Evidence That It Works
In a recent study, researchers divided participants into two groups and gave each a different reading. One reading emphasized the distinctiveness of different groups with sentences like this: “Each group has its own talents, as well as its own problems, and acknowledging both these strengths and weaknesses, we validate the identity of each group and we recognize its existence and its importance to the social fabric.”
The other reading highlighted individual characteristics: “We must look beyond skin color and understand the person within, to see each person as an individual who is part of the larger group.”
The group that read the passage that emphasized group differences were more likely to report beliefs in race essentialism–that group membership determines innate qualities–than those who got the individual-oriented message. In other words, focusing on individuals helped the participants see people from different cultures as individuals, rather than as groups with essential characteristics.
Why Does It Matter?
Racial stereotyping comes from “essentialism”–the belief that membership in a racial group defines someone based on a range of characteristics, including their behavior. For example, many whites in the Jim Crow South falsely believed that skin color and race determined someone’s character, behavior, and intelligence.
In today’s society where divisions by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, and many other identities cause so much heartache, schools have an important role to play in bridging these divisions.
In addition to the long-term benefits of actual societal transformation, in the more immediate term, providing students a voice in how the school responds to differences can help cultivate a classroom and school climate where students feel greater safety and belonging.