Fear of social censure can easily encourage a knee-jerk reaction from educators when racism occurs in the classroom or playground. But, regardless of media pressure, it is unhelpful for teachers to treat racism as "thought crime" or clamp down on racist behaviour without taking the time to examine its meaning.
Teachers may be surprised to discover that they deal with a population developmentally predisposed to think like racists. Contrary to popular mythology, research suggests that children are not colour-blind innocents who absorb the prejudices of their environment. Children as young as six months have been found to discriminate between Afro-American and Caucasian faces. Other studies confirm that children's attitudes towards race are not merely learned from their parents.
The cognitive processes associated with racism, including assimilation (minimising differences within categories) and contrast (exaggerating differences between categories), are the same intellectual biases which enable young children to organise their experience and begin making sense of the world.
Stereotyping is a natural by-product of our rudimentary attempts at classification. So as Avenue Q, the musical, suggests, cognitively "everyone is a little bit racist" - at least to begin with. There is thus a distinction to be made between racial biases arising from category errors that call for education and those occasions when race becomes a pretext for channelling aggression.
For most children in the latter scenario, racial hatred is often not the principal motivating factor: race just provides a convenient axis of difference to allow the creation of a scapegoat.
For most children, that mark of distinction could just as readily be ginger hair, a few pounds of puppy fat or an allegiance to the wrong football team.
While teachers need to give a clear message that racist behaviour is unacceptable, they also need to be aware that racist bullying can be a surface manifestation of other factors that it might be just as pertinent to address.
For example, it seems likely that Jade Goody's comments in the Big Brother house about Shilpa Shetty testifies to what Fein and Spenser* discovered experimentally in the 1990s: if you take an individual, undermine their self-esteem and make them sufficiently stressed, then that individual is far more likely to start behaving in a prejudicial fashion.
Sometimes teachers need to address the cause as well as the symptom
Dr Stephen Briers is a clinical psychologist
COUNTERING RACISM IN SCHOOL
There are a number of principles to keep in mind when dealing with racism:
Try to work out what the racist behaviour means in its context. Is it really about race or are there other underlying issues?
Put tight controls around unacceptable behaviour but be prepared to work non-judgmentally with unacceptable attitudes
Keep talking about it. Children raised in families that sought to minimise racism by avoiding issues of race altogether, by focusing instead on other attributes, were found to be the most anxious in their social interactions
Make peer pressure work for you. Researchers Aboud and Doyle** found that the biggest shift in the attitudes of highly prejudiced children occurred as a result of discussions with less prejudiced friends
Create a "jigsaw classroom". This effective technique for combating racism involves making children in racially diverse groups mutually dependent on every group member for the achievement of shared goals. In short, it turns "them" into "us"
Foster empathy. Empathy training programmes reduce prejudice regardless of age, sex and race of participants. Role-play incidents by encouraging pupils to put themselves in the other person's shoes.
* Fein S and Spenser, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73, 31-34.
** Aboud, F. E and Doyle, A (1996). Does talk of race foster prejudice or tolerance in children? Available at www.cpa.cacjbsnew1996ful_aboud.html
(1997, December 1).
Burnette, E (1997, June). Talking openly about race thwarts racism in children. APA Monitor p.33.