The Prejudiced Pig inside Your Mind, Part II: How to See Your Campers for Who They Are, Not What They Are

Christopher Thurber, PhD
May 2017

I used to roll my eyes at the mere mention of the word diversity. Four factors explained my defensive rejection of the topic. First, I resented the shortsighted practice of equating diversity with skin color. I’m proud of my English and Swedish heritage. Second, I rejected the possibility that I was prejudiced. As a clinical psychologist, I fancied myself radically empathic and accepting. Third, I felt embarrassed participating in multiculturalism workshops that kept highlighting my contemporary white, male privileges but neglecting my poor immigrant roots. And fourth, the prospect of living in a humorless world where everyone is constantly offended by something seemed like a cruel trap.

The fact that you’ve gotten to the beginning of paragraph two is a sign that you’re already a better person than I was when I first started working at camp. Keep reading. There’s more we can both learn, especially if one of my four historical truths was — or is — also one of yours.

You Are Not Bad

There are some overtly prejudiced people on the planet. None would make it past the hiring trinity of a criminal background check, triple reference checks, and skillful interview. Therefore, none of them will be working at a high-quality day camp or overnight camp this summer. Some event or experience might change them, but not a Camping Magazine article on implicit bias. That gives me the luxury of focusing on you, the well-intentioned youth leader who does not speak in slurs, unfairly judge, actively exclude, or seek to harm. You know that’s not you, so let’s move on. But move on to what?

A good place to start is recognizing that the point here is to celebrate what you — and every other member of your camp’s community — bring to the table. Another solid place to start is with some humility. Everyone has things to learn and room to improve. So now that your defenses are down, let me hit you with a sobering fact: We all see others in narrow, distorted ways — at least some of the time. And we all participate, unwittingly, in some institutional prejudice that makes life harder for some groups of people. Fortunately, your kind heart and open mind will guide you toward fair assessment and treatment of others.

Falling in Line

A certain degree of social conformity is part of being human. It’s comforting when others around us are doing the same thing. Try turning 180 degrees in a crowded elevator (or watch a YouTube video of this phenomenon as a warm-up). Immediately, the folks facing forward will begin to fidget uncomfortably, wondering, Should I also be facing the other direction? You, too, will feel super awkward. But at least you’ll know what’s going on: You are experiencing the uncomfortable side-effects of not conforming.

So we conform — but because of this innate tendency, we behave mindlessly. Did you ever sit down in a school auditorium, pull up the little desk, and discover that it’s constructed — like all the other little desks — for right-handed people? If you’re a righty, like me, you never noticed. It never mattered. But lefties noticed. It made taking notes and writing final exams in that auditorium uncomfortable. Some of them didn’t do as well because the lack of support for their writing arm caused a cramp or put them in a foul mood. What kind of architect or interior designer failed to include some lefty desks? The highly educated and compassionate kind. That is my point.

Mindlessness induced by conformity makes good people look bad. The truth is that they are decent people who simply never considered the institutional biases created by a privileged majority. In this case, the architects and interior designers were conforming to a standard practice of installing a flip-up desk chair designed for righties. They specified the units in their plans and materials lists without thinking that their mindless conformity to conventional design discriminated against a minority group in the population. There was no malice in their hearts; no explicit bias in their heads.

Discriminatory by Design

Consider what might exist at your camp that disadvantages a subset of youngsters or staff. For example, what about access to equipment and facilities? The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that the organization make reasonable accommodations, given the population you serve. That means that camps serving children who use wheelchairs must provide ramps into buildings, shower stalls with grab bars, sinks at the proper height, and so forth. Naturally, camps serving children without vision, hearing, or clotting factor must make different accommodations. Special needs camps know who they are and they do an amazing job upgrading and adapting equipment and facilities accordingly.

Does that mean that camps serving anatomically and neurologically typical kids do not need to make accommodations? Far from it. In fact, we all make accommodations every day that enable us to perform at our best. You put on sunglasses while driving or lifeguarding so you don’t have to squint, get a headache, smash into something, or fail to see a distressed swimmer. Sunglasses are an accommodation. You put on a waterproof layer when it’s raining so you don’t become uncomfortably wet or hypothermic. And although you may be able to walk just fine the moment you wake up, you still put on shoes to protect the soles of your feet, support your arches, and prevent puncture wounds. Clothing is an accommodation.

All accommodations — even the prosaic ones you never realized you made — are examples of sensitivity to individual needs. That sensitivity is the first step to eliminating bias. So now that you recognize your own sensitivity to yourself, get ready to extend it to others.

Bias Hide and Seek

Dial up your sensitivity and try spotting the implicit biases in these statements and questions, uttered by well-intentioned camp staff across North America.

  • What do your mom and dad do for work?
  • What’s your SnapChat name?
  • Who doesn’t love cheeseburgers?
  • How much do you get for allowance?
  • Where did you go for Christmas vacation?
  • Are you a Mets fan or a Yankees fan?
  • You’re headed to Harvard or something, right?
  • What is your favorite thing to order out?
  • Who is your favorite character in Game of Thrones?

