Making Prejudice Visible

No one ever wants to admit to being prejudiced. My students used surveys to help uncover discriminatory attitudes. The surveys hit close to home.

By Ed Oravec

I walked into my principal’s office to explain a project with my students on prejudice and discrimination. I eagerly told him of the project, fully expecting his support. To my surprise, he said, “You can’t do that, Ed. You can’t do surveys on homophobia.”

Students were hoping to conduct surveys on a variety of prejudices, but it was the issue of homophobia that concerned the principal. The principal’s rationale was that he was worried how the community would react. School budgets are annually voted upon by the community, and he didn’t want to step into any type of controversy that might jeopardize school funding.

As I addressed my eighth-grade social studies class the next day, students were angry with the principal’s response. More than one student asked, “Why did you even tell him we were doing surveys on homophobia? He never would have found out.” Once their initial anger was over, we discussed what to do. We decided to invite the principal to class to ask him about his decision. He accepted.

The principal explained his position by reading the school board policy on the teaching of controversial issues, which states that parents need to be notified of a topic being taught and have the option of removing their children from any class teaching a controversial issue. My students patiently listened to five minutes of legalese. Finally, one of my students, Whitney, raised her hand. “But we’re not trying to teach anyone about homosexuality,” she said. “We’re trying to see how many people are homophobic.”

The principal was clearly surprised by Whitney’s response. I suppose he had expected the students to listen and accept, or at least begrudgingly agree to, his decision. He then read one of the survey questions that he found objectionable: “Should men be allowed to marry men?” He suggested an alternate question: “Would you accept a homosexual as a friend?

Cassie spoke for the class. “Such changes would compromise the validity of the surveys,” she said. It became clear the students were not going to accept the principal’s argument and were not going to change the questions.

The principal suggested a new compromise. He asked if the students would attach a disclaimer to all the surveys, saying that no one had to complete the survey. The class agreed and the surveys proceeded.

Unit on Prejudice

The surveys grew out of a unit on prejudice. I wanted students to understand their personal prejudices, and at one point I suggested the idea of a survey about the extent of discrimination in the middle school. My students enthusiastically took up the idea.

We brainstormed and discussed certain types of discrimination, and the students developed a list of potential topics for the survey: classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Students could select any one of these topics, but most chose to do surveys on homophobia

In developing their surveys, I encouraged the students to apply the scientific method, recently taught them by the science teacher, and to develop a hypothesis, create a survey to collect data, analyze data, and draw conclusions.

I had one parent who objected to her daughter doing a survey on homosexuality. “I don’t want my daughter to become one of them,” she stated. I agreed to the mother’s demand, and had her daughter do a survey on another topic. While developing the alternate survey, the daughter commented, “I didn’t know my mother was homophobic.”

The only other obstacle was the principal. But my students held firm, agreed to the compromise, and proceeded with their surveys.

Over the next week, the students drew from a hat the names of students who would take the surveys, gave their surveys to other students in the middle school, and tabulated data. Just giving the surveys provided new insight into discrimination at the school, especially on homophobia.

As Kelly noted, “Some people were so afraid that they did not even want to do a survey or even talk about homosexuals.” T. J. said, “Many students in the middle school take homophobia as a joke. Many laughed quite a bit during my interviews.” Matt recognized that boys were more homophobic than girls. “Girls don’t seem to mind if there are homosexuals in the middle school, whereas boys mind a lot,” he said.

Students were not surprised when they tabulated the data and the surveys showed the vast majority of the students were homophobic. To everyone’s surprise, the results indicated few middle school students possessed sexist attitudes, and no one discriminated against others on the basis of race or social class. My students knew better. They heard racial slurs in the hallways. The girls experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. And they knew students tended to separate into groups based on how much money their parents earned.

Students asked why it was that students admitted to their prejudices only in the area of homophobia. Some suggested this might be because it is “socially acceptable” to bash gays in public, but not socially acceptable to be public about other forms of prejudice.

They clearly were disappointed the survey results did not always reflect the prejudice they knew existed. I reminded them that the results did confirm one of the points made in the book The Nature of Prejudice, by Gordon Allport, parts of which we had read in class. Allport stated that adolescents learn to speak in terms of equality even though their actions discriminate.

As a result of the surveys, students had learned to be skeptical of claims by others that they were not prejudiced. But I was unsure if they had learned to be equally skeptical of themselves. This was a class that, when I had asked them early in the unit if they were prejudiced, all had denied it. (At that point they had all said, “No, I am not prejudiced against Blacks,” as if that were the only group experiencing discrimination.)

I anxiously awaited the students’ evaluations of the project. I was encouraged by the results. Students had begun to see their personal prejudices:

“I learned that I could be just as homophobic as anyone else, and, just because we’re studying controversial issues doesn’t mean I myself couldn’t be racist, classist, sexist, or homophobic.”

“I learned that I myself am prejudiced. Also, that I’ve been that way for a long time but didn’t seem to recognize it.”

“When I started out, I didn’t think I was really prejudiced against very many things but now I know that I’m prejudiced against lots of things. I also see more prejudice around me.”

Many other students said the project forced them to look at themselves and reflect on how they treated others. They no longer saw themselves as free of prejudice and discrimination. Now that they knew this about themselves, I wondered if their new view of the world would alter the way they participated in it.

Ed Oravec teaches middle school in Montgomery, VT.