Pause To Think

By Jessica Portner — February 09, 1994 7 min read

On a winter morning in northern New Jersey, two dozen high school students sit in a semicircle in a classroom, prepared to engage in a kind of cultural experiment.

These teenagers, who are black, white, Korean, Puerto Rican, Indian, have come to Plainfield High School in the wake of a snowstorm to talk about prejudice with their peers, to analyze the true meaning of slang, to “rap about race.’'

They’re taking a break from classes at their respective suburban, urban, and private schools this morning to participate in a test run of “Ethical Choices: Dealing With Diversity,’' a video curriculum developed by WNET--the local public-television station--to address the problems of ethnic, racial, and cultural bias. Some 1,500 high schools across New Jersey and New York City recently received the video and accompanying teacher’s guide, courtesy of WNET and a local health-insurance company.

And the sponsors of the educational package, hovering around this seventh-floor schoolroom today, are eager to see it in action.

“Let’s pretend this is not a classroom. Don’t raise your hands,’' directs Dana Freeman, the jovial “master teacher’’ who is about to lead the students in a quick-paced interactive dialogue. Using the Socratic method to probe the students’ belief systems, Freeman tells the students he will challenge their responses, demand explanations, and play devil’s advocate.

Flanked by two video monitors, Freeman strides confidently around the room, wielding a remote control in his hand. He clicks on the videotape. On the screen, Charles J. Ogletree, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School and an expert in the Socratic method, leads a discussion among a diverse panel of high school students.

Ogletree, who has interviewed Presidents, leading economists, and Nobel Prize winners in this roundtable format for an occasional PBS series, now directs his attention to this group of teenagers. Speaking to Giselle Leung, a young woman of Asian descent, he presents a scenario: “We are in the city of Metropolis. You are going back to school. Some young white men drive by you and shout: ‘Asians go home!’ How do you react?’'

Leung says she wouldn’t say anything because she was alone, but admits that she would “definitely feel intimidated and scared.’'

Freeman pauses the tape and poses the same question to his class. “How would you feel?’' he asks Heidi Gaetano, an 11th grader of Korean descent. Raising her shoulders, she says she would “shrug it off.’' Because she’s adopted, Heidi says she isn’t really bothered by racial slurs.

“What causes people to act this way?’' asks Freeman, opening the question to the circle of students, slumping in their chairs and leaning on their elbows.

“These people are racist because of something in their past,’' one student suggests. “Society makes you that way. You are not born hating Asians.’'

“You are not born racist, but you can’t blame society for the things you do,’' Heidi exclaims from across the room.

The Meaning of Slang

A brief lull falls over the class. Freeman clicks on the next segment of the tape, and the students stare up at the monitors.

“Are people free to say what they really want to say in this society?’' Ogletree asks the on-screen panel. “What if someone calls you ‘nigger’?’' he asks a black student, who begins to chuckle softly. He’s laughing, he says, because he thinks this imaginary harasser is “stupid and ignorant.’'

Freeman presses the pause button and looks furtively at the students. This question seems to have piqued their interest. “Is it appropriate to use racial slang?’' he asks.

“No, it’ll start a trend,’' one student says. “It degrades people,’' another blurts.

But Shameko Greene, an African-American senior at Plainfield High, thinks the term is acceptable in certain contexts. “When you say ‘nigger,’ it reminds you of the unity you have,’' Shameko says to a room filled with dubious faces. “It’s just a term that reminds you you’re tight.’'

The video resumes and rap artist MC Lyte seems to agree with Shameko, defending the use of the term that to many serves as a bitter reminder of slavery and oppression. Among blacks, she says, the word is used to mean “brother.’'

Then Ogletree, who is black, asks, “Can I, if I’m white, say ‘nigger’?’'

“No!’' MC Lyte snaps back emphatically.

A Jewish student interjects that he thinks using the word at all desensitizes its meaning. “It shouldn’t be used until the feeling behind the word is addressed,’' he argues.

But in the lexicon of political correctness, sometimes it’s difficult to know where the boundaries of appropriate speech begin and end.

