We have written about prejudice before. But the George Zimmerman trial and jury verdict has provoked a national conversation on the status of racism in America. If we believe in the American judicial system, we must support the verdict. A “jury of his peers” found him innocent. They concluded Zimmerman’s action was self-defense. Yet, this trial, from among the hundreds of others that are conducted daily, is not yet over. Trayvon Martin rallies were held across the country. The Attorney General is speaking out about Martin and pursuing an investigation about whether a civil rights case can be substantiated. The President of the United States claims he could have been Trayvon Martin and reveals his own experience with prejudice. With grace and dignity, Martin’s parents have tweaked the conscience of our nation. Deep divisions within our social system are in the case: guns, stand your ground, age, race, respect for authority, and, yes, prejudice.
We cannot avoid the conversation and we feel wary about entering it. In the territory of violent death, words do not suffice. Words have different meanings, and expressions can be misunderstood. But, words are what we have to offer. The more time goes by, and the more people are speaking out on both sides of the debate. The debate is not the same as the trial. There is a subtle distinction between whether Zimmerman was guilty of murder and if racism played a part in the unfolding of events that night.
We elected our first black president. In his first campaign he delivered a speech on racism. The election came and we applauded our evolution as a society. Racism was behind us. Those who knew George Zimmerman testify that he has no bias. Others who talk discuss the bias held by others; President Obama did this. But, we wonder if these statements can be true. Can we truly ever be human beings who hold no bias? Or are we hard wired to find the differences among us and use that to keep us separate?
Let’s take an over-simplified look at learning. First, when something that is not familiar to us is presented, cognitive dissonance occurs. With a furrowed brow and a scan of our brain, we unconsciously search for a place to solve the question or recognize the information as familiar. For a child learning to read, “See Spot run.” will become different from “Drr Dpoy yhb.” But in the beginning, they both may make no sense. Over time, meaning begins to be made of those letters. Words are seen, scanned and checked, and filed away in that brain place where words are stored and decoded. The human brain allows us to be meaning makers. We are doing it all the time.
We are comfortable with the familiar and uncomfortable, at least in the beginning, with the unfamiliar. If we build a wall to keep the unfamiliar away from us or attach meaning to what is different, prejudice arises. We suggest that all of us have prejudice within us. We don’t seem to like the words “prejudice” or “bias,” so we deny them or we project them onto others as a grievous flaw in their character. What is wrong with scanning our environment for danger from the unfamiliar? On a very basic level, we do it every day when driving our cars, or crossing a street. Why is it not OK to meet someone new and look for what we have in common? We do it. When a new family comes into the district, a new child into a classroom, aren’t they “scanned”?
We live in a world that has most certainly moved forward regarding civil rights. But our dropout rates are filled primarily with African American boys and our jails, with African American men. So in this regard, these facts present a challenge. Minority on minority violence is covered by news almost nightly in our cities. We are without the relationships that bind us together. As a society, violence done to one of us is not violence against all of us unless the perpetrator is from outside. This is a national problem and within it, somewhere, lays the causes for the prejudice we carry.
There are so many unanswered and unanswerable questions. What did George Zimmerman think when he saw a young black man with a hoodie walking in his neighborhood? Did he think it was possible that this young man was his neighbor? Why not? We do not know. We can only speculate. Was he afraid or an aggressor? What motivated him to leave the truck after he was told not to do so? Was the gun he held security for himself ? What did Trayvon Martin think when he found himself being followed? We know a bit of that from his friend, the female high school student who testified at the trial. Had he been taught to be fearful, not to walk too fast or too slow, not to open a conversation with a stranger? What could he have chosen?
Perhaps we should abandon the words “prejudice” and “bias” because they have been, ironically, tainted with our own prejudice and bias against them! Perhaps we should consider referring to a mental construct. From what construct were they both operating? Language is key here and we need better language to maneuver this terrain.
With intentional effort, we can develop an ever-enlarging circle of familiarity. As leaders, as teachers and as parents, we have the responsibility to make that difference. Our world must be a hopeful place where children are capable of transcending barriers of our bias, to a much larger circle of familiarity. Perhaps our children have already widened that circle. Here is an example of how some of our children have an ever-enlarging circle of familiarity already .
We must be careful to not interfere with their capacity for acceptance. We will be welcoming students back to school in the fall. Many of them will have lived through this media blitz of discussions about race, bias, prejudice, without the advantage of our guidance. These children are forming their own thoughts, beliefs, and biases; they are giving meaning to this debate. We have an opportunity to encourage them to think about how they approach differences in their own lives. Once prejudice is acknowledged, we can work together in our schools, to develop the relationships which defuse its destructive power. There are many opportunities for us to take this on; it can raise its head over race, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability, ethnicity, or social class. Whether our social fabric is comprised of a melting pot or a mosaic matters not. What matters is that we must be in this together.
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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.