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How To Spot--and Stop--Prejudice

by Mark Haverstock

Renee, 17, was working at her computer one afternoon when the phone rang. It was Alice, the Human Resources manager at the insurance company where she had applied for a job. "I’m sorry," Alice told Renee, "but we’ve decided to hire someone else."

After she hung up, she wondered exactly why Alice really didn’t hire her. "She told me my resume was impressive," says Renee. "But after she met me in person and saw I’m in a wheelchair, she decided I wouldn’t be able to do the job."

Maybe you’ve had an experience like Renee’s where you’ve been singled out, treated differently, or just plain ignored because of something that makes you . . . well, you. When people think of you differently based your disability, race, age, or gender (something other than your ability!)–that’s prejudice

But prejudice isn’t something you’re born with––it’s learned. Growing up, if you see prejudice in action–people excluding others, putting them down, or considering them inferior in some way–you might assume this is the way life’s supposed to be.

So how do you break the cycle of prejudice? Take action! Here’s how to start.

1. Make it your rule that no person is excluded.

Face it–humans differ in the way they look, worship, dress, and act. Diversity is a good thing. So don’t participate in groups where the policy is "no girls allowed" or "Native Americans not welcome." And be aware of unspoken rules or practices which can be harder to change.

So what should yo do if you suspect someone is prejudiced?"Confirm your gut feeling," says Dr. Laura Dorsey-Elson, Assistant Director for the Center of Applied Leadership, University of Maryland.. "Ask your friends, "Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’’ If they feel the same way, tell someone in authority about it–a teacher, counselor, or parent. They may be able to help."

2. Point out prejudice.

Sometimes facing up to people or groups who are openly prejudice is tough. "If you say something, they might start picking on you instead," admits Cecelia, 14.

If you think someone is openly showing their prejudice, approach them in a friendly way. "Instead of getting into an argument, play the role of questioner," suggests Dorsey-Elson. "Ask things like ‘Why do you say that? Did you ever see her act that way before? Where do you think that comes from?’" As the person begins to answer the questions, he may realize what he’s doing is wrong. Then again, he may not. "If you sense the other person is getting hostile, move away," says Dorsey-Elson. "At least you’ve confronted the problem."

You might also pick up on prejudice you see, hear, or read in the media. If you sense this is happening, write or e-mail editors, producers, and other decision-makers, encouraging them stop.

3. Know the Law

Prejudice is an attitude–and you can’t arrest someone because of an attitude. But when people act on their prejudices, it’s discrimination. And discrimination is against the law.

Ali Davis, 20, blew the whistle on her sorority sisters at the University of Georgia after they banned a freshman from joining simply because she was black. Davis filed a racial discrimination suit against the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, which agreed to offer racial sensitivity training for their members.

Renee–the teen who felt she’d been denied a job because she uses a wheelchair–knew that the Americans with Disabilities Act outlaws employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. "We did make Alice aware of the discrimination problem, and with the help of several people I eventually got hired," she says. "I’m still working there, and I love it."

4. Let others know that you don’t appreciate racist language or jokes

"My sister works at a pizza place," says Brandy, 14. "One of her friends dropped something and the boss got mad and called him a stupid nigger."

Robyn, 18, and two friends from a Jewish youth group became targets when three men joined them on an elevator. "They started laughing when they found out who we were, and muttered what sounded like curses and ethnic slurs," she says. "I was shocked."

People make disgusting comments or use foul language for a variety of reasons: to make themselves feel superior, to be accepted by their friends, or just out of ignorance. Whatever the reason, let them know that you find it unacceptable.

Same goes for ethnic and racial jokes. "It’s hard to stand up against them," says Dana, 17. "You think, they’re not that serious, or it’s not like they really believe that. But by not saying anything, you’re building up a tolerance to that kind of thinking."

5. Get to know people from other backgrounds.

Statements like "Asian kids are smart" or "black kids are good basketball players" fail to recognize individual differences. And no one wants to be stereotyped.

"Most teenagers I know when asked about Arabs say: "Arabs? Don’t they bomb planes and buildings?" says Makak, 17, a Jordanian-American. She wants her friends to understand that all Arabs aren’t camel-riding terrorists.

Hanging out with people from different backgrounds can help bust these stereotypes. David, 17, made the mistake of stereotyping another student he’d met on a choir tour as a redneck––and the "redneck" believed David was a black thug. "After finally talking to him, I realized that we’d both been wrong," he says. "We eventually became friends during the tour and had a lot of fun together."

The bottom line? You have to live and work alongside others who represent various racial, cultural, and religious groups. They have different backgrounds, attitudes, and abilities. You don’t have to agree with them–or even like them individually–but they deserve the same opportunities and freedom from prejudice that you expect for yourself.

It all comes down to the simple rule: "Treat others the way you want to be treated".

Talk About It!

To voice your opinion on discrimination, log on to www.gp4teens.com . And while you’re on the Web, check out the Anti-Defamation League (www.adl.org) and Multicultural Graffiti, an e-zine written by students around the world (www.aiesec.org/webs/mg).