How to avoid unintentionally creating prejudice in kids

Morris Dees, Esq. Civil Rights Attorney, shares advice for parents on what they can do to avoid accidentally creating prejudice in their children
How To Avoid Unintentionally Creating Prejudice In Kids
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How to avoid unintentionally creating prejudice in kids

Parents raising children today, much like when I was raised on that farm back in Alabama in the 1940s and 50s, face new issues concerning peoples’ civil rights and raising their children so they’ll be empathetic, fair and non-biased. There are issues concerning gender rights, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender rights. People who are handicapped or disadvantaged, you might say. And immigrants to this country. And how a parent discusses these issues is critical to how a child will perceive these people. For example, if you talk about undocumented immigrants, and that’s people who live in this country are that don’t have papers, but if you call them illegal aliens – aliens sounds like something coming in from outer space – so that child has a different perception. If you talk about the Native Americans – without even thinking, you might say, “Don’t be an Indian giver. You shouldn’t do that.” The kid might think, “Indians? Do they give stuff and take it back?” You know? And there are so many things that the parents just don’t think about. So there are publications that parents can get to see, “Color of words” is… many, many words, in fact, there are probably 10 to 15% of words in our dictionary come from describing people, you know? “He’s a crip – crippled.” Or maybe a person is less than capable of doing something – there’s ways of saying things that then degrade people. Children are not going to be paying attention when you say, “Now, you be fair. All people in our society are equal, color skin makes no difference, religion makes no difference.” That’s what a parent says. But what a parent does is much more important. That’s what a kid sees every day. They understand… kids understand people who are hypocrites. Now a parents can’t be a hypocrite when you’re talking about things that demean someone. For example, if a parent says to a kid, “Well, you know…” When kid is at school and then comes home and says, “Mom, there’s some girls in our class that don’t have these designer clothes like I do.” And if mom says, “Well, you know, maybe they live in a ghetto. They can’t afford them.” Well, that really characterizes people in ghetto as a word that… a big word. And instead of mom saying, “Well, you know, maybe you should go to Goodwill and get some of your clothes sometimes… you get some good buys at Goodwill, it’s amazing. And why do you… you don’t have to necessarily have designer clothes.” And also, a parent might be faced with an issue of, let’s say, wanting some work done, planting some trees, for example, in the school yard. Everybody gets together, they’re going to plant trees and some kid speaks up and says, “Why are we doing this? We get Mexicans to do this kind of work.” And that’s where a parent or teacher has to… right off the bat, says, “Why did you say that? I don’t like the way that sounds. Tell me why you said that.” And then, you have to be willing to speak up. I think all these things are important for parents and one of the most difficult things to do… it’s easy to buy the right stroller for your kid or put them in the right school or you know, make sure they get the right instructions on the kind of backpack that they need to buy, but these things are much more sensitive. They’re not things that parents are trying to do. I have no idea about these things. I just… I learn every day. Just about three weeks ago, my wife really caught me saying something and that was a man I was getting to do some work, and I described and told the man as, “Gosh, he doesn’t mind driving a 1000 miles on some motorcycle only because he’s as dumb as a fence post.” I said that myself. And my wife quickly said, “Why did you say that? He may not look like the brightest guy, he’s a really nice guy. I got to know him.” Well, boy, did she call my hand? And you know what? I’m 76 years old and I’ve been doing civil rights law for a long time. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I made a statement based on my stereotypes of this individual. Well, I immediately changed and I immediately got to know this individual and I agree with my wife – he is really, really nice, smart, intelligent person. He was doing me a really big favor.

Morris Dees, Esq. Civil Rights Attorney, shares advice for parents on what they can do to avoid accidentally creating prejudice in their children


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Morris Dees, Esq.

Civil Rights Attorney

Morris Dees was born in 1936 in Shorter, Alabama, the son of cotton farmers. As a young boy he worked the fields with blacks, witnessing first-hand social and economic depravation and Jim Crow treatment at its worst. While at the University of Alabama Law School, he met Millard Fuller. The two formed a highly successful publishing company during their time in law school. After graduation, they moved the business to Montgomery, Alabama.  Fuller left the company in 1965 and later founded Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Dees continued the business and also began taking controversial civil rights cases. Mr. Dees sold his publishing company to a major national firm in 1970 and formed the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with Julian Bond and Joseph Levin. Early Center cases included integrating the Alabama State Troopers and desegregating the Montgomery YMCA. The Center, funded by donations from over 300,000 citizens across the nation, quickly grew into one of America’s most successful and innovative public interest law firms. In 1980, the Center founded the Intelligence Project in response to resurgence in organized racist activity. The project monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies for protecting citizens from violence-prone groups. A made-for-television movie about Mr. Dees aired on NBC; “Line of Fire” describes his successful fight against the Ku Klux Klan. It included the $7 million precedent-setting judgment against the United Klans of America on behalf of the mother of Michael Donald, a young black man lynched by the Klan in Mobile, Alabama. Wayne Rogers portrayed him in the feature film, “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers. Other victories against hate groups include a $6 million judgment that bankrupted the Aryan Nations, a $12.5 million jury verdict against the California-based White Aryan Resistance for the death of a black student and a $26 million verdict against the Carolina Klan for burning black churches. Klansmen burned the Center offices in 1983. The arsonists were convicted but not before their leader plotted to kill Mr. Dees. More than thirty men have since been imprisoned for plots to harm him or destroy Center property.  This threat requires a high degree of security during public appearances. To promote acceptance and tolerance, the Center founded Teaching Tolerance in 1990. Over 80,000 schools use the project’s free videos and teaching materials and over 400,000 teachers receive the award winning Teaching Tolerance magazine. The Center has won two Oscars for its tolerance education films and received five Oscar nominations. Mr. Dees believes that it is important to teach tolerance in the classroom as well as fight hate in the courtroom. Mr. Dees has received numerous awards in conjunction with his work.  The U.S. Jaycees chose him as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America for his early business success.  Trial Lawyers for Public Justice named him Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1987. In 2009, he was inducted into the Trial Lawyers’ Hall of Fame by the American Trial Lawyers’ Association. The American Bar Association honored him this year (2012) with the ABA Medal. Mr. Dees is the author of three books, A Lawyer's Journey, his autobiography; Hate on Trial; and Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat. He remains actively engaged in litigation. He and his wife live in Montgomery, Alabama. 

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