Interrupting Isms: What to Do if Campers Say or Do Something "-Ist"

Ann Gillard, PhD
May 2019

“The time is always right to do right.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

My group of 14- and 15-year-old campers were walking back to the cabin after the afternoon activity. They were spread out along the path, with a couple of girls in front, a larger group ten feet behind, and the counselors bringing up the rear. The group in the middle started talking about one of the girls in the front group, who couldn’t hear what was being said behind her.

“I wonder when she’s going to come out.”

“Yeah, she should just come out already!”

I froze. What should I do? Should I tell them to stop talking about people behind their backs? Should I join in and speculate on this camper’s sexual orientation? Were they being mean-spirited? In the end, I did nothing except stay alert for the remainder of the session, watching to see if the group excluded the camper or demonstrated any antigay attitudes or behaviors. It turned out there were none.

Each summer, many counselors are faced with situations like this, when they aren’t sure how to respond when campers do or say things that might demonstrate racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, nativism, or other kinds of isms. Given the incredible responsibility involved in making sure other people’s children are safe and having fun, it’s stressful to add worrying about isms to the mix. We all know camp is a place for children and young adults to meet others from different backgrounds and cultures and to come together through the shared love of camp. We also know about the powerful socializing messages they receive at home, school, and in their neighborhoods. Our campers are bombarded with messages about who counts and who doesn’t from the very start of their lives — and campers don’t leave negative attitudes and prejudices at the camp gate. Sometimes they repeat what they hear at home or in the media. And when they do, there are consequences for members of the groups being targeted, whether they’re in the room or not. At best, people from targeted groups can feel like they count less; at worst, they can feel the heat of abuse and/or exclusion. When that happens, counselors have the responsibility to respond.

You might not have thought much about isms yourself. Or maybe you have, but you’re not sure how to address these issues in the workplace or with campers. But you know you want to do the right thing to help all campers have a safe and enjoyable time at camp. Your goals are to:

  1. Stop people from being hurt by an ism.
  2. Educate campers on the consequences of their words and actions to lift up us all.
  3. Tap into universally accepted ideas among children and young people about fairness.

So, what’s the secret to responding in the moment? Cultivate curiosity rather than judgement.

Let me explain. When you identify a potential ism, be curious and ask questions of the camper about their intent: What do they think their words or actions meant? What do they think people might think they mean? If you respond to a hurtful, abusive, or exclusionary comment with judgment, your campers will immediately pick up on it and shut down. Drop your judgments (“OMG, that camper just said something racist!”). Cultivate curiosity instead (“I wonder if that camper understands what that word really means.”).

Strategies to Deal with Isms

What are some strategies to deal with isms? Let’s break it into three parts: before an incident, during an incident, and after an incident.

Before

  • Work with campers to make an inclusive and affirming “cabin constitution,” or a group agreement. These rules, designed by campers (for more buy-in), should expand what is meant by “respect each other,” such as “no isms!”
  • Find out your camp’s policy regarding inclusion and equity. Are these values shared in communications with campers, camper parents, and staff?
  • Model respectful language. Don’t use language that demeans groups of people based on their social identities. Watch your body language when people from groups different from you are speaking or leading. Are you listening intently or rolling your eyes?
  • Value differences. If a camper has a hobby or interest that is outside of the typical hobbies of kids that age, affirm it: “Isn’t it cool how we all can be ourselves at camp?” Something campers across the country point to as one of the most important aspects of camp to them is that, at camp, they can be themselves. By valuing differences, you are tapping into that commonly held value and extending it to everyone at camp.

During

  • Ensure safety for the targeted camper. Offer comfort. Take the camper aside if necessary. Give them your attention. Bring in another staff member or trusted camper if that helps. Do whatever is needed to help the camper feel safe again.
  • How you model these interactions says much more about your leadership and trust than mere words ever could. Campers are always listening and watching. The way you handle an incident is an important message to everyone who witnesses it. Your response shows that camp is a safe space. Likewise, if you ignore the incident, your inaction speaks volumes, and the problems will most assuredly snowball.
  • You have options. Do you want to say something in the moment? Do you want to pull the camper aside for a conversation? Is it better to wait to have a conversation later? Do you want to get more information before responding? The key here is to respond rather than react.
  • Think of ways to question the offending camper, and do it with genuine curiosity: What does that word mean to them? Were they saying that to be mean? What do they think that other person thinks about them using that word? Remain nonjudgmental — campers will know when you’re judging them. Be open to their answers. Their responses might not be what you expect.
  • If a camper says, “Kids say that at home all the time!” Or, “My parents use that word at home!” refrain from making a judgmental statement in response. I have found it helpful to say something like, “What you do at home or what your parents say at home is your/their business. Here at camp, we don’t say that because it is hurtful to the people here.”
  • Be aware that some campers may not realize the pain they are inflicting on others. A phrase I like to use is, “I wouldn’t want people here to get the wrong idea about you. They might think you are a bully, which would be too bad, because I know you’re a great kid.”

