Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Curbing LGBT teen bullying: Neutrality is not an option

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

By guest blogger James Telesford, Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley

Once, while wandering down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, I spotted two African American males walking out of the store next to me. They were wearing baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirts, and sneakers.  As I watched them, they started to hold hands, kissed, stepped into the back of a horse and carriage ride, and rode off into the sunset.

Blink blink, rub rub, did that really just happen? In one beautiful instant I became aware of the multiple stereotypes that my mind had formed. For one, my mind thought, gay men do not dress in that kind of macho attire (but these fellows did). Two, African Americans that wear this kind of macho attire aren't supposed to be kissing, holding hands, and taking romantic carriage rides (but these fellows were). Oh, and lastly, let's not forget the class-based stereotyping: people dressed like that shouldn't come out of Louis Vuitton, I thought appalled, as I stood there in my Target jeans and dingy Hollister t-Shirt.

While this personal incident was relatively harmless (no behavioral discrimination took place), I was reminded of it recently while reading a news story on CNN.com. As reported here, the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) teenagers is severe problem. In fact, in response to 7 bully-related teenage suicides within a year and a half (4 of those bullied may or may not have actually been gay), two school districts in Minnesota have implemented opposing policies to prevent more suicides. Tackling the issue head-on, the Minneapolis Public School District has just passed a resolution to track incidents related to the bullying of LGBT students and to infuse LGBT topics into the curriculum. In contrast, Anoka-Hennepin School District has implemented a "neutral" policy, which bans teachers from taking an explicit stance on homosexuality in the classroom because there was no evidence that the suicides were due to bullying.

While both districts might be making an honest effort to curb the bullying of LGBT students and have legitimate reasons to believe their respective policies will work, these policies may have very different outcomes when enacted.

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These policies hint at what researchers have termed intergroup ideologies. Those that hold a multiculturalist ideology believe that group differences should be recognized and celebrated. Those that hold a colorblind ideology believe that people should completely ignore differentiating traits such as race or sexual orientation. Importantly, each ideology is associated with different outcomes. In research by Jennifer Richeson and Richard Nussbaum reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants were randomly assigned to receive either a passage that primed a multiculturalist ideology (i.e., the conclusion of scholars is that recognizing group differences the best way to achieve intergroup harmony), or one that primed a colorblind ideology (i.e., the conclusion of scholars is that ignoring group differences is the best way to achieve intergroup harmony). Then, they measured both conscious and unconscious bias. Those that received the multiculturalist prime showed far less conscious and unconscious bias compared to those first shown the colorblind prime. So, a school that recognizes LGBT issues (and adopts sort of a multiculturalist ideology), communicates something completely different to its students compared to a school that refuses to take a stance on these issues (and adopts a colorblind ideology).

Perhaps the most critical message that each of these ideologies may relay is one related to acceptance and belonging-- or lack thereof. That is, those in a multiculturalist environment may know that they are accepted regardless of their differences (because issues are being dealt with directly), while the acceptance cues for those in a colorblind environment may be much more ambiguous and trigger doubts about belonging (Do people here accept me for me? If people are ignoring my phenomenonlogical experience of being bullied, do I matter?)

Researchers have shown that belonging and acceptance cues in the environment are crucial to academic achievement for stigmatized individuals. For example, as reported in Science, Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen conducted an intervention study in which African American freshman participants were randomly assigned to either a belonging treatment condition (told that belonging concerns are common, transitory, and due to new environment) or a control condition (not told anything about belonging concerns). Dramatically, this one, tiny belonging intervention during freshman year of college was enough to erase the achievement gap (African American students academically underperforming relative to European American students) by senior year of college! Even more dramatically, a post-graduation survey of those in the treatment condition revealed that none of the participants even remembered the intervention. This implies that creating an atmosphere of belonging and acceptance not only affects the conscious level of processing, but also the unconscious.

I couldn't even enjoy the beauty of a moment of love between two people without being biased by stereotypes, but hopefully now that I recognize these biases I can correct them and enjoy next time. If we all have a blink blink, rub rub moment and adopt a multiculturalist perspective, perhaps our fellow human beings will feel accepted enough to take the advice of one of the greatest doctors in history (Dr. Seuss; you were right mom!) when he wrote:

"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind".

Copyright 2011 by James Telesford, all rights reserved.

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