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Getting Our Kids to Ask Critical Questions About Discrimination

03/05/2014 05:08 EST | Updated 05/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Last week I was speaking about rights and freedoms to a high school law class. I asked the students if they could think of any laws that had changed in their life time. They knew that the alcohol limits for driving had changed. They knew that you could no longer drive and text or talk on a cellphone, and a few knew that the school-leaving age had risen from 16 to 18. But when it came to changes that had brought about legislation against racial, gender, and other discrimination, they had to be reminded or even simply informed.

Then one polite young man remembered hearing a story about a football team in the U.S. He told the class that in the mid-twentieth century, this football team had been invited to play a game that could have led to its playing in the Rose Bowl. However, at that time, African-American football players were not permitted to play in the southern states. The football team in question had two African-American players. According to the student telling this story, the football team chose to forfeit the game rather than play without their African-American team members.

When I asked the student what he thought about the team's decision, he replied "What a waste! The team stood to win a lot of money and could have gone on to the Rose Bowl. It didn't make any sense to forfeit the game just because of the two African-American players!"

I confess to being dumbfounded. I was expecting the young man to tell me about how heroic the team had been. But since that was not his point, I asked him a few questions to help him to think critically about the story he had told.

"Why do you think the team chose to forfeit the game?" I asked. "I have no idea," he replied.

Several other students suggested that the team had thought rules against allowing African-Americans to play football were not fair and that the team had a point to make about discrimination.

"Did the team's forfeiture get the point across?" I asked again. "I don't know," he replied.

I did not give up. "What were some of the effects of the team's decision?" I asked again.

"Well, the team no longer exists. They didn't win any money so they couldn't continue to play," he told me.

"Hmmm," I replied. "Are there any African-Americans playing football in the southern states or anywhere else now?"

"Well, of course!" he retorted. "Most of the players seem to be African-American now."

"So, do you think the forfeiture worked?" I asked again. The young man and many of his classmates looked startled. "I see what you mean," he said.

What are we teaching our students? Is standing up for the rights of others out of fashion now? Are we being so careful to be neutral that we forget that there are values implicit in what we teach and also in what we do not teach? The questions we ask reveal what we think about -- and also what we ignore.

Recently, a friend and I attended an event held in a Toronto pub. My friend, a very attractive young woman, was immediately approached by two men who had been standing at the bar. The first question she was asked by one of the men was, "Are your parents Asian?" When she answered in the affirmative (although we both later wondered why she answered at all), his follow-up question was "Both of them?"

The questions continued. They involved discussion of her height ("You are too tall to be...") and of her age ("It is hard to tell the age of people like you"). We found another part of the pub with better company.

These men were adults.

Were they aware that their questions were not only offensive, but also aimed at creating a distinction, a division, between "them" and "us"? Rather than ask these men the kinds of questions that would have forced them to think critically about their values, my friend and I chose to politely walk away.

Would these men have had these same attitudes towards identity and race if their early education had included an opportunity to question their values and stereotypes? Will the discussion about the football team and their stance against discrimination have an impact on the high school student and the way he thinks about the relative values of equality, monetary gain, and prestige?

Perhaps it is never too late to have these kinds of discussions. But even if it is too late for the men in the bar, if we give our children a head start, and teach them how to question stereotypes and balance competing interests at an early age, we may well be a step closer to ensuring that they will grow up to be critical thinkers and advocates for a more just society.

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