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Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bias and Bullying

I'm a few weeks overdue with this post...my apologies!

October 14, during the PNAIS Fall Educators' Conference, I had the opportunity to attend a "Bias and Bullying" session led by Rosetta Lee of the Seattle Girls School. Given the work we do with kids around digital citizenship, my personal interest in bias and messages in the media, and as a representative of our school's Diversity Committee, I really wanted to hear her speak. I was not disappointed! Links to Rosetta Lee and the break-out session contain all of her many resources, so I would encourage you to follow them. I don't plan to hash out her entire presentation, mostly because I don't think I can, but I will bring attention to a few key things that I thought were important enough to write down, though my attention was much more on participating than note-taking. Overall, the goal of the session was to help us see bias in our everyday interactions with each other, learn where the cycles of bias come from, and how to address bias and bullying when we see it.

Thing 1
Bullying and bias are closely interrelated. Check out the slides at the beginning of the presentation that show the cycles of systematic oppression (slides 5 & 6). Ms. Lee talked us through slide 5, where "stereotypes become prejudice, prejudice becomes discrimination, discrimination becomes oppression, and oppression becomes internalized oppression" using gender bias as a model. I didn't write down every stage of the cycle (kicking myself now, I was too busy nodding my head and thinking, "THAT sounds familiar!"), but we arrived at systematic oppression with the example of a study showing how men and women are promoted for jobs. Men, it was found, were promoted on the PROMISE of greatness, where women were promoted on the PROOF of greatness. What began as a stereotype of "men are more suited to _____ profession," became an institutionalized policy of promotion inequality. That becomes internalized when women don't even bother trying to get promotions because they don't think they'll get them anyway. I'm oversimplifying here, and perhaps completely botching the story, but that's the gist of it.

The cycle of bullying is much the same, with social capital and power as the centerpiece. "Bullying is about limiting a person's potential and choice in the world," Ms. Lee said.  It's about power and influence.

Jump ahead quickly to slide 9 where Ms. Lee references the 15-15-70 dynamic. Fifteen percent of all people believe stereotypes are true, 15% don't ever believe them, and 70% are on the fence, and will most likely follow those who are the loudest. The largest group, in the middle, has the potential to have the most influence, power or voice, but we tend to follow the 15% on the extremes because they make more noise and draw more attention.

Apply this same dynamic to bullying by looking at bullies, victims, and bystanders. Rosetta Lee uses the terms agent, target, and ally, which I love and am completely borrowing from now on. A full 85% live in the bystander/ally camp, yet many of our anti-bullying campaigns focus on the agent and the target. We already know this isn't very effective because it requires that kids see themselves as mean, or conversely, as powerless. And they just won't go there. In the 15-15-70 dynamic, once again, the largest group has the potential to be the loudest voice and effect real change, so that should naturally be where our focus lies, rather than addressing the bully or victim all the time.  Programs or discussions that empower the bystanders stand a great chance of being successful.

This doesn't mean that change is easy or will be pain-free, but a substantial group of people have the "opportunity to cut a new path." (She used a brilliant carving-a-new-path-through-the-brush metaphor here...following the existing path [of least resistance] is easy, and the first time cutting a new path you're going to get scratched up, but you have the opportunity to find a better way.) Imagine if the 85% felt empowered to find that better path, and had the influence really get it done. The culture of a school, or any group for that matter, could change to one of caring and acceptance, clearly sending a message that negative, mean behaviors are not tolerated.

Thing 2
Sam and I recently talked about the power of words with students, sharing with them some findings from an MTV/AP Poll about slurs online. Kids often use derogatory remarks around their friends because there is a culture of acceptance around those who know each other well.
When the question is asked broadly, half of young people say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it's OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because "I know we don't mean it." And they don't worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble. (Seattle Times, 9/20/11)
During Rosetta Lee's session, we had time to participate in two different activities, "Who's on the Inside/Outside?" and "Have You Heard? Put-Downs and Isms." Wish I'd had the put-downs and isms activity when we were talking to students back in September. I'd like to try it out in the future, as it went right along with the discussion of offensive language online. First, we were asked to make a list of the slurs we had heard recently, and I must say my ears were opened to few new ones I hadn't heard before. Yikes. Second, we were asked to try to identify the "ism" to which the slur related. For example, "that's so ghetto" reflects racism; "that's so gay" -- heterosexism; "that's retarded" -- ableism; "stop being such a girl" -- sexism. The put downs are connected to these societal isms, and whether you mean it or not, these words have power, and they help perpetuate the stereotypes. If you're wondering just how powerful the words can be, Ms. Lee suggests you insert your own name in there instead of the put-down. "That's so Holly," or "you're being such a Holly," or "you look like such a Holly," said with the same inflection as these put-downs, doesn't sound so nice and starts to hurt. If we don't challenge the societal norms, things stay the same. So what is a kid/teen to do? Ms. Lee's advice:
  1. describe the behavior
  2. tell them how it made you feel
  3. request a different outcome
This is extremely hard to do in reality, but modeling and practicing "When you _____, I felt ____" could help.  In our discussions with kids, we've asked the questions as if kids are giving advice to someone else. What would you tell a friend in this situation? What would you do if you saw something like this [bullying] happening to someone else? This starts the conversation, however, it's much harder to find the words when it's happening directly to you and your feelings have been crushed. Do I have the strength to say something? If I ignore it, will it just go away? Will it get worse? "When you _____, I felt ____" could be used as an actual script, giving kids the words they need to help themselves out of a situation.

Carving the new path might lead to a few scrapes and bruises the first few times, but if enough people follow (and there are 70-85% who might!), it becomes the new path of least resistance, and behaviors can change.

Thing 3
On October 20th, the Oprah Winfrey Network aired "Miss Representation," a new documentary  recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival. The trailer contains some rather graphic images, so I've linked to it rather than embedding it here. As a mother of two young girls I am very concerned about messages the media are sending to/about women. Having spent time in Rosetta Lee's session, and having felt and observed the impact of gender bias myself, I plan to see the film and digest the message it sends. I'm no film critic, but I'll happily share my review here. Have you already seen it? Share your thoughts, please!

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