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How to normalize speaking up against bias

By Jessica Pierson Russo

We talked, my 10-year-old son and I, sitting on the floor of our kitchen. Tears pooled at our chins as he told me that a group of his peers had been telling each other racist jokes. “And mama, I didn’t do anything to stop it.” Our talk was deep and meaningful. I told him it was indeed wrong of him not to have said anything. But I didn’t condemn him for it.

“The important thing is, what will you do next time?” It was important to me that he didn't attach his inaction to his sense of being, or to that of the others. That kind of behavior is not native to a child. My message: "That is not who you are."

We talked about our country’s history of racism—something I’d been teaching him since age three. We talked about how differently each of us experience racism every day. We talked until I could see he felt himself again, this time armed with an experience he would learn from.

There’s a lot more to that story. I’m telling it now to drive home the importance of teaching children how to speak up when they see or experience a wrong. I could have done it sooner. Recently a colleague of mine sent me a wonderful guide from Teaching Tolerance, Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes. Its authors give simple, practical ways to prepare yourself and young people to confront bias. Here’s a summary.

In advance

  • Prepare yourself. Develop responses you would be comfortable saying so you’re ready when issues arise. Examples: That offends me; I don’t think that’s funny. Or ask questions such as, What do you mean by that? Why did you say that? As you do, think about potential risks. Sometimes there are consequences of speaking up that may include risks to physical safety. Thinking about these risks ahead of time can build your confidence and make you feel more prepared. Keep your goal in mind; be firm and confident in doing what you think is the right thing.
  • Prepare your youth. Help them develop their own language for responding to bias. Help them understand the context and history behind it. Develop a sense of caring and community in your program. Doing this goes a long way in preventing instances of bias in the first place. Model what you want to see in your youth.

In the moment

  • Basic strategies:
    • Interrupt. It’s important not to let an instance of bias pass by. Be consistent. Whatever else is going on can wait—this can’t.
    • Question. Ask questions to get the person to think about what they have said (What did you mean by that?) and the impact of their words. Watch your tone —if you put the person on the defensive, it will be hard to get them back.
    • Teach. Sometimes people say or do things without fully understanding the consequences. Instances of bias are good opportunities (especially given the educational context of youth programming) for teachable moments.
    • Echo. The more people speak up, the better. If someone else has already intervened, you still can too. This helps reinforce the message that it’s not OK.
  • Be aware of the power dynamic. If you’re in a position of authority, recognize the weight that your words and actions have. If you speak up against bias as a person in authority, people will notice. They’ll also notice if you stay silent. If you’re speaking to a peer, a parent or a visitor, your words will matter in a different way. Be aware who you are talking to and craft your response accordingly. The guide has many practical examples.
  • Assess your location. Where the bias happens matters. Consider the consequences of speaking up or not in various areas. For instance, in common areas, like a hallway, bias can thrive if no one does anything to combat it, and a culture of tolerating bias can be created. 

Teaching our youth to respond to bias and discrimination is one of the most important skills we can teach them. Back to my son’s story, fast forward to seventh grade. The assistant principal of his school called to let me know that a boy on my son’s bus had been spouting racist (more specifically, white supremacist-style) comments at other passengers, and my son told him to stop. She was calling me because in response, the boy had punched my son on the arm, but also because the other students said that he was the only one who’d stood up to this boy.

When I asked him about it later that day, he shrugged and said, “It wasn’t a big deal.” He had normalized "speaking up." In other words, why wouldn't he? In thinking it over, I realized, "That’s how it should be."

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. Thanks for the great resource! Speak Up At school to an educational environment, but I can think of bias-based experiences I've had every day in the workplace. It's very hard to think of something on the spot, and I can think of times after-the-fact where I have great ideas on what I wish I'd said.

    The idea of having ready responses that can work in a variety of situations is wonderful. Sometimes I've hear things that may possibly be unintentional by a colleague or board member, but I haven't known how to point out the situation. We've all been there. I like the idea of having questions that can be interjected..."What do you mean by that?" or "What point are you trying to make?". I think these types of questions draw attention to the situation, and can help the person speaking think a little more deeply about what they just said. Thanks Jessica!

    1. Thanks, Betsy. That questioning technique is very helpful. I think we've all had moments when we wished we'd said or done something. But I also think it's OK to come back to it at a later time if we don't get to it right in the moment. I did this once when looking at an apartment--the landlord said some pretty racist things about some of his tenants, and in the moment I wasn't quite sure what to do. But it bothered me that I didn't stand up to it. So as soon as I got home, I called him and told him I thought his comments were unprofessional, wrong, and made me feel as dehumanized as his tenants would probably feel if they'd heard him. He cussed me out. And I have no way of knowing if my phone call had any positive impact on him. But I know for sure that it gave me more confidence the next time I encountered something similar.

  2. Thank you Jessica for sharing your story and resources. Very inspiring! Through sharing experiences like yours, we can keep this conversation going with hope that we help to empower ourselves and the families and communities of MN and beyond!

    1. Thanks, Mary Jo. This particular story happened to have a happy (semi) resolution to it. But I have other stories, as I know others do, that didn't end as well. I learned valuable lessons from those experiences too. I just hope that in our youth work we can model storytelling as a way to help young people open up (see my previous post on storytelling!). Those experiences can bless instead of curse, if we make use of them by bringing out the practical lessons they teach.

  3. Jessica, there is no more important topic right now in youth development, because experiences of bias can get in the way of everything else we are trying to do. Thanks for sharing this practical and powerful resource, and also for sharing your one personal story. Our collective goal as educators should be to create environments that teach all young people how to stand up for one another's human dignity, and where everyone thinks it is "no big deal." Thank you!

  4. Jessica, thank you for sharing your personal story to help us learn about bias. This looks to be a great resource that I will explore farther. There have been moments in my past where I was guilty of not confronting offensive and inappropriate language targeted at specific audiences. By informing ourselves as parents and adults we can help teach youth how to deal with these situations. I commend you on the proactive approach you have taken with your family.


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