After

  • Consider what to say to the targeted camper. “I heard what that camper said, and I want you to know that’s not OK here!” “Has that happened to you here before?” “I’ll speak to the camper about it myself.” “Is there anything else I can do to help you feel safe here?”
  • Consider what to say to the targeting camper. In the brilliant and quick YouTube video “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” (youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc), Jay Smooth (2008) suggests calling attention to the action and the consequence, not the person saying it. “That sounded racist,” rather than “You’re a racist.”
  • Consider what to say to the group. Maybe the rest of the group was not aware of the incident, so you don’t want to create unnecessary drama. But if the group did witness the incident, you can revisit your cabin constitution or group agreements with campers to see how they’re doing and if anything needs to be added.

Scenarios

Let’s apply these ideas to some scenarios:

  1. One morning, your camper puts on a T-shirt with a political slogan that demeans immigrants.
    • Before: Refer to the camp’s policies on inclusion and to your cabin agreements. Think about how you model respectful language and value differences.
    • During: You should probably involve your camp director in your response. Something you could say is, “Your political beliefs are your business. When you wear something that affects other people in this camp, it becomes my business. I need to make camp a safe place for everyone. You may not realize it, but when you wear that T-shirt, it offends other people here at camp, so you cannot wear it here.”
    • After: Be alert for evidence of attitudes or behaviors that reflect overt political slogans that demean others.
  2. In your unit, a group of eight white campers only hang out with each other and leave out the other two campers, who are black.
    • Before: Consult your cabin constitution or group agreements about including others. Reflect on how you have allowed campers to choose their own teams or activities, or how you’ve modeled getting to know other people, such as ensuring you spread out your attention across all campers in your unit over the course of the day.
    • During: Check in with the excluded campers, but be prepared that they might deflect the issue as a strategy of protection. Check in with the larger group to see if there is a clear reason they are excluding the other campers. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding in your unit.
    • After: Create games and problem-solving challenges that require the involvement of all campers and many opportunities for small, mixed groups to form connections.
  3. You overhear boys on the basketball court sneeringly say, “Nice job, f-g,” after another boy misses a basket.
    • Before: Consider your cabin’s group agreements and your camp’s policies. Is this the first time you’re hearing this word used in this way with this group? Do you think the campers know what this word means and intend to use it as an insult, or are campers ignorant about the meaning of this word?
    • During: Stop playing and bring the group together. If you think campers know what the word means, you could say something like, “It sounded to me like you used that word as an insult. You might not realize that, for gay people, the word has a lot of pain and suffering tied to it. At this camp, we don’t use hurtful words or put down others because of who they are. Don’t use that word again.”
    • After: Consider revising your cabin’s group agreements. Be alert for other language used to demean people based on their gender or sexual orientation, and interrupt every instance. If you have any campers who have identified themselves to you as gay, check in with them to see how they’re doing and if they need support or have any suggestions on how to make things better.

Your Responsibility

What you can do now:

  1. Self-reflect. Educate yourself about issues facing marginalized groups. Recognize how you yourself might be perceived by someone from another group. Think about the campers you will be caring for and what groups they might belong to. Notice your own biases toward different people, and remember that camp is a welcoming place for all campers.
  2. Become aware of biases toward other groups with the intention of interrupting behaviors that are harmful to others.
  3. Consider yourself an important adult role model for campers. That role comes with the duty to stop destructive isms and make camp a safe place for everyone.
  4. Among the many other responsibilities you have this summer for creating safe, fun, and life-changing experiences for campers, remember your responsibility to interrupt isms. While this can feel nerve-wracking, doing so can have powerful repercussions for inclusion and equity everywhere.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think you have any biases toward groups of people different than you? Why or why not?
  • What isms do you think could potentially be issues among your campers?
  • What’s one thing you can do today to learn more about the issues that marginalized groups face?

Reference

Smooth, J. (2008). How to tell someone they sound racist. YouTube. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

Ann Gillard, PhD, has worked in youth development and camps for more than 25 years as a staff member, volunteer, evaluator, and researcher. Ann also organizes Camping Magazine’s Social Justice Series. If you would like to propose an article for the Social Justice Series, contact Ann at anngillard@gmail.com.