30 Oct 2009

How racist are you?

Last night, Channel 4 in the UK aired a programme called How racist are you? (the link will be live for 28 days from today).

After listening to the programme for about 4 to 5 minutes, I thought it sounded familiar. And it was.

It was facilitated by Jane Elliott, a former Iowa schoolteacher. And it is a continuing social experiment/programme that she has been conducting for over 40 years. I first saw the initial programme about 2 years ago, in a PBS documentary based upon the first class conducted by Jane Elliott. It was called A Class Divided.

The day following the death of Martin Luther King, Jane Elliott did something drastic, and different, with her class of 8 years old students.

She divided them, and began mocking them because of the colours of their eyes – blue eyes first, switching the mocking to the other group on the second day.

This social experiment/programme forced the children to experience discrimination and different treatment based upon a personal characteristic that is unchangeable – one can no more change the colour of one’s eyes than the colour of the skin.

The idea of the lesson was born from a book she had read called Black Like Me, an account of the experience of one John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who took ‘large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug Methoxsalen, trade name Oxsoralen, and spending up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp’. This darkened his skin, and after cropping his hair short, John travelled in the southern USA to experience what it was like to be black.

Perhaps the most significant point in last night’s  programme came after a short period of verbal battering, a woman confessed to feeling worthless… among other negative feelings. Jane Elliott then asked her to ‘imagine what people felt when they’d been subjected to 30 years or more of that treatment’.

People are prejudiced. We are not born prejudiced. We learn it from others, at home, school, work… No one is exempt. WE ALL ARE!

When I was teaching communications, I had a nice little experiment I used to prove this prejudice was present, dormant, and alive.

I call upon a volunteer… back to the chalkboard, and have him/her recite the word Muslim 15 times, slowly. Then s/he is requested to turn around and read the word I write on the board while s/he was speaking.

The word I wrote was ASHAMED. In over a year, with more than 1000 students at a conservative estimate, only one person pronounced it right… all others said AH-SHA-MED.

Just saying the word Muslim, creates a certain mindset, and people try to pronounce the word ASHAMED in a way in keeping with how it might sound if it was an Arabic name.

In other words, they unknowingly brought a prejudice* to the fore.

* being biased or having a belief or attitude formed beforehand. (Princeton).

How racist are you?