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Building Bridges, Not Walls

Simple interactions can change perspectives.

Ariel, the 11-year-old daughter of a friend, was riding the school bus in Northern Arizona when two Native American girls boarded the bus. A high school boy yelled, “Got off of here, this is a white bus.” Laughing, he turned to his friends and said, “Are y’all ready for Trump’s inauguration?” They joked that the bus was for “white people only” the whole way home. Ariel sat clenching her fists, not knowing what to say or do. This is hate.

The bus system had video footage, so the high school was able to deal directly to the students involved. The bus driver addressed everyone a few days after the incident about hate speech and appropriate language on the bus. Ariel’s parents talked openly about the incident. They helped her to think about ways that she might have responded at the time, and what she might say or do if she finds herself in similar situations.

Across the country, name-calling, hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise. The latest FBI report shows that hate crimes increased in 2015 with 5,850 incidents. The data from 2016 are expected to break these records, particularly for crimes directed at Muslims. Hate crimes and hate speech are motivated by a bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. Hate speech and harassment may not be illegal depending upon where it occurs, who is the target and whether it incites violent action. Nevertheless, hate speech aims to denigrate and intimidate its targets. It is important to report hate crimes to your local law enforcement and report hateful speech or harassment to local or national groups, such as #ReportHate, Muslim Advocates or Elle.

Many commentators argue that hate speech is on the rise because of political polarization and incivility during and since the 2016 election, especially in social media platforms like Twitter. Sorting out the political and social forces that contribute to hate speech and hate crimes is complicated. So what can we do to reduce it?

Parents and educators are urged to teach empathy — the ability to experience the feelings of others. Sympathy of compassion, i.e. understanding and caring about the feelings of others, often is an important first step that can lead to empathy. To develop empathy, children need to be able to identify their own emotional states, see what they have in common with other people, and put themselves in another’s shoes.

An important first step to compassion or empathy is to interact with people who are different than we are and to see them as human beings. Unfortunately, despite the diversity of the United States, most people interact with people who are similar in race, religion, ethnicity and social class. Our contact with people who are different is limited.

Students increasingly attend schools that are segregated by race and social class, according to a UCLA study. They found that enrollment in highly segregated nonwhite schools (zero to 10 percent white) more than tripled in the last 25 years, particularly affecting Latino and African American students.

Most Americans report that they know little (57 percent) or nothing (26 percent) about Islam; while many have seldom (26 percent) or never (36 percent) had a conversation with a Muslim.

Housing segregation persists. Most Black families live in predominantly Black neighborhoods and when they move, approximately two-thirds move to other mostly Black neighborhoods. Among whites, three-quarters move to primarily white neighborhoods.

Think about ways that you can step outside your comfort zone and interact with people who are different. Make an effort to meet, talk with and listen to people who are different. Seek people out at your workplace, neighborhood or school for coffee or a conservation. Join humanitarian and community-building efforts by volunteering to clean parks, erase graffiti, prepare meals, distribute food at food bank, sort donated clothing, work in a community garden or collect school supplies.

Simple interactions can change perspectives. In California, a young Muslim woman wearing a head scarf sits down in a movie theater; an elderly woman next to her says loudly to her husband, “Please God, don’t tell me she’s going to sit next to us.” The theater has assigned seats so neither woman can move. The elder woman has difficulty adjusting her seat. When the young Muslim reaches over to help, she is appalled. When she sees that the young woman is helping her, she is a little embarrassed and thanks her several times. The young Muslim woman believes the woman was “snapped into a reality of realizing that I am human.” “That is all I can really hope for. To reach out to people and shatter misconceptions. It is only through the power of human interaction that ‘the other’ becomes ‘we/us.'”

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