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Teaching About Prejudice

“Isms” in English Language Instruction

Since moving to the Czech Republic I have noticed that in Prague some changes are obvious, but others are perhaps harder to see--like the Czech versions of prejudices seen everywhere around the world. For example, some people here hold racist attitudes about the Romany (Gypsy) population. Many of the stereotypes they espouse are similar to those heard from American bigots about minority populations--they are dirty, dishonest, unintelligent, resistant to education, etc. As one of my students put it the other day, “They can’t help it. It’s their mentality--it’s different from ours.”

I address “isms” with my English language students as part of the culture of language. Sexism as a concept is relatively easy to bring up; for example, when teaching the salutation Ms., as opposed to Miss or Mrs., I find that most of my students have never heard of it. I explain that just as there is no need to know a man’s marital status automatically, there is no need to know a woman’s, and if they want to speak and write correct business English, they must drop the other forms (unless specifically requested by the woman they are communicating with). The majority of my students seem to see the value of this and it often leads to discussions about sexism in general.

The word “sexism” itself is something I usually have to teach. I do so by writing the word “racism” on the board. Most students invariably know this word because of local media reports about Czech racism--and American racism and South African racism and British racism human racism, that is. After they define racism, I take off the suffix and ask them to guess what the meaning is when I add various prefixes: sex, class, heterosex, age . . . . All of my students seem to get sexism--the meaning, if not the extent, of the problem.

After they learn the definition of the word, we usually discuss related terms and aspects, such as feminism. Many of the male students use terms like “horrible” to describe their view of it. Female students are usually rather quiet on the subject. When asked directly about feminism they either refuse to comment or say they agree with equal rights for women but not necessarily with all of feminism’s tenets. So far, no women in my classes have said they object to feminism or find it “horrible.”

Many students, male and female, quite astutely challenge the word “feminism” as a positive term when “ism” is used in a negative way in the other examples I provide. This usually leads to a productive discussion of prefixes and suffixes--how they are used in different ways in different words and how one has to learn to understand the way a particular word is used. Other nonnegative terms I give as examples of “isms” are Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and patriotism.

From “isms” we move to an extended discussion of discrimination. Classified ads here usually ask for someone unmarried, between 25 and 40 years old. Some actually ask for men only. Putting this in the context of employment discrimination usually leads to a lively discussion.

Since there is so much in the American press about affirmative action, reading exercises that play into students’ curiosity about the U.S. are easy to design. Czechs often know of affirmative action as “positive discrimination,” since there was some discussion in Parliament of implementing such a program to address discrimination against Romanys.

One challenge I face when working on this subject matter is to not be preachy, condescending, judgmental, or nationalist. (Nationalism is another term many seem to know already.) Recently, a student asked me why Americans always talk about how other societies need to change when we have many of the same problems as well as our own special ones (e.g., excessive violent crime). I had difficulty answering, but said that we had an ideal that we aimed for and that many Americans want to share that ideal with others.

Another challenge involves the fact that since most businesses here are male-dominated, I am usually discussing sexism, racism, agism, etc. with groups of relatively young white men.

For example: Last semester I had a mixed level group of four heterosexual male professionals, none of them Romany. These men suffered from as many negative “isms” as most of us do. However, they were willing to listen, discuss, explore, and, therefore, probably change. They were generally accepting of Romanys, but none of them really know any. They were proud of their country and culture, but also critical of it. We had heated and heavy discussions.

Easter provided us with a topic that focused on traditions and led back to a discussion of sexism.

A Czech tradition on this holiday is for boys and men to spank girls and women on the rear with a switch; then for women to douse the men with water, give them a drink of a special liquor, and finally give them decorated eggs. Apparently, a young person’s popularity is measured by how many boys switch you if you are a girl and by how many eggs you have if you are a boy. I commented that this seemed to me like some sort of a fertility rite, that it had sexual connotations and seemed rather sexist. They appeared shocked by my observation.

I asked why a girl should be made to feel inferior because she was not chased and switched by boys. What message did that give about what is important in relations with men or about what is important in life. Was the message to boys in some sense that the more girls you hit, the bigger a man you are? Finally, I asked what they would think if a girl or woman took the switch from them and hit their rears? Would they give anything in return?

This was a lively discussion, with give and take and willingness to listen. They had a great opportunity to debate, too, which is very good practice for advanced students of English. In the end, they agreed that this tradition probably began as a fertility rite and that it did have sexual connotations. While they didn’t agree with me that it is a sexist tradition, they seemed to understand why I saw it that way. When I told them that a woman in one of my other groups said she did not like the practice and refused to let her husband switch her, they admitted the practice was probably fading away.

(In a subsequent discussion of this tradition, a Czech friend told me I had gotten it all wrong. He informed me that this tradition predated Christianity. It reportedly was viewed as a cleansing practice that symbolically beat disease out of women. I replied that that did not mean it was not sexist. After all, sexism predates Christianity, too.)

Many good dictionaries have a section on non-sexist English. The one that I use with students is the Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Near the entry for sexism is a page-long section entitled, “Using Language that is Not Sexist.”

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