The recent shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue has me thinking about when students express hate and what we can do about it. Specifically I remember my first year of teaching.
I was the social studies “department” at a small, rural, alternative education high school. The school and community were predominantly white. I had a student, we’ll call him Dave, who was at the school for burning a cross in an African-American family’s yard. I had a group of boys who had neo-Nazi tattoos and were vocal about their prejudice.
You can imagine my students’ excitement when in World History class I announced that our next unit would be on Israel and Judaism.
“I hate Jews,” said one of the boys.
“Really, what is a Jew?,” I asked. They couldn’t answer me. They had this anger and hatred toward a group of people that they couldn’t even define. It was so obvious that this was learned from some adult in their lives.
So I designed an activity for the computer lab the next day. We went to a website (no longer around) called famousjews.com or something like that. It listed hundreds of famous Jewish people in categories. I made a worksheet that asked them to list 5 famous musicians, actors, scientists, politicians, etc.
The students got to work copying down the names. They started getting into it and were excited to see names like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and David Lee Roth. They were genuinely enjoying the activity and openly admitting that they were fans.
I interrupted and said, “Remember, you hate all of these people.”
The room got silent. My point was made. Looking back, I wish I would have processed with them more about the source of their hate and what to do about it. But my personal takeaway was that we hate what we don’t know and understand. Part of the remedy is exposure to things outside of our bubble, which is why I am a big believer in young people traveling and studying abroad.
Back to Dave, the cross burner. I watched him become good friends with an African American girl in my class. They sat together and joked and truly developed a positive relationship. It was amazing to see and is a great example of why integration and truly knowing others can break down barriers of stereotypes, prejudice, and hate.