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Words That Hurt

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Despite a sign that warns of "strong language and experiences," visitors to the "Prejudice Bus" at the Chicago Children's Museum exhibit about discrimination are still taken aback. "Nigger." "Dingo." "Chop Suey." "Fairy." "Retarded." Children's voices repeat these and other epithets over and over on a continuous tape.

"Whoa, they're kind of mean in here," says teacher Klaire Tabaka, who is accompanying a 3rd grade class from the Armstrong School on Chicago's far North Side through the bus.

The Prejudice Bus is not a real school bus at all but a small room with blown-up cardboard photos of children sitting on bus seats. It is just one part of a larger exhibit called "Face to Face: Dealing With Prejudice and Discrimination." And museum officials are quick to point out that there's much more to the exhibit, which sets out to help children understand prejudice and give them the tools they need to handle name-calling and other discriminatory behavior.

A handful of Armstrong School students giggle as the recorded voices continue to chide them while they walk the length of the room. Others look around to see where the voices are coming from. A few just look down at their feet and keep moving. "Dork." "Pizza Face." "Honky." "Weight Watcher." These are the names that many children encounter at school, on the bus, or playing with friends.

"All the names on the bus came from children," says Darchelle Garner, a member of the design team behind the project. "This exhibit affects children whether they have been a victim, a perpetrator, or a bystander of discrimination."

Attendance at the Chicago Children's Museum has been heavy since it moved last October into spacious new quarters at the city's Navy Pier. The recently renovated retail and exhibition space near downtown stretches about a mile into Lake Michigan. Planners spent more than a year designing "Face to Face," and the exhibit joins a growing list of programs aimed at teaching children about bigotry.

  • At the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, an eight-level facility that serves as the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, children view interactive exhibits about the Holocaust and racism in the United States. Visitors walk through a "Whisper Gallery," where they hear racial and ethnic taunts, similar to those heard on the Prejudice Bus. Other exhibits highlight the Los Angeles riots and more subtle forms of racism.
  • At the Global Village, a traveling exhibit recently on display in Denver, children walk in the shoes of less fortunate young people around the world. They can jump on a crowded refugee boat or view life in a Masai hut from Kenya. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency, an affiliate of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, sponsors the exhibit.
  • At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, visitors relive the history of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement in a way that is made relevant to the kinds of bias and discrimination that persist today. One exhibit features the actual door to the jail cell where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." The museum's "Barriers Gallery" displays replicas of a typical shotgun house and a segregated streetcar.

The "Face to Face" exhibit in Chicago is open to all museum visitors, but the staff has tailored materials and programs especially for school groups. Before their visits, teachers receive a list of activities they should complete with their students, including a video and a lesson in such terms as stereotype and exclusion.

One of the first displays children see when they enter the exhibit offers a historical perspective on prejudice, including several life-size photo cutouts of children whose parents and grandparents faced some of the most notorious forms of discrimination. A Jewish boy tells of his grandmother's experience in a concentration camp. A Japanese-American girl talks about the internment of her elders during World War II.

From there, children go to viewing stations for an interactive video of a mock game show called "Name That Stereotype." Young actors play out scenarios that include discriminatory comments, and visitors are supposed to hit the buzzer when they hear a stereotype. In one scene, a boy brings a friend from a public-housing project home to play. His dad arrives and says, "Kids from the projects are always stealing. I got home just in time." After the visitor has had a chance to identify the discriminatory comment, the game-show host appears on the screen to point out the prejudicial remark and why it's wrong.

At another video kiosk, children view a school scene where a new student asks to sit at the lunch table with several other classmates. The kids reject him at first, and the video prompts viewers to stand up for the newcomer.

It's after children visit these three stations that they enter the Prejudice Bus. They go in a few at a time, lingering long enough to hear most of the names on the tape. As they exit the bus, the youngsters come to an area dubbed the "Peace Diner," where they can talk with their teachers and other adult volunteers about the put-downs they have heard. A video display at each table offers "power tools" to help children deal with name-calling. It suggests such coping responses as "get a life" and "that doesn't bug me." Before leaving the diner, the children write down one of the epithets they have encountered and feed the slip into a paper shredder, symbolically slashing the power of the hurtful words.

After their walk through the exhibit, the racially mixed group of children from the Armstrong School gathers in a museum classroom, complete with a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline. Museum volunteer Caren Skibell asks the children to share their own stories of discrimination. One child describes his hurt feelings when other children called him fat. An African-American boy recounts a time when a white man in his neighborhood wouldn't let him pet his dog.

In the end, the students seem to have benefited from the visit. "I liked the bus," says 9-year-old Ken Jones. "You can always ignore bad names. If someone doesn't like you, you can just like someone else."

Tabaka, his teacher, says the exhibit is valuable because it gives the children effective ways to deal with put-downs and prejudice. "I was shocked by some of those names in the bus, though," she admits. "It helped to have a teacher in there."

Garner, the museum's director of community services, maintains that the serious subject matter calls for a frank approach that deals squarely with the slurs and other forms of prejudice children encounter. "We decided to be a little more direct and hard-hitting," she says.

Kim Dell'Angela, a pediatric psychologist who teaches at Loyola University's school of medicine in Maywood, Ill., agrees that it would be a mistake to offer a soft, "nicey nice" discrimination exhibit. "You can't have it be devoid of the ugliness that is part of racism," says Dell'Angela, who serves on the exhibit's advisory board. "Children know what disrespect is about. They are already the recipients of a lot of biased attitudes based on their age and their size. So by broadening it to other prejudicial attitudes, we can give them some tools to help them get control over ugly situations."

--Mark Walsh

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