Saturday, February 27, 2010

Prejudice: A classroom adventure

In order to get creative juices flowing and open up dialogue among students in my English composition classes, I decided to delve into prejudice and discrimination.
The community college where I teach is tucked away in a rural county of North Carolina that has been hit hard over the years with the demise of the tobacco and textile industries. Last year’s economic downturn resulted in an enrollment spike as people try to recreate their career goals. The Ku Klux Klan still thrives here, along with moonshine, stills, and backroom gambling. The communities within the county have deep roots in heritage, family, and tradition. Newcomers are observed with discriminating eyes, yet residents are generally friendly, warm, and sincere.

I am impressed with the diversity in my classes, with students ranging in age from 17 to 60+, male and female, married, single, divorced, parents, straight, gay, and a variety of skin tones, though many would only see black and white. Everyone gets along, and I’ve never seen any negative interactions. In fact, students seem to want to help each other. Still, I know that prejudice can be a touchy subject, and with an eclectic mix of students, I wasn’t sure what the responses would be.

I opened with a passage from It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, by Robert Fulghum:

“It’s hard to judge without a lot more information. Oh sure, we go ahead and judge anyhow. But maybe, if judgment were suspended a bit more often, we would like us more.”


Pointing out that “prejudice” is derived from “prejudge,” I focused early discussion on why and how we prejudge. People learn from their surroundings, others, and by expanding their boundaries to explore beyond their limitations. We rely on what we know to guide us through the unknown. Current understanding is applied to fit into the unknown – the proverbial square peg in a round hole.


“Why do some people not like the dark?” I asked.


“Because they are scared,” was the general response.


“Why?”


“Because they don’t know what’s there.”


I pointed out that the same bias applies to prejudice. We prejudge other people because we don’t know them. We apply what we DO know and use it against what we DON’T know because we are afraid of what we don’t understand.


The nods and smiles around the room let me know I had made a connection. The discussion continued, as will further installations in this blog to share some of the revelations from class.