Activities to Teach Teens About Stereotyping and Labeling of Others

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Bias based on stereotypes and labels is prevalent in high school, where teens often give each other one-word labels such as "geek" and "loner." Help teens start to think about making assumptions about peers. Gather your teen kids and a bunch of their friends, or perhaps a teen youth group that you lead, to discuss stereotypes. Plan teen-friendly activities and exercises that make them confront their biases and teach them to look beyond labels and assumptions to see who people really are.

Labeling People

For an activity that addresses the labels that teens give each other, put up a bunch of common labels given to kids in middle and high school, including "nerd," "dumb jock," "snobby," "loner," "popular," and "bad." Have the teens write an adjective that they associate with that label underneath each one. Discuss with the teens how labels often incorrectly assume things about people and puts limits on them. Couldn't a "jock" also get straight A's? What if the loner was simply a new girl trying to make friends? You could also have the teens write about a label they think doesn't fit them. Prompt them by writing "People think I am ..." on one side of a sheet of paper and write, "But if they really knew me ..." on the other.

Gender Stereotypes

Show the teens movie posters of popular animated fairy tale movies and modern-day versions and discuss the stereotypes of the poor, damsel-in-distress woman who needs to be rescued and taken care of and the knight-in-shining armor prince who saves the day. Talk about how these stereotypes continue to be a prominent stereotype and how it affects progress for women. Pair the teens up and assign them a fairy tale to recreate in a completely gender neutral way without gender stereotypes, then present them to the group. You can also have the teens write and read aloud a paragraph about what they think it would be like to be the opposite gender, then have them discuss the misconceptions that girls and guys have about each other.

Racial Stereotypes

Demonstrate how people make assumptions about others based on their race. Give the teens a sheet with a few basic question to answer about their personality, but that does not directly identify the person. Include questions such as, "Do you live in a house, apartment or townhouse," "What is your favorite type of music" and "what is your favorite thing to eat?" Collect the papers, then read the answers of one sheet. The kids must say what race or ethnicity they think the person is based on the answers, then have the person reveal themselves. Expect some surprised looks from the kids for some of the reveals, which is a good reminder not to make assumptions about people based on race.

Acceptance Pledge

Challenge the teens to make a new friend with someone they would have never thought to befriend before based on labels or stereotypes. Write up an acceptance pledge for the kids to sign, committing them to making the effort to be a friend to someone different from themselves and their group and to stand up for someone who is being treated unfairly because of their ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Encourage the teens to send you feedback, if they wish, about a new friend they have connected with and some of the incorrect assumptions they had made about that person before getting to know them.