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Unlearning the isms.

Prejudice and discrimination occur in camp, just as they do elsewhere in society. Living in a diverse society is no easier for a camp director than for anyone else.

But we want campers and staff to feel welcome and to feel a part of a caring an dynamic outdoor community. Consequently, it is important to do all we can to effectively eliminate prejudice and discrimination in camp.

Removing these unhealthy elements is no easy task. Each staff member must have an understanding of diversity and be willing to address all prevalent forms of prejudice. Such prejudices are sometimes referred to as the isms. Even though not every word ending in "ism" connotes a prejudice, most prejudices can take o an "ism" form: sexism, racism, classism, to name a few. Eliminating prejudice and discrimination, then, involves a process of unlearning the isms.

In camp this process will involve the creation of environments that welcome plurality in campers and staff. Camps ought to be outdoor environments where differences and diversity are not merely tolerated, but appreciated and celebrated. Not all camps will address diversity issues in the same way, but th goal of all camp programs can be to strive toward developing multicultural organizations where social oppression does not exist.

Understanding the Isms

In the 1990s, concepts such as diversity and multiculturalism are common. Diversity refers to variations from the majority or dominant groups that exist in our society. In actuality, diversity has always existed in the United States Our country is unique in its diversity brought by the strengths of people from different cultures, classes, and ethnic and racial groups.

In times past, this diversity was described with the metaphor of the melting pot, indicating that immigrants' cultural identities were expected to mix with the dominant culture's and become invisible. In recent years, however, society has been viewed as a stew or a tossed salad, symbolizing that people's differences can be kept intact and acknowledging American culture as a mixture of people representing a variety of traditions and cultures. The melting pot theory of assimilation is no longer relevant, because it suggests all people should become the same. Further, it implies that anyone who is not "the same" i seen as less valued or important than those in the dominant culture.

The concept of multiculturalism is also important. It refers not just to ethnic cultures, but all groups that have some characteristic in common, such as age, race, religion, sexual orientation, or physical ability. For purposes of this discussion about camps, we will focus primarily on the following barriers to multiculturalism: racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ethnocentrism and ablism.

These forms of prejudice describe a system of advantage gained by the dominant groups in society. Isms and oppression are synonymous. For example, racism occurs when one race is held up as better than others, and the least powerful group is oppressed. Sexism occurs when one sex is given opportunities and privileges not afforded the other sex. Ablism occurs when people with disabilities are not given fair treatment. Ethnocentrism focuses on the belief that only one ethnic group is the norm. Heterosexism happens when all individuals are assumed to be or want to be in traditional male/female social/sexual relationships. Classism assumes that everyone has access to an individual or family income above the poverty level. The result of any prejudice-based ism is that any group not portrayed as part of the dominant culture becomes invisible.

At an early age, we learn isms in the form of socialized behavior and stereotypes. Stereotypes are a set of negative beliefs generalized about a whol group of people. Young people may learn classism, for example, if they are taught that all poor people are dirty. Socialized behavior is often born out of stereotypes. For instance, girls learn that they should let boys win in sports. Or we learn unconsciously to turn away from or ignore people who have visible disabilities because of a stereotype that we might "catch it." These beliefs become consciously and unconsciously ingrained so that we must actively unlearn them if we are to confront prejudice in our lives.

None of us likes to think that prejudice and discrimination exists in our camps Further, it is uncomfortable to think of ourselves as being racist or classist. But, none of us is perfect. In our society, we are subtly taught isms day in an day out. Thus, we must make a conscious effort to unlearn the isms.

Stages in Unlearning the Isms

Most of us are in various stages of awareness concerning prejudice. The civil rights movement and the women's movement have sensitized us to racism and sexism, respectively. The recent passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made us aware of the rights of people with disabilities. The solution to managing diversity and the elimination of oppression, however, are not as easy as providing governