Talk therapy for racism

Eight Jewish teens beat a 17-year-old Arab boy almost to death in Jerusalem’s Zion Square on August 16.  This week, reports the New York Times, “The education minister instructed all junior high and high schools to conduct a lesson on the episode” as the new school year began. The educational response to the hate crime won’t “solve the problem” but it seems like one right response. What would a similar, pro-active response to racism — or bullying or homophobia — look like here? 

Many schools and teachers avoid tough topics like these. Discussion is tough. Sometimes racism and hate surface in the classroom. A 17-year-old Palestinian student described the discussion in his school on Monday:

Tamer attends an unusual school, one that seeks to bridge the Arab-Jewish divide. But on the first day of classes Monday, when his teacher opened a discussion about the attack, the smoldering anger and distrust came through, even there. “From the age of 5, they say, ‘Death to Arabs,’ ” he said.

When the teacher countered, recalling a film in which Palestinian children chanted, “Death to Israel, death to Jews,” Tamer appeared defeated. “There is no hope when you see things like that,” he said.

Hope comes from substituting communication for violence. The Teaching Tolerance project insists that race and racism are topics for the classroom, despite the difficulty. A 2009 article recommends that dialogue about race should start in the teacher-prep classroom, with “the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need,” rather than a nod to diversity focused on “food, folklore and festivals.”

Learning more, starting conversations

A couple of opportunities to learn more about fostering that discussion in the classroom are coming up, sponsored by MN-NAME, the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education,

A September 12 workshop features author James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Text Book Got Wrong, Lies Across America, Sundown Towns). On October 29, MN-NAME will hold its annual conference, with this year’s theme of Insisting on Equity: Everyday People Moving Theory into Practice and Sustainability. For more information on either event, email

Naming racism and hatred, homophobia and sexism, is crucial to the discussion. Last week, Anders Breivik was sentenced in Norway for killing 77 people in an anti-Muslim, anti-multicultural frenzy. He was found guilty and not insane. That suited survivor Tore Sinding Bekkedal, who was quoted by the New York Times: “I am relieved to see this verdict. The temptation for people to fob him off as a madman has gone.”

The lawyer for one of the teens charged in the beating in Jerusalem denied that racism was the motive. “‘I’m not sure that he could intelligently discuss the differences between right and left in Israeli politics,’ Mr. Bam said.”

As if intelligent discussion ever offered a basis for hate and racism.

Quite the contrary: intelligent discussion can be an antidote, can defang the dragons.

The city-wide One Minneapolis One Read (Spirit Car this year) is a step away from racism and toward reconciliation. Think how different Anoka-Hennepin school district would look to parents and students today if, instead of insisting that no homophobia or bullying caused anyone any harm, the district had opened the 2011-12 school year with a discussion of bullying in every single classroom.

It’s not too late.

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