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How to counter youth hatred

By Jessica Pierson Russo

A recent study based on Southern Poverty Law Center data found there are 917 organized hate groups in the US. How is this significant to youth work? Put quite simply, because hatred is toxic. Toxic emotions such as hate and anger can lead to emotional and physical health problems. Specifically, race-related stress has shown to be a more powerful risk factor than stressful life events, and hating as a response to being hated often leads to lower self-esteem.

A report that came out last year shows that race relations have gotten only slightly better overall, and in some cases things have gotten worse or stayed the same, in the last 50 years.  Divisions between races and cultures breed uncertainty and lack of trust, which lead to fear, anger, and finally hatred.

What youth learn at home is so powerful that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do much about it. But there is a lot we can and should do, because silence on the subject can be just as impactful as overt racial hatred learned at home.

Give early direct instruction and education

Research on the psychology of hatred shows that the more educated you are, the less likely you are to develop extreme prejudice towards others or yourself. That’s because education tends to help people think critically.

Another study showed that direct instruction aids in reducing the effects of stigmatization for children age 3-6, but older children respond better to experience. To put it another way, very young children will likely take your word for it that they are worthy despite actions by others that say otherwise; an older child will believe it when they experience it themselves. It's also important to note that what we learn as very young children about prejudice forms the building blocks for our later experiences. So the earlier we receive a solid, healthy foundation, the less we will struggle later on.

Help youth build cultural awareness and cooperative values


Race is not culture, but in the US, they are hard to separate. This is because the tendency towards racial segregation in our country results in racial groups forming their own identity. For children to make healthy sense of this complexity, we must help them build awareness of their own and others’ cultures. There are differences in how minority youth and majority youth develop a sense of racial and cultural identity. But all need the space to explore these identities in order to avoid making the harmful assumptions about themselves and others that tend to perpetuate racial and cultural inequity.

As youth become more culturally aware, they should also learn the value of cooperation—how to react when things are unfamiliar and scary. We can’t control the actions or attitudes of others, but we can influence them in a positive direction. Teaching young people about effects of discrimination, as well as the value of standing up to it, will help them stand on the right side of the issue.

Provide meaningful experience with difference

Once youth have built a foundation of cultural awareness, they need a way to live out these foundations in the form of MEANINGFUL experiences with others who are different from them. One specific, well-documented way to reduce discrimination is to provide meaningful opportunity for cross-cultural engagement. But the word "meaningful" is key. You can’t throw kids in a room and expect all their stereotypes to just go away. A poorly planned cross-cultural experience can actually reinforce stereotypes. The experience should help the various groups truly get to know and respect each other. For this reason, it’s vital that during the experience, the different groups are treated equally in a cooperative, rather than competitive, environment.

How can we build these solutions into our youth programming? Is your organization in a place where it could support you in this effort and be part of it? What can it look like for youth to lead us in this challenge?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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Comments

  1. Your point about cross cultural experiences reinforcing stereotypes really resonates with me. When I was a youth director, we took mission trips every year to various places across the country and Mexico. It was important for youth to experience first-hand the culture of each place, but not let that experience reinforce stereotypes. One of the ways I tried to help intervene was to build relationships with people in each place that lasted beyond our week-long experience so that myself and our youth groups could continue to connect even after we had left. Relationships seem to be such a key factor in combating so many forms of discrimination and hatred...go figure. I think that is one thing we do well in 4-H, and what helps our youth me more open minded.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Joe. I like the approach you took with the mission trips. Those in-and-out experiences tend to lose their potency if we don't make the effort to dig into them. Focusing on the relationship-building was a smart way to go.

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  2. Thanks Jess, I found the article "Knowing where we belong" really helpful to consider identity development from different lenses. I appreciate your idea around "starting young" as we as youth organizations can build off the early openness that young children have around difference. (Also interesting to me with my STEM education lens, to think about a similar "phenomenon" that young children are natural scientists and as they enter school-age years it is important to build on this natural state of identity, and for us to build on this perhaps more natural understanding of cultural identity/acceptance from a young age as well...hmmm...). I do think in 4-H we have wonderful opportunities for young people to build on-going relationships with others and to work together with others...and thus experience the relationships that help combat many aspects of discrimination or fear.

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    1. Thanks, Anne. I do agree that some 4-H experiences lend themselves very well to that relationship building, but there are other experiences (such as those one-time events) that can miss the mark in terms of providing meaningful encounters. Fortunately, I see my colleagues working on this very issue, and I've seen evidence of those shorter-term experiences improving as a result. That's a good point about the natural curiosity of younger youth. Because they take things so literally (as a result of thinking in concrete rather than abstract terms), it's actually a beautiful opportunity to help build a positive foundation of identity.

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  3. Jess, you are right that this is such a critical area for us as youth development professionals. I have seen really powerful impacts in cross-cultural experiences that are done intentionally and planfully, such as through our Cultural Exchange model that uses WeConnect to help prepare youth for meaningful interactions. If not done intentionally, that cross-cultural contact can indeed reinforce stereotypes. We want to be opening up possibilities and complexity, asking youth thoughtful questions, and challenging them to plumb their own experiences for deeper understanding.

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    1. Kathryn, I love the image of "plumbing" our experiences for deeper understanding. It implies both effort and persistence--a little like plunging a toilet (sorry for the gross metaphor, but sometimes an icky process has a beautiful outcome).

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  4. Thank you for the insightful information. One of the themes that resonates with me is in 4-H how we should create an immediate sense of belonging through meaningful experiences when youth engage with the program. In 4-H, we strive to bring youth from a variety of backgrounds together to learn and grow with caring adults and one another. My question is, are we equipping our adult volunteers with the right training's and tools to provide MEANINGFUL experiences that avoid reinforcing stereotypes? Have you had experience with this?

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    1. Thanks, Michael, for your question. Training just any volunteers on this subject can be a bit hit or miss. I think it's more important to get the right people for the job. If we have specific expectations about how an event or other experience should go, we should absolutely train them, and we should at least be there to support. If we don't feel we can rely on those volunteers to ensure the experience is meaningful in the way I describe, then the burden should fall on staff. Of course, staff should have that training too. All that said, we want to be careful that we're not using a lack of experience or training as an excuse to avoid the hard work of making it happen.

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  5. Thanks for sharing these article really useful. Education plays important role here.

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