Education Matters: Fearing the ‘other’
The recent racist, homophobic and antisemitic vandalism at San Dieguito Union High School District schools was horrifying and wicked. Decent people know that. No point in expressing my personal disgust which would just add to the chorus of outrage.
The bigger question is: Where does this hate come from?
And the follow-up question: How do we stop it?
There are no concrete answers. But a good start is with the local Anti-Defamation League which has been actively engaged against any incident of county-wide intolerance, including anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, antisemitic, anti-Black, anti-Latinx, anti-Asian and far too many other “anti’s” to list.
I asked ADL’s San Diego Regional Director Tammy Gillies for some answers. She referenced several of ADL’s basic principles, one of which states that bias is universal.
“All people have developed biases through socialization, education and exposure to print and broadcast media,” she wrote in an email. “Bias is a precursor to prejudicial thinking.”
But prejudice, she said, can be challenged and overcome through personal awareness.
“Although the learning of prejudice is often an unconscious process, the undoing of bias requires conscious effort,” according to the ADL.
Same with hate, which can start in early childhood when young children may have already “learned” about stereotypes and developed negative attitudes toward others.
But no child is born with prejudice – it has to be taught. Therefore, hate can be “unlearned.” But it takes a determined effort to understand one’s own bias, where it came from and why it’s wrong.
Although hopeful for a fresh start at San Dieguito, Gillies had harsh words about the district’s past.
“We have seen the district sweep other incidents of hate under the rug,” she said. “Those crises could have served as learning moments for the district. Suppressing the reality of the situation never heals a problem and more often than not, exacerbates it.”
Newly hired SDUHSD superintendent Cheryl James-Ward inherited a culture that ignored or downplayed incidents of hate and in fairness should not be held responsible for what’s happened in the past.
What is fair to ask, though, is what she can do about it now.
All SDUHSD schools have now been designated No Place For Hate schools, James-Ward said, and that means “that we are going to commit to being kind to one another, for standing up for each other and not judging each other by appearances. It means that we commit to a culture of caring and calling out hate.”
She said one way the district is fighting hate is by offering anti-bias training for students.
“To be an anti-bias leader means that you treat everyone the same, whether they look like you or not, and you teach yourself to refrain from stereotyping individuals based on what they look like, their religion or culture,” she said.
But simply being an ADL-designated No Place For Hate school does not mean that hate and prejudice don’t exist.
Gillies said the community needs to understand that a No Place For Hate school means to take issues head-on, not turn away, minimize or ignore incidents.
“One shouldn’t say, ‘That can’t happen here because we are an NPFH school,’” Gillies said. “But rather an NPFH school says, ‘BECAUSE we are an NPFH school, we are going to take action!’”
An NPFH school doesn’t mean it’s perfect and does not imply that it’s the end of hate at that school, she said. “It means they have actively committed to embedding anti-bias work into their school culture all year long.
“It’s not the solution. It’s the framework for the solution. It’s a commitment to addressing the issues.”
The school board, in one of the early actions in James-Ward’s employment, passed two resolutions condemning antisemitism and harassment or discrimination of any student based on race, religion, culture or other forms of hateful words or actions.
As a Black woman with a long history of professional experience in education, James-Ward has had direct exposure to racism and misogyny. So she understands, perhaps better than many, how the hurt can be so personal.
She said the hate may result from the way a child is raised, from family and learned generational hate, social media including television, or the group of friends one has, both on-line and in person.
“It might come from being harmed or hurt, being bullied and then bullying others or attempting to bully others that appear to be more vulnerable,” she said. “It definitely comes from fear – fear of losing something, fear of the unknown, fear of change.”
It’s not just contemptible graffiti and hateful words or symbols scrawled on public places.
“Micro-aggressions,” James-Ward said, “may happen on an ongoing basis and are generally also fueled by hate but harder to detect. I think for kids who have to endure micro-aggressions, it’s like death by a thousand cuts.”
How to assess the magnitude of the problem is an ongoing challenge. Is it half the student population? Twenty-five percent? Two percent?
Although difficult to determine with no official data on the numbers, James-Ward, from discussions with district families and students, said she estimates 5% or possibly as high as 20%.
“I would say there are small pockets on the fringe and sole actors,” she said.
But those micro-aggressions may be just as indicative of pervasive and entrenched intolerance as the damage and lasting scars created by one narrow-minded bigot with a spray can.
Most kids, she said, are making an effort to improve outcomes for all, but on the other hand, kids need to interact regularly outside their regular circles.
Agreeing with Gillies, James-Ward said that no child is born to hate others. “Hate is learned and then tolerated,” she said.
Blind obedience to false ideologies can create fanatics capable of venal actions. But most of the hate, said Gillies, comes from ignorance and fear.
“Most often when you get to know people as human beings, you find that you have much more in common than you thought,” she said. “When you see someone as human, as a person like yourself, it is much harder to hate.”
This issue reminded me of my column years ago about a former White supremacist, Frank Meeink, who wrote a book titled “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead.”
Meeink was the featured speaker at a 2013 ADL presentation and spoke of being a neo-nazi skinhead with racist symbols tattooed on his body, including a swastika tattoo on his neck.
After his remarkable transformation, he became a spokesperson for compassion and acceptance. But it was his description of what drew him into the skinhead crowd that was so chilling and revealing.
“I wanted people to fear me,” he said, speaking about a broken childhood and the need to feel accepted. It felt good to make others feel afraid, he said.
With gang life, he said, “I had a purpose.” And in perhaps the most telling expression of his attraction to violence and the skinhead movement, was this: “Hate feels so good.”
In prison, he mingled with other inmates he had hated in his former life, and began to understand the humanity of everyone and the lie that White people are the master race.
“DNA says that’s all bullshit,” he said. “We are on this planet together.”
As someone once said, “There is no ‘other.’”
Meeink answered one question from the audience without missing a beat: “What’s the one thing above all else that would have kept you from becoming a skinhead?”
“Good parenting,” he replied. “Hands down.”
Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the full column on Frank Meeink, see:
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