What do you do when confronted with prejudice in those we are sent to teach?

Well you don’t do what I used to do. You don’t face down prejudice with logical arguments. Prejudice is too deeply rooted in emotions like fear to be influenced by logical arguments. Instead, you treat their prejudice like a fear and use systematic desensitization to slowly peel away that fear. To explain, let me share a story.

Imagine a crowded classroom with numerous kids trying to complete a project and all coming to the teacher at once with questions. Into this scene ad a young seven-year-old trailing the teacher and trying to explain something important that her broken English makes far more difficult to communicate, especially to a teacher already dealing with multiple questions at once. She keeps trying to tell the teacher, “I don’t want to be a Global Citizen; I want to be a Good Citizen.” She keeps repeating this whenever she gains the teacher’s attention.

The teacher keeps hearing, “I don’t want to do this project.” Moreover, she is too busy helping the kids who are working on the project to give this little girl her full attention. She answers with platitudes like, “I am sorry you don’t want to be a Global Citizen. I think you would have fun.” before attending to another kid. However, the child keeps trailing her, desperately tying to explain. Eventually things calm down and the other kids begin to settle into the activity, and the teacher is able to give the child’s concerns her full attention. She responds to the concern with a question.

“Why don’t you want to be a Global Citizen?”


“Africa?! What about Africa.”

“That is where all the bad people live.”

Image result for crowded classroomsSo confronted by the demon prejudice coming out of the mouth a a sweet, smart, funny seven-year-old, what do you do? Believe me, you don’t follow the instinctive impulse to use logical arguments to get the child to see that everyone is capable of good and that thinking otherwise is wrong.Doing that would inevitable result in either a defiant kid who stops listening to you, or a quivery ball of crying kid who doesn’t understand what he or she said to make the teacher so upset.

No, instead you respond as you should in any situation that you are hoping to persuade, or influence. You ask a sincere question. In this case the obvious questions was, “Who told you that all the bad people live in Africa?”

“My Grandma,” came her answer.

Armed with this information, the teacher knows what she is up against and can develop a working strategy. Something like a compromise. Something like, “Well I am sorry that your Grandma hasn’t met any nice people from Africa. I know a lot of them. Maybe if you met them, you would like them. But I do understand why you don’t want to be a Global Citizen, just a Good Citizen. How about we change the word Global into Good on your passport. That way you can still do all the fun projects about people and cultures and learn with us. Your Grandma likes you to learn right?”

Image result for what is systematic desensitizationWith the relationship still solid, the teacher is in a position to influence by providing proof of good Africans every chance she can. Removing fears and prejudices requires patience and a technique called systematic desensitization. Now this is not a psychology website, so I am not going to explain what dozens of other website already explain. Here is a link to a particularly good lesson about systematic desensitization from Study,com.

What I am going to say is that the technique can be adapted to decrease prejudice.

  1. We acknowledge the person’s right to feel what they feel and think what they think.
  2. We provide evidence in non-threatening ways that slowly disproves the truth of their prejudice. Over time, their definitions will expand, their minds will open, and their fears as well as their prejudices will diminish.

One final thought before closing. This post has focused on dealing with a seven-year-old’s prejudice. I want you to consider that deep down we might all still be seven-years-old and need to be treated with the same patience and understanding. I’ll end with a quote attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: ‘When we take people…merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.’

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