“Sometimes you’re forced not to laugh if someone tells an uncool joke,’' says Matthew Loper, an 11th grader at suburban Watchung Hills Regional High School, who admits after the discussion to not always knowing what’s “cool’’ to say.

“You can enter into conversation and inadvertently step on toes because of the P.C. climate,’' says Peter Schmidt, the upper school principal at the private Gill St. Bernard’s School, who teaches a class on race, class, and gender.

Pervasive Prejudice

Most of these students, all residents of northern New Jersey, are no strangers to prejudice. Hali Barlow, an 11th-grade student at Plainfield High, says he often feels stereotyped because he’s black. “If I wear jewelry, people think I’m a drug dealer,’' says Hali, who is in a rap group called “Furious’’ and tutors students after school.

Another student, who is of Middle Eastern descent, says he’s often called “Aladdin’’ at school.

Michelle Lee, a freshman whose heritage is a mixture of Chinese, Puerto Rican, Mexican, French, and African-American, admits with a laugh that “it’s really hard for me to be prejudiced.’' But she does remember getting teased for speaking English when her parents took her to dance classes in New York’s Chinatown when she was young.

“Prejudice is pervasive, and everyone is guilty of racism,’' says Matthew, who adds that the Ku Klux Klan recently approached his brother for membership at the Southern college he attends.

Some students say we can never eliminate bigotry. Shaalu Isanaka, a 10th grader from Watchung Hills Regional High, takes a decidedly pessimistic view of race relations. “All you need is one person to make evil,’' she says. “The only way we could end prejudice,’' she adds matter-of-factly, “is to line racist people against the wall and shoot them.’'

But most of the students in the room reject the idea that racism is some universal evil that defies peaceful resolution. Instead, they believe society instills prejudice in young people.

Part of the Solution

The hour has almost elapsed. Freeman stops the videotape and asks the group of teenagers to brainstorm about how they would bring together our culturally diverse society.

One student suggests that the entire student body should take a class on race relations. Another proposes a monthly school assembly where students could learn about different ethnic groups. Someone else suggests a mandated multicultural curriculum. And many others think performing community service, tutoring disadvantaged students, or helping the homeless might help sensitize students.

Maybe we could just do this a few more times, another student adds. “If you take what you learn out of this room and you apply it, it’ll work,’' echoes Kristen Simonelli, a senior at Gill St. Bernard’s School.

A Good Dialogue

No, a few hours of rigorous discussion won’t make hate crimes disappear or eliminate intolerance altogether. But Yvonne Duncan, the director of school-based programs at Plainfield High and one of the event’s organizers, thinks this kind of interactive discussion can really help dislodge the prejudice right beneath the surface.

“After you work with students,’' Duncan says, “you learn that the unspoken prejudice is the worst because it makes them stick to themselves.’'

This program involves more than writing culturally sensitive terms on a blackboard, she adds. In addition to challenging students to explore their sense of ethics, the 30-minute video and 12-page teacher’s guide try to build critical-reasoning and communications skills. The guide also features tips on how to lead a discussion on building a multicultural curriculum.

Teachers will also find suggestions for such follow-up activities as conducting a survey about student perspectives on diversity, making a film about prejudice, and analyzing a week’s worth of media coverage of race relations.

Although the Plainfield test run marks the program’s debut, WNET has already received hundreds of requests from schools and other groups interested in using “Ethical Choices: Dealing With Diversity.’' In fact, WNET, which has spent $75,000 to date to develop and produce the tape, hopes to expand the program to offer a 13-part video series with units on AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and other issues “teachers often don’t have the tools to deal with,’' according to Ruth Ann Burns, the director of the station’s Educational Resources Center.

If you see people discussing racism in this documentary format, Burns says, you begin to see the underlying causes. “Television can help to defuse the animosity,’' she asserts.

One student, speaking of personal responsibility and self-esteem, seems to crystallize the themes of the day.

“You as a person ought to have enough sense to begin to form your own opinions,’' she says, exhorting her fellow students to resist hateful impulses. Ultimately, “you just have to decide for yourself.’'

More information on WNET’s interactive television programs and other educational resources is available by calling (212) 560-6613.

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 1994 edition of Education Week as Pause To Think