A Conversation about Stereotypes and Perceptions

by Nita V., Community Gathering Committee Co-chair 2017-18
Last week, the Parents Association and the Community Gathering Committee hosted an evening at St. Bernard’s with a conversation focused on stereotypes and perceptions.  Panelists discussed how and why stereotypes start.  They explored whether there are any positives to having stereotypes and, most importantly, how to talk to our children about the stereotypes and perceptions others may hold. 
The event was moderated by current St. Bernard’s parent Tanya W., who began the evening asking the audience to participate in a six question electronic survey.  The questions focused on race, religion, and how parents discuss prejudice with their children.  After completing the survey, Tanya discussed the results with the panelists:  former St. Bernard’s parents, Perri Peltz and Suzanne Oliver, and clinical psychologist Dr. L. Susan Branche.

On the topic of discussing prejudice, the results showed that 52% of the audience had spoken with their children about prejudice during their preschool years.  Dr. Branche thought that was a very positive sign since prejudice and stereotyping come from fear and unfamiliarity.  By speaking with your children at an early age, you help lessen their fears and unfamiliarity.  She also felt it was beneficial that parents give their children a voice before they get to the critical development ages of thirteen to twenty-five.  Additionally, she emphasized that parents should strive to be approachable and to let children know that they can ask any question without judgment or ridicule.  Children learn through parent modeling, direct teaching, and trial and error.
The discussion also focused on the panelists themselves and their insights into perceptions and stereotypes.  Perri was the first to speak and introduced herself with a thought-provoking and eye-opening clip from her op-doc, A Conversation about Growing up Black.  The clip showcased a group of African American boys discussing racism and how racism has impacted their lives and their families’ lives.   Perri spoke of her desire to create the documentary after realizing that her fellow director was going to have to go home that evening and speak to her African American son about how he should interact with the police.  When her co-director mentioned going home to have “the talk” with her sons, Perri thought it was something simple like the birds and the bees talk, never realizing that it was something so serious and a topic that, as a white family, she would never have to worry about or discuss with her children.   When asked by an audience member how she was able to get the boys to participate, she said that the boys wanted to talk about stereotypes and felt the opportunity to let their voices be heard was empowering.

Panelist Suzanne Oliver, next spoke on co-authoring the book, The Faith Club, with a Jewish mother and a Muslim mother she met after 9/11.  The book details stereotypes and perceptions that surround religions and those that each mother held about the other’s faith.  Suzanne read a powerful excerpt from her book detailing a story she was writing about from the bible.  Suzanne commented that she had taken every precaution to choose a story from the bible that would be acceptable to her Jewish co-author, however, despite her careful planning, the story she picked was still offensive to her Jewish co-author.  As she was not of the Jewish faith, she could not have truly known what would be offensive and what would not.  She further revealed to the audience that there were several times that the three almost stopped writing the book because of the preconceived stereotypes the other had.  In the end however, the three learned a great deal and their book has helped many to open their eyes to the preconceived stereotypes they hold regarding other religions.

Tanya concluded the discussion by asking the panelists if there were any positive stereotypes.  Dr. Branche conveyed to the audience that positive stereotypes can also become negative.  For example, children should not feel pressure to live up to cultural stereotypes.  Her advice was to create opportunities to expose children to other cultures, such as visiting a house of worship of another religion, and also to let children come up with their own way of handling stereotypes as they come up.

After a brief question and answer, the panelists concluded with their final thoughts.  Perri hopes that the stories she tells about stereotypes and prejudice will start a dialogue.  Suzanne hopes people will talk to each other, reach out to each other, and understand that you never know what others are experiencing if you do not have open conversations and a continued dialogue.  Dr. Branche emphasized the need for parents to be approachable parents and to have open conversations with their children.

Many thanks to the moderator and panelists, Tanya W., Perri Peltz, Suzanne Oliver, and Dr. Branche.  Special thanks to Pilar C. and Nadine Thomas, co-organizers of the event, Reemah S., and the Community Gathering Committee.