Tolerance Is Always The Right Way
Zainep Mahmoud, 17, isn’t the kind of person you’d think of as an outsider. She is friendly and attractive. She’s also a top-ranked student at her Washington, D.C., high school. But three years ago, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she was snubbed by classmates. Zainep’s mother is African American, and her father, a practicing Muslim, is from Egypt. Zainep was sitting outside on a school bench when a plane flew overhead. A classmate turned to her and said, “There go your cousins. I hope they don’t do it again.” People continued making nasty remarks, including comments about her dad’s being Arab. Zainep was stunned. “Part of me is part of him. It didn’t feel good,” she said.
Suspicious Minds Whether you’re white or Asian, gay or straight, a jock or a nerd, you’ve probably been stereotyped. It is an experience that most people have had and that few like. In Zainep’s case, her peers were provoked by her background. “I felt people were prejudiced against different cultures, and they didn’t even know anything about the
culture[s],” she told Current Health.
During times of war, people are especially quick to target cultures they don’t understand. In December 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. Within days, innocent Japanese Americans were singled out for attack. Individuals were assaulted on the street. Homes were riddled with bullets.
Within months, the U.S. government authorized the relocation and imprisonment of approximately 120,000
Japanese Americans–most of them American citizens–in detention camps. By its own admission, the government had no reason to think that Japanese Americans posed a security threat.
If a government can respond in such a way to fear and mistrust of others, imagine the vulnerability of individual people. Have you ever felt uncomfortable around someone you didn’t know well? Do you tend to stick close to people who are like you?
Unfortunately, when groups of people stop communicating, fear and mistrust can turn into something far worse–
prejudice, a set of negative attitudes or opinions formed without sufficient knowledge or reason. According to a 1992 report by the American Psychological Association, “prejudice and discrimination” are among the leading causes of violence by American youth. And that violence has been known to escalate to hate crimes–acts of property damage or physical harm that are motivated by bias.
Teaching Tolerance Recognizing prejudice in yourself and others close to you can be tough.
It can be even tougher to combat. Phil Weinholtz, a recent high school graduate, started realizing in his junior year that negative beliefs were rampant in his hometown of Hartford, Conn. “I went to school with a mixed bunch of kids,
including a self-proclaimed skinhead,” Weinholtz said. Fights often broke out, and students who lived in urban neighborhoods clashed with kids from the suburbs.
One day in art class, Weinholtz reacted by drawing a picture of Mohandas Gandhi, one of the most famous advocates
of tolerance. Tolerance is having an open mind about people with different opinions and practices. Both Weinholtz’s art teacher and his mother encouraged him to keep drawing. Soon he had a whole series of pictures depicting leaders who promoted tolerance, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Weinholtz enlisted the help of fellow students and eventually turned his artwork into a note-card collection. Sales of the cards raised $10,000. Weinholtz donated half the money to a local shelter for homeless people with AIDS.
He gave the other half to his school. Promoting Understanding Using the same combination of creativity and courage that Phil demonstrated, Zainep opened her classmates’ eyes to prejudice. Then 14 years old, she wrote a play called Unforgettable, which tells the story of Muslims who, following 9/11, were attacked by their American neighbors, even though they had had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Unforgettable has been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at schools and community centers in Maryland and Virginia. For her efforts, Zainep won the prestigious Princeton Prize in Race Relations, a national award honoring high school students who are working toward racial harmony in their local schools and ommunities.
Zainep ends her play with this message: “We are a culturally diverse country, and with cultural diversity comes the need for understanding–understanding of one another’s feelings, beliefs, and customs.” Find a way to spread the word.
According to the FBI, approximately 49 percent of all hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. Bias based on religion (19 percent of incidents), sexual orientation (17 percent), and national origin (15 percent) account for the other hate crimes.