In the May/June 2012 issue of Camping Magazine, I wrote an article called "Wanton Words" that you might want to check out online or in your camp’s library (Thurber, 2012). It explains how sexist, racist, and homophobic language creeps into our lexicons. But because none of the preceding questions contain such epithets, you can restrict your attention to the subtler discrimination at work. Becoming more aware is a powerful way to become a better youth leader. •

  • What do your mom and dad do for work? 
    • Assumptions: You have two parents; both parents are alive; you are in contact with both parents; you were raised by a heterosexual couple; at least one of your parents is employed. 
    • Who feels left out: Kids from single- parent families; kids with gay parents; kids who have little or no contact with one of their parents; kids on welfare; kids with one or more parent who is unemployed. 
    • Unbiased alternative: Whom do you live with? What do they do? 
  • What’s your SnapChat name?
    • Assumptions: You or your primary caregivers have enough disposable income to purchase a smartphone for you; your caregivers permit you to use social media, including one that commonly causes social strife. 
    • Who feels left out: Kids from low income families; kids whose parents have chosen not to purchase a smartphone for them; kids whose parents forbid the use of SnapChat.
    • Unbiased alternative: What do you like to do with your friends? How do you stay in touch? 
  • Who doesn’t love cheeseburgers? 
    • Assumptions: You are not an observant Jew; you eat beef; you would not be normal if you did not love this food; you can eat gluten and dairy. 
    • Who feels left out: Kids who keep kosher or at least observe some parameters of Jewish dietary customs; kids who are vegetarian, Hindu, or don’t eat beef for ethical or environmental reasons; kids who enjoy other food, perhaps with cultural significance.
    • Unbiased alternative: What are some of your favorite foods? 
  • Where did you go for Christmas vacation?
    • Assumptions: You are Christian; your family can afford to travel.
    • Who feels left out: Kids who do not celebrate Christmas; kids from families who do not travel on vacation, either for socioeconomic reasons or because a sibling or parent cannot travel easily.
    • Unbiased alternative: What did you do during school vacation?
  • Are you a Mets fan or a Yankees fan?
    • Assumptions: You care about and follow professional baseball; you must live in or near New York; you have a preference for one of these two teams
    • Who feels left out: Kids who don’t follow baseball; kids who follow no professional sports; kids who do not live in or near New York.
    • Unbiased alternative: What are some of your interests outside of school?
  • • You’re headed to Harvard or something, right?
    • Assumptions: Your appearance (e.g., Korean, Chinese, Indian) puts you in a category associated with high academic achievement; your apparent intelligence means that you want to go to an Ivy League university; your family income or financial aid package would cover expensive tuition. 
    • Who feels left out: Kids whose grades are average; kids whose ethnic peers may be high academic achievers but who are themselves not representative of that stereotype; bright kids who do not want to attend college or an Ivy League university; bright kids who cannot afford private college tuition.
    • Unbiased alternative: What are your plans after high school?
  • What is your favorite thing to order out on Friday night? 
    • Assumptions: Your family can afford to have food delivered to your home; your family has no religious obligations on Friday night; you don’t have to adhere to a special diet; you live within the delivery radius of one or more restaurants. 
    • Who feels left out: Kids whose families do not have the money to order out most of the time; kids whose families always cook at home; kids who live out in the country.
    • Unbiased alternative: Does your family have any weekend traditions? 
  • Who is your favorite character in Game of Thrones?
    • Assumptions: Your family has a television or other screen; your family has Internet or cable access; you are allowed to watch programs with violent and sexual content; you have time in your schedule to watch enough of some series that you have a favorite character; one of the series you watch is Game of Thrones.
    • Who feels left out: Kids whose families cannot afford a television, Internet, or cable; kids whose families chose to remove these devices from the home; kids who are not allowed to watch this content; kids who have other interests besides watching Game of Thrones, such as reading books. 
    • Unbiased alternative: What do you like to do in your free time?

If these examples all sounded foreign, take a minute to consider what you might ask a camper this summer that inadvertently discriminates against him or her. You might also think about which traditions at camp, such as those with a Native American motif, could make a camper feel uncomfortable.

The process of monitoring your biases will feel clunky and deliberate at first, but will soon become second nature. During my career in camping, I’ve witnessed thoughtful counselors and cabin leaders become less and less biased. More and more, our second natures are unprejudiced.

Of course, there is still much progress to be made. Just last summer, during my travels to various camps, I heard:

  • “All right guys, let’s get started!” Using “guys” is fine with an all-male group, but try “folks” or “friends” in mixed-gender groups. To further complicate things, don’t assume that youngsters born with boy parts identify as “guys.” Some are girls and vice versa.
  • “Nice hook shot. That’s sure to impress the ladies/sure to impress the boys!” Assuming a young person’s sexual orientation will make 5 to 10 percent of your campers feel abnormal. In addition, suggesting that athletic prowess has a romantic value may be true in some instances, but when has coaching campers on courtship rituals been part of a camp counselor’s job?
  • “You’re ripped!” or “You’re a hottie!” Comments that draw attention to a person’s body size, shape, or proportions are usually intended to be complimentary. However, campers whose bodies do not conform to a muscular or svelte norm may become uncomfortably self-conscious. Focus camper compliments on how they behave, what they create, and how they treat others.

