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Never too early to teach about prejudice

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In an era in which division and “othering” are rife, topics like racism and equality can be difficult to discuss with children. Jews are no strangers to discrimination, but how can we broach the subject with our youngsters and ensure that they are sensitive to differences between people?

“The majority of children in our country are aware of differences between themselves and others and, due to our history, are particularly sensitive to differences in race,” says Catherine Boyd, the education manager at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

“While some children are more exposed to ideas and language around identity politics than previous generations, others aren’t able to articulate what they see and feel until they are encouraged and guided.”

Boyd, along with education officer Mduduzi Ntuli and educator Rene Pozniak, make up the education team at the centre, dealing with the subject of prejudice among youngsters. The centre runs an identity activity to help young people articulate their differences and perhaps even their prejudices.

“Of course, family culture is a dominant influence in what they think, but they are as vulnerable to hate speech as adults are,” says Boyd. “That hate speech can be equally reinforced by family, peer pressure, and acts of ‘othering’ they see around them.”

The fact that most Jewish youngsters attend almost exclusively Jewish schools can put them at something of a disadvantage, says Pozniak.

“There is no doubt that the pupils at an all-white, Jewish school lack the opportunity to interact with pupils from another cultural group,” she says. “As a result, this lack of diversity and the limited contact they do have [be it doing sport or any other extra mural] makes it unlikely for it to translate into a meaningful relationship.”

However, many pupils are aware of this gap, she says, shown by many programmes supported by pupils aimed at tikkun olam (repairing the world) like charity collections.

“There is no question that these pupils are familiar with the concepts of prejudice, stereotyping, marginalisation, and ‘othering’. Their in-depth learning about Jewish history, and especially the lessons still being gleaned from the Holocaust experience, have made them acutely aware of diversity and cultural differences,” Pozniak says.

The subject of equality is probably discussed more in schools than in the broader community, Pozniak says, pointing out that there have recently been attempts to correct this.

“The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has cautioned how important it is to be genuinely involved in the broader community, playing our part in healing our nation and being instrumental in it moving in a positive direction,” she says. “Various communal institutions have been vocal in their opposition to any display of discrimination, be it against the Jewish community or any other community.

“Degrees of awareness and subsequent involvement with the issue of equality depend on the generation you’re socialised in. Current school pupils are post-apartheid students, without any first-hand experience of the kind of racial discrimination experienced by their parents and grandparents. They haven’t been tainted by that experience, and are thus more comfortable with other cultures and racial groups, given the opportunity to interact.

“There is always room for improvement, and every opportunity should be sought to interact with as many different people as possible,” Pozniak says.

A good starting point for parents is to talk about their children’s own identities.

“Discuss how they think about themselves, their families, and their communities. In this way, they can begin to understand and appreciate that their own identities are multifaceted and fluid, and that if this is true for them – that they are not defined by a stereotype – then they are encouraged to see others as individuals with multifaceted identities.

“Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something that can be modelled, practised, and encouraged at home from an early age. This can be done by encouraging curiosity about others, developing communication and listening skills, and challenging prejudice and stereotypes.”

Such interaction can even be encouraged amongst younger children. This is the motivation behind Crayation Nation, a children’s book written by Asif Segal centred on a box of coloured pencils to explain that engaging with people, thoughts, or traditions which are different isn’t a bad thing.

“I tried to find a way to describe a situation in a way that children could relate to,” says Segal. “A box of crayons or pencils is colourful, has different uses for each one of the crayons or pencils, and if combined can create something new that wasn’t originally there.

“To children in general, race or colour makes absolutely no difference at all. It’s in later years once they have been exposed to the thoughts or attitude of the adults around them that the issue becomes more significant.

“I hope that by realising that a box of crayons or pencils has different characters in it, they can understand that they are all there to complement each other, just like in the world around us.”

Discussion between parents and children shouldn’t revolve around race, Segal stresses, pointing out that inequality or intolerance of difference isn’t only about race.

“It’s a worldwide problem that’s manifested in everything from bullying, gender, sexual orientation, tradition, religion, and life choices,” he says. “We should attempt to give children the tools to make the correct choices in life, to allow them not to judge at first sight but keep an open mind.”

Simone Kur, the book’s illustrator, says that discrimination is becoming more of an issue and believes that the book can make a difference to how parents and teachers approach the subject and teach its lessons.

“The world is still very backward when it comes to accepting different people,” she says. “It makes you realise that not everyone is that open-minded about accepting. It seems that now, under the pandemic, people are even less tolerant of each other and are quick to judge.”

Crayation Nation is aimed at teaching children not to judge too quickly when faced with an uncomfortable situation, and to take ideas from others.

“Developing tolerance and striving for equality isn’t just important for children, but it’s easier for them because they’re younger. If everyone took time to see how important it is not to judge others and be tolerant, we would all be a lot better off.”

  • ‘Crayation Nation’ is available on Takealot, at selected Exclusive Books stores, and from Farm Animal Publications.

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