Crunchy Conversations and Bigotry

Are you old enough to remember the inclusion of the first LGBT character in Soap? It was the role that was a breakout for Billy Crystal. That prime-time model of the telenovella has morphed into shows that are still relevant today, like The CW’s Jane the Virgin or Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  They are discussed today with friends over social media, at shared dinners, or in water cooler conversations for their ridiculous knockdowns of social stigmas, and their use of humor to draw attention to inequity.

What I remember about the content of the Soap show is minimal, but it was the focus of repeated public conversations regarding ‘what was appropriate on networks,’ ‘societal standards,’ and ‘sexual behavior.’  Now, some thirty years later, the idea of having a gay person in the family seems moot. This bigotry has been part of a public conversation, and we have learned from the exchange as a society.

That was an era, though, where adults often told young people what to believe, for a variety of religious, societal, and uninformed reasons. As an adolescent, I resented the implication that I wasn’t capable of figuring things out for myself.  At the same time, in an era that was pre-Internet, the access I had to information was certainly spotty.

Interestingly, I was reminded of this repeatedly this past month as our media conversations echoed with continued concerns of racism, xenophobic bigotry towards Syrians, and Muslims in general.  Here, the challenge is not the lack of information, but the whose perspective of the news that people hear. Even worse, it affects students here, now,in our classroom.  We see daily on social media  how some teachers and students this weekend will have to deal with the resulting climate.

Conflicting ideas often need unpacking and it takes a skilled facilitator to do it in a respectful manner.  Enter teacher leaders.

What is the best way to discuss such a critical topic if it comes up in your classroom? First, examine your own motives. Students may have overt bigotry in their own family or community.  At the very least, this is what one of my mentors would call a crunchy conversation.   As teachers, we must teach our students to have civil conversations about religion, our society’s successes and problems, our laws, and founding documents.

1.  Set ground rules for conversation.  Ask students to write down their claim on the topic (ensuring everyone has a voice); this may be a deeply held viewpoint, and they should not have to share it with you (it’s not a test). Focus the discussion about evidence. Shut down personal vindictive immediately.

2.  Ask questions rather than lecturing.  Nothing shuts down the free expression of ideas, in my opinion, than telling someone that you know the right answer. What is the root cause of this problem? How can we find out? What do we know about the culture we are discussing? Can you describe what a ________ looks like (Buddhist, Viking, extremist, Christian, racist, knitter, fill-in-the-blank)?  Is it necessary to agree with someone on all things in order to get along with them?

3.  Speak your truth carefully.  You are not an automaton, and you are a model for your students, but this is a discussion for them, rather than an appeal to your authority. Stick to the evidence that you believe is truthful, and dispel the misconceptions. Then stop.

4. Find the humor balance. These are tough conversations, and a giggle (like describing a Viking fan, or a knitting expert) may lighten the conversation. Sarcasm, however, is not a good tool to use in this discussion, as tempting as it might be (especially if you have just binge-watched one of the series above).

Cognitive dissonance. It’s the gift I am sharing with others this holiday season, as a way to reorder ideas.  For the sake of a civil society, I invite you to the same.