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‘You don’t teach prejudice by discussing its existence.’ How to talk to children about race and discrimination.

As concern mounts from some parents about concepts like Critical Race Theory and whether it should be taught in K-12 classrooms, which it is not, some other parents are concerned about how to prepare and protect their Muslim, Sikh, Arab and Asian American children from bullying and harassment. Teaching children lessons about hate and racism has been especially important in the wake of major world events, like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the lingering effects of 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic — events many children may not even understand.

On top of being impacted by these events along with everyone else, these families also bear the burden of being mistakenly and sometimes violently blamed for causing these events.

“Muslim American students often experience harassing comments by peers, such as being called ‘terrorist’ or being told ‘don’t blow us up,’” Dr. Amaarah DeCuir, American University School of Education, told the PBS NewsHour. “They describe being stared at during 9/11 lessons, or being singled out by the teacher to make comments addressing 9/11.”

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Dr. DeCuir is currently researching the experiences of Muslim American students, ages 12 to 21, in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia public schools. Early findings suggest that Muslim American students experience bullying and harassment during 9/11 commemorative classroom lessons. These results are in line with a broader 2020 Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) poll in which 51% of Muslim American families reported that their children experienced religious-based bullying in school, 30% of which involved a teacher or school official.

“The 9/11 lessons in school typically narrow the instructional focus to the details of the terrorist attacks, rather than the social and political impacts that followed,” DeCuir said.

Instead, DeCuir recommends a culturally responsive approach that can protect Muslim American students from becoming easy targets of bullying and harassment while these lessons are being taught in the classroom. She said that teachers should make sure to include stories of heroism, resilience, and service that emerged during 9/11 by many people, including Muslim Americans, immigrants, and other people of color. She also urges teachers to include the social and political impacts that followed 9/11, such as increasing hate crimes that targeted Muslim, Sikh, and Arab Americans; federal immigration and foreign policies that became linked to national security issues; and community multi-faith programs that helped foster increased awareness of others. She also recommends that teachers be prepared to provide social-emotional learning experiences that help all students process the complexity of emotions that emerge from 9/11 commemorations.

Sikh American students hold anti-bullying brochures in New York. Photo Credit: The Sikh Coalition

Sikh American students hold anti-bullying brochures in New York. Photograph courtesy of The Sikh Coalition

Equally important are the structural responses. “School leaders and teachers must be familiar with anti-bullying policies enacted at their state and district levels, and be prepared to utilize these policies should students report race and/or religious based bullying or harassment,” said DeCuir. And since one out of every three anti-Muslim bullying incidents involve teachers and school officials according to the 2020 Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) poll, “It is incumbent upon district leaders to provide antiracist training to school staff to disrupt this concerning reality.”

As for parents, DeCuir advises that they should respond meaningfully to questions or concerns their children have with relevant, age-appropriate content. She adds that parents should also help children and teens feel safe and secure in their surroundings when having these conversations.

Teaching with trigger warnings

When teaching about bullying and hate crimes, Sikh American advocates warn that teachers should be mindful that some students may have experienced bullying or hate crimes themselves, or may have seen the effects of bullying and hate crimes among their friends, families, or communities.

“[Teachers] should always give a trigger warning when hate crimes will be discussed in the classroom,” Pritpal Kaur, former Sikh Coalition Education Director, told the NewsHour. “And students should never be put on the spot and asked to share experiences of hate or discrimination, unless they come forward and wish to share themselves.”

READ MORE: Sikh Americans push for greater visibility, awareness against years of hate crimes, misunderstanding

A 2014 Sikh Coalition study found that 54 percent of all Sikh American children have experienced bullying and harassment in school, and 67 percent of Sikh American children who wear turbans have experienced bullying and harassment in schools, nearly double the national average. Twenty-one percent of Sikh American youth were bullied at least once a week, and 51 percent of Sikh American youth did not believe that school officials did enough to address school bullying and harassment.

During the 2017-18 school year, the Sikh Coalition received more legal intakes related to school bullying than in the previous two years combined, the legal team says. And while bullying cases dropped off during the pandemic, as many children were out of classroom instruction, “our legal team has seen them increasing once again now that in-person school has restarted for many,” it adds.

Advocates also warn that when discussing bullying and hate crimes against Sikh American students, teachers should be careful not to simply frame the abuse as a case of mistaken identity, but should also include issues of healing, community response, advocacy, and solidarity with other communities.

“The mistaken identity narrative is problematic when teaching about hate crimes because it implies that there is another community who should be targeted instead of Sikhs,” Kaur said. “It is true that the Sikh visual identity is conflated with the stereotypes of terrorists — but for those stereotypes to be dismantled, better religious literacy is required, and messages of solidarity that hate is not ok against any community need to be shared.”