Check Yourself Out

Uncovering implicit biases — those prejudices that operate outside of your awareness — begins with the humility to consider that not all your behavior is consciously controlled. (For proof of unconscious influences, read Part I of this article series in the March/April 2017 issue of Camping Magazine.) A valuable second step for all youth leaders is to write out a brief biography using the template below.

  1. Write your name. Describe the family importance, etymologic meaning, or ethnic significance of that name, if you know of any. What assumptions, if any, do people make about you based on your name?
  2. Describe your heritage, including the language(s) you speak and any family or ethnic traditions, holidays, and religious beliefs and rituals of importance to you. What level of understanding about your heritage do your friends have? What do people assume or not realize about you that makes you feel awkward or even offended?
  3. Describe your upbringing, with an emphasis on the style of your parents, teachers, and any coaches. In what ways did they shape any prejudices? What positive values did they instill?
  4. Describe the social and physical environments you grew up in, with an emphasis on your neighborhood, school, and home. How did those contexts contribute to your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions? If you are part of a team, club, fraternity, sorority, or other social group now, how is it shaping you?
  5. Describe your choice of media growing up and nowadays. What news, shows, games, papers, videos, and books do you look at? How have these media influenced your views of yourself, people like you, and people different from you? What messages do you currently consume about relationships, sex, friendships, and conflict resolution?

Who Not What

Armed with an understanding of unconscious bias and a refreshed biography, you’re ready to detect and improve your camp’s potential biases. You’re also primed to monitor your own thoughts, behaviors, and emotions for evidence that prejudice has infiltrated without your knowing. But holding back on an initial impulse to judge what somebody is will get you only halfway to a solution. What remains is for you to learn who somebody is. For that, I rely on the advice of Dr. Stanley Sue, one of my professors in graduate school.

Sue was teaching the basics of psychotherapy to our class of young PhD students. Other professors had covered diagnostic interviewing, rapport building, confidentiality, reporting laws, and a host of cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic techniques. Dr. Sue, who is clearly Asian, must be here to teach the lesson on diversity, I thought. At that moment, I had the defensive rejection reaction that I described in the first paragraph. I prayed we were not about to do some kind of shaming “diversity” ice-breaker.

But Sue surprised us all when he said, “My research is on multiculturalism. But I can’t teach you how to keep your biases at bay when you work with clients. To do that, I’d have to know who you are. And besides your names and where you did your undergraduate work, I know very little about each of you.” There was silence, during which the 17 students quietly tried to guess what we were supposed to say. We knew it was some kind of clever prompt, but we were all taken off guard.

My friend Dave Watt was brave enough to make an attempt: “Dr. Sue, can you at least give us some guidance about how we should approach Asian clients differently from, say, white or black clients?”

“Oh sure,” he said. “Before the first session, you should look at the intake form and read what your new client wrote in the box labeled ‘ethnicity.’ Then, quickly research as much as you can about that group.”

We all wrote down learn about ethnicity. Then, more silence. “What would that tell you about the person you’re about to meet with?” Sue asked. Again, silence.

“That’s right,” he continued. “Nothing. Nothing reliable anyway. Even if you had the time, no amount of general research would tell you about the unique individual sitting across from you.” Most of us surreptitiously drew a couple of lines through our first note. “But there is one thing you can do — one thing you must do. Just ask the client: ‘I see you define your ethnicity as so-and-so. What has been your experience in the world as a so-and-so?’”

Nothing dissolves prejudice better than understanding. So before you make assumptions about a white kid from a rich suburb or a black kid from the inner city, pull a Dr. Sue and simply ask, “What’s it been like to be a white kid growing up in New Canaan?” or “What’s it been like to be a black kid growing up on the south side of Chicago?” or “What’s been your experience as a Chinese boy living in Lawrence, Kansas?” or “What’s been your experience growing up in an Irish family on the Maine coast?”

Asking questions like these is testament to your interest, openness, and celebration of differences. And showing you care about the who, not the what, will motivate your campers to give you the best gift they could: their respect. Or you could not ask. Unconscious biases grow into explicit prejudices all by themselves.

Reference 

Thurber, C. (2012, May). Wanton words: Curbing verbal crudeness and cruelty at camp. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resourcelibrary/camping-magazine/wanton-words-curbingverbal-crudeness-cruelty-camp


Christopher Thurber, PhD, is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating and delivering original content to professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-wrote The Summer Camp Handbook, and crafted the ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD for new camper families. Contact him through his website, DrChrisThurber.com.