Teaching Students Racism

Last week my wife told me about an insane case in which a Texas high school had an annual tradition of teaching students about Nazism in the stupidest way possible – by having half of the students be Nazis, and half of them Jews. From the article:

The students playing Jews wear red ribbons. “[Red ribbon students] must do everything school faculty or other students tell them to, including picking up other students’ trash, being taken outside and sprayed with water hoses, bear-crawling across the hot track, carrying other students’ books, and even carrying other students,” says the suit, filed in federal court by Andrew Yara, 19. “Engaging in this exercise was compulsory, with it constituting 60 percent of a major test grade for students in their World History Class, and any student who did not do everything they were told were receive a failing grade.”

This is some insane shit. Giving one group of high school students unrestricted power over another group of high school students is ludicrous, and all it does – besides exacerbating bullying and other problems – is teach students to be assholes.

When I first heard about this, my mind went straight to Jane Elliott’s work in Riceville, Iowa in 1968. You might know her as the third grade teacher that split up her students based on eye color and treated them differently. She began by explaining to her students that blue-eyed people were smarter, cleaner, punctual, and more determined than brown-eyed students, and therefore deserved snacks, extra recess, and sitting up front in class. She noted the sudden divide between students as bullying occurred on the playground and grades rose and fell for the two groups. The next day, she reversed the roles and the third graders immediately swapped places, with grades and attitudes rising and falling according to eye color. The result was a particularly telling example of how prejudice can affect people, with a side of controversial treatment of children.

Elliott’s exercise isn’t without criticisms, and rightly so. It’s worth noting that treating children in such a way can lead to some sorts of trauma through emotional abuse (on which I’m no expert). Telling a third grader, “of course your homework is late, you have blue eyes” will probably have some sort of effect. As this paper (pdf) shows, while most of her students remember the two day experiment as beneficial and life-changing, albeit humiliating at the time, some are hesitant when thinking about whether or not to put their children through the same lesson. Whether you agree with her tactics, the strategy is clear: show all students what it’s like to be mistreated, and they will learn what it feels like to be judged based on their appearance, then they should spend the rest of their lives trying not to be racist.

Compared to Elliott’s exercise, the Perryton High School exercise goes farther in demoralizing students and submitting them to abuse, and I’m curious as to what sort of post-exercise lesson the students undergo. Giving students two days to treat peers as slaves is very different from a supervised two tier classroom setting, and Red Ribbon Days seem to not really do much teaching. News articles don’t point to any positives of the lesson whatsoever; there’s little supervision, some actions cause bodily harm (which has led to the current uproar, after a lawsuit was filed when a student was forced to carry another student almost double his weight), students don’t share both experiences, and the actual lesson doesn’t even address the core curriculum of teaching the Holocaust. It’s controversial and it’s dangerous. It’s also bad teaching.