Broadening the view

Experts say one way to dismantle stereotypes and to help students better understand their own experiences with bullying and harassment is to frame specific events like 9/11 within a larger view of U.S. history so that students can see their experiences within that greater context.

Richard Mui, who teaches advanced placement U.S. history at Canton High School in Canton, Michigan, told the NewsHour that he and some of his colleagues frame specific events like 9/11 within a larger conversation about terrorism. “What is terrorism, and who resorts to terrorist tactics, and things like that,” Mui said.

Lesson plans that Mui and his colleagues use to provide historical context include the 1920 Wall Street bombing in which a horse-drawn cart exploded in front of J.P. Morgan & Co. in downtown New York City, killing 38 people and injuring more than 300. The crime was never solved, but launched J. Edgar Hoover’s career, a fear of communism, and the targeting and deportation of many Italians, Russians, and Jews.

The deadliest school bombing in U.S. history was in 1927, in Bath, Michigan, killing 38 children and six adults. The bomber was an electrician and farmer who had fallen behind on his mortgage payments and blamed a new school tax for his financial troubles. And the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by anti-government militants Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured more than 650 people.

“Terrorists and terrorist attacks have been part of U.S. history,” Mui said. “So it’s not something new, it has been around with us. And when you look at it through that lens, then it’s different, the emphasis is not on the religion.”

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To help students who may be dealing with bullying and discrimination in their own lives, Mui said the U.S. history curriculum in his classroom frames the issue of discrimination within the broader history of immigration. His classes discuss the different waves of immigration that came to the U.S., the similarities and differences of the immigrant groups, and how America responded to each group, especially if the immigration waves came amid, or following a significant national political or economic downturn.

“We like to say, ‘Hey, we’re all equal,’ and ‘We’re all Americans,’ and things like that. But then when there’s competition for jobs, or people are dislocated from their jobs, there’s a tendency to look for scapegoats. And you can see that throughout history,” Mui said, noting how Irish, Italian, Mexican, and Asian Americans have all been demonized at different points in U.S. history.

Framing it this way, Mui said, shows students that there are forces beyond them. “And once you take that bigger picture,” Mui said, “You not only can see it happening, hopefully you can prevent it from happening next time.”

Although many of the issues that students encounter who are being bullied or harassed on the basis of race or religion have happened before in U.S. history, the problem is that many people do not know that history, especially in places where ethnic studies is not taught.

Michigan high school students in nonprofit organization American Citizens for Justice’s Youth Leadership Initiative conducting voter exit polling in Detroit on election day, November 2, 2021, as part of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s national Asian American Voter Survey, a non-partisan, voluntary, anonymous voter exit poll. Photographer Richard Mui.

Michigan high school students in nonprofit organization American Citizens for Justice’s Youth Leadership Initiative conducting voter exit polling in Detroit on election day, November 2, 2021, as part of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s national Asian American Voter Survey. Photographer Richard Mui.

Mui has long been the advisor for his school’s Asian Pacific American club and a Metro Detroit Asian American youth leadership initiative sponsored by American Citizens for Justice. During the summer of 2021, as incidents of anti-Asian American violence around the country spiked in response to COVID-19, Mui taught Michigan’s first virtual summer school course on Asian American and Pacific Islander History. Learning more history gives students room outside of the school curriculum to learn about their communities and transform that knowledge into political engagement – particularly as they begin to understand how long and deeply rooted their communities have been in the United States. This past Election Day, Mui took students in the Asian American youth leadership initiative to Detroit to conduct voter exit polling as part of that engagement effort.

Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang, the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature, and who happened to be in Mui’s Asian Pacific American Club when she was in high school, introduced and was instrumental in getting resolutions passed unanimously in Michigan’s Republican dominated legislature condemning anti-Asian hate and securing bipartisan support for money in the budget for know your rights outreach to the Asian American and other communities. She is currently proposing legislation similar to the TEAACH Act in Illinois that ensures that students in Michigan’s public schools learn Asian American history from kindergarten through grade 12.

“A number of folks are working on legislation related to teaching Asian American history and Latino history and Arab history and indigenous history and Black history in our schools,” Chang said. “Every single one of our children should be able to learn their history in our schools.”

Chang referred to her two young daughters, two and six years old, as her little motivators. “It truly is their future that I am fighting for every day,” Chang said at a fall fundraising event.

