By Brande Otis, City Year AmeriCorps Member
As a City Year AmeriCorps member, I sit down with about four of my students twice a week during lunch to discuss important issues and encourage social and emotional learning. In City Year culture, this is called a lunch club. My favorite part about lunch club is facilitating important conversations with my students, and then watching them learn and grow from these conversations. The day after the Ferguson verdict was shared, I decided to facilitate an activity with my lunch club surrounding the events. Through this activity I tried to expose my students to their own personal biases, and in fact they showed me my own.
I first asked my four third graders to pretend that they were law enforcement, and that they just received a call from me (another officer) telling them that there was a robbery in their area and to keep a look out. They were thrilled at the idea of a task, saying things like, “Let’s catch him!” and “We got this!” I asked each scholar what they would do in that situation and all four of them honestly replied that they would keep a look out - for anyone. One remarked that they would look for someone carrying “lots of groceries or something.”
I asked them to imagine that a man who had brown skin was walking down the street alone. What would they do then? The replies varied. Two students said they’d stop the man and ask if he had seen anything. One student said they’d just let him keep walking. And one student said they’d ask to search through the “young man’s stuff”.
I asked the students what they would do if instead it was a woman the same age who did not look like them; a woman with white skin and light hair. A lot of them replied that they would ask the lady if she had seen anything. I had expected this reaction to be honest, but I did not expect the following question from one of my students. He asked: “Why is it a lady this time, Ms. Brande? Why isn’t it another boy?”
I was shocked at my mistake. In a fair activity or experiment I should have chosen two men or two people rather. By choosing a woman for the second scenario, I inadvertently asked my students to consider gender when I wanted them to consider race. His question then caused me to think about why I chose to use a woman in the second scenario. As I reflected, I realized it was because I wanted to present the second scenario with the least threatening being I could think of – a woman.
My bright young third grader helped me realize that I am less likely to believe that a woman is capable of a crime, and that I am capable of expressing and possibly even teaching that bias. My students’ honesty helped me reflect about my own biases and prejudices and how I may implicitly express them.
While I would like to continue to educate my students and make them aware of these issues, I also realize that it’s okay to grow more in that area before I attempt to do so. This is a caution to all of us. Yes we are change agents, yes we are cognizant, yes we are committed to justice; but yes we are also growing. It is important to realize that when we expose our students to these issues, we are also exposing them to our interpretation of these issues. Prejudice is a learned reaction and we, as City Year AmeriCorps members, must choose not to teach it.