-ing and just take notes, OK?”
Menstruation and its related side-effects (imagined or otherwise) are used to marginalize women and exclude them from particular job functions or decision-making roles. PMS references are sexist barbs used to portray women and girls as over-sensitive, emotional, inconsistent, irrational and angry.
What was this student trying to convey to his female classmate? Is there another way to say it?
You put students into groups and overhear one turn to another and say, “Good, you can be our token black.”
“Token black” indeed tokenizes the black student by characterizing him and all his contributions as “token” and not integral to the completion of the project. This student’s contributions are marginalized before the assignment even begins.
“Ironic” racism calls attention to race in what the speaker intends as witty, modern and post-racial ways but really just reinforces stereotypes and dehumanizes people of color. If the “humor” in the joke is based upon someone’s group membership, it’s a racist joke, even if it’s meant to be ironic.
What did this student mean to imply with his statement? How might the student being singled out as a token feel?
A boy who likes attention gets laughs by chanting to a classmate with hearing aids, “Can you hear me now?”
Making fun of someone for a physical disability isn’t funny.
What effect did this student’s humor have on the classroom environment?
How might the targeted student have felt when this comment was made?
A teacher criticizes a girl about her earrings: “Don’t you realize that those look ghetto?”
“Ghetto” is a layered term that has specific stereotypical connotations (urban, poor, racial) and shouldn’t be used in the school environment except in a historical context, e.g., the Warsaw Ghetto.
Does the context and significance of the comment change if this teacher is from a background similar to the student? Does the significance change if a student makes the comment?
During an informal chat, a parent offers to hire a “bunch of illegals” to paint your classroom.
People are not illegal. Their actions might not have followed the law but the people themselves are not illegal. Characterizing anyone by a single factor is dehumanizing.
Race and class privilege insulates students and parents alike from the experiences of those from different backgrounds.
In many states, hiring an undocumented immigrant is a crime.
Can the offer of help be disentangled from the bias? Would asking for the speaker to explain their intent or addressing the issue of inappropriate language lead to different outcomes?
A fellow teacher made a joke in the faculty lunchroom about the band students, calling them “band fags.”
Like the r-word or the n-word, the f-word has no place in a welcoming school; respectful and appropriate language should be expected of all teachers.
Epithets used to characterize or marginalize a group of students hurt efforts to build community in school and perpetuate bias, in this case anti-LGBTQ bias.