“How much is a taxi to the airport? I have to pay it myself. My school doesn’t give me a per diem.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Why not?”
“It’s a Jewish school so they’re stingy.”
“Well that’s how they make all their money.”
And then we made eye contact and she looked away.
My only contribution to this conversation was the interjection, “Hey!”. I’m not sure whether it was enough. I’m never sure.
I’ve spent the last three days at an IB professional development workshop for the DP Psychology course that I teach. People came from all over – Singapore, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi were represented among 24 psychology teachers. And that’s just where they teach now; where they’re from is a completely different list.
Context is important here. What I like most about the IB, and what gives me legs to stand on when discussing controversial topics, is its mission:
The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. . . .
These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (emphasis added)
To this end, the IB highlights international-mindedness throughout its programs, though the way this actually looks is heavily discussed and debated. The point, however, is that this is who we’re supposed to be as an IB community. We’re supposed to be internationally minded, emphasize intercultural understanding and respect, and accept difference.
I’ve seen antisemitism all over the world and it no longer surprises me. But I was taken aback to see it in a woman about my age, also a traveler, who teaches a psychology course that includes a sociocultural unit. She’s obviously frustrated at having to pay for what was likely a required workshop, so I’m not questioning that. Frustration is why she made the claim – we blame others when things that we don’t like happen to us. My question is why the claim was antisemitic in the first place.
Since she teaches at a Jewish school, she knows more than nothing about Judaism and she knows Jewish people. She likely has Jewish friends, even if they’re friends just at work. This means that I can’t use ignorance as an explanation, which is usually the excuse that I give people. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or lack of information and that’s clearly not the case.
As a teacher of psychology, she is familiar with Henri Tajfel’s work on social identity theory, which, ironically enough, stems from his experiences of persecution during the Holocaust. In short, we compare ourselves to others and categorize ourselves into groups in order to boost our self-esteem. “We” are the in-group and “they” are the out-group. “They” are this and “we” are not. “We” do this and “they” do not. Etc.
Much of our group categorization is unconscious. We are not necessarily aware when this happens because the brain naturally categorizes things in order to simplify and streamline our thinking. As a teacher of psychology, she knows about cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense of the world around us. We’d never be able to make any sort of decision if the brain first had to process every possible option.
Stereotypes are also linked to implicit associations, generalizations that the brain makes based on patterns. Again, we don’t realize this is happening. Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which I do with my students, can be enlightening. Sometimes these associations, or biases, have little impact on our interactions with others but sometimes they can be quite significant. As I discuss with my students, having implicit biases is normal. Checking yourself when you come to a snap judgement is what it means to be mindful before acting.
To summarize, it is troubling to me that a psychology teacher in a global program with a mission to value international-mindedness, intercultural understanding and respect, and acceptance of difference made an antisemitic comment. I don’t have an explanation for this teacher. She should know and teach everything I’ve just described. And if she hasn’t been doing that, we just spent three days discussing it. She should understand this in her own life and adjust accordingly. And maybe she will.
So why the antisemitic comment? The nagging voice in my head says that some people are just antisemitic. Some people are just racist, biased, discriminatory, prejudicial, xenophobic even when they know better. Sometimes this comes from fear or uncertainty. Sometimes this comes from prior negative experience. (As one of my friends would say, “Sounds like textbook human.”)
Haven’t an explanation doesn’t rectify or excuse the behavior, but perhaps it can suggest ways that allow us to respond constructively. And perhaps, since this woman didn’t check herself but was ultimately checked, this particular comment can be a learning experience.
It is heartening that no one else in the room engaged with her comment at all. The conversation moved on immediately, which is a perfectly appropriate response once someone speaks out and the other backs down. It seems plausible that most people in the room recognized the bias, prejudice, and stereotype behind this comment and knew it to be wrong. In light of that, maybe we’re doing okay at building a better, more peaceful world.
But in light of that, we cannot pretend the work is over.
Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. – Amelia Earhart