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“It’s really educating ourselves,” Mui said. “And then turn it into some kind of action. Okay, so now you have this knowledge. How can you begin to participate in the political process? What skills do you need to participate in terms of being able to articulate your viewpoint and advocate for yourself for whatever issues? To turn that into action? That’s the way democracy is structured. Those people that are engaged in organizing [and] voice their opinions, are the ones that are hopefully more likely to get what they want. Democracy, that’s the competition.”

Beginning the conversation early

Parents can begin building the foundation for these lessons and experiences early. “Adults often worry about introducing concepts like bullying, bias and racism to children,” Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of ‘The Good News About Bad Behavior’ and a certified parent educator, told the NewsHour. “They mistakenly think that by bringing up these issues, they will be ruining children’s innocence. The reality is that as early as age two and three, children notice racial and gender differences and begin to sort by category. This is when they absorb stereotypes and societal messages around skin color, disability, and gender, such as an alleged difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys and activities. Parents should know that you don’t teach prejudice by discussing its existence.”

Without parental input to balance societal stereotypes, Lewis warns that children of color may internalize a belief that they are inferior or bad, and children of all ages may display a preference for whiteness because white people tend to hold positions of power in the community and in the media.

“As with every difficult topic, we should meet children where they are,” Lewis said. “Rather than one ‘talk,’ this should be a series of conversations about race and bias over the course of their childhood. Ask open-ended questions and respond to children’s comments, rather than lecturing. The goal should be a discussion, not a soliloquy. Children mature at different rates, so it’s always important to share information only at the level that children can absorb.”

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Lewis suggests beginning with noticing and acknowledging differences among people and making the topic safe to discuss. At the preschool level, conversations can focus on diversity of appearance and culture, different foods and holidays, all with simple explanations. Help children appreciate their own culture and race, with stories of heroes and role models that resemble them, as well as stories from all cultures.

At the age of four or five, children may share negative comments they have hear, and they may share incidents of aggression or exclusion at school. However, at this age, other children are also learning about diversity, but may not have the capacity for nuance. “Don’t label other children as bullies or biased. See this as an opportunity for education,” Lewis said. “Advocate for your child at school, if needed, in collaboration with teachers. Maybe your child doesn’t like their hair, skin color or food of your culture. Don’t overreact. Accept their messy feelings. Ask questions about their perspective. Trust that over time, they will appreciate their heritage and be self-confident in their identity. Share stories of your own childhood and your family, in addition to heroes and role models, so they feel connected to their origins. Seek out stories of resistance and liberation in addition to those of oppression and bias.”

Discussions of bias should be as simple as possible at this age. Lewis suggests saying things like, “Some people believe that others are inferior because of their race or heritage. They’re wrong. We don’t believe that. Racism is when people oppress or harm other people because of their appearance. It’s wrong and we should speak against it when we see it.”

Katherine Reynolds Lewis speaks about parenting and her book “The Good News about Bad Behavior” at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2018. | Photograph courtesy of Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Katherine Reynolds Lewis speaks about parenting and her book “The Good News about Bad Behavior” at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C. on April 22, 2018. | Photograph courtesy of Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Rather than describing racism as something that happened in the past, in other communities, or is something that bad people do, she said that describing it as a mistaken idea that can be changed with advocacy and education gives children a positive way to feel a sense of agency.

Between ages six and eight, most children begin to understand nuance and can have more in-depth conversations about bias and racism. “They can understand more complex stories from your childhood and comprehend the difference between systemic racism or violence and more casual bias and everyday prejudice. Again, focus on what we can do to be anti-racist and stand up for ourselves, so there’s a positive action they can take,” Lewis said.

In the tween and teen years, Lewis recommends asking even more questions as children develop their own sense of moral compass and agency. “Support their efforts to make a difference,” Lewis said. “Encourage them to be an ally and to stand up for themselves. Role play situations they might encounter. Acknowledge that adults aren’t perfect. Model lifelong learning, as you also need to understand new aspects of diversity and difference, and language around them. The research on racial bias shows that it forms without any conscious effort, as we absorb messages from the world around us. It’s very difficult to disrupt bias, but the best path is to slow down our reactions and take intentional steps to be anti-racist.”

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Although some parents would prefer to prevent their children from learning about race, bias, and discrimination in America, parents of children of color or other marginalized groups do not have that luxury, and many students are hungry for content that reflects their experience and history. However these are complicated, evolving topics that could use a lifetime of attention.

“We should challenge ourselves to be lifelong learners, expose ourselves to lots of different groups, and acknowledge if we mess up in our actions or language and make amends,” Lewis said. “Parents play an important role in modeling this process, especially with our teenagers who may feel they know the ‘right’ words. Let them correct you. It leads to a worthwhile conversation about being able to learn and grow and admit if you’ve made a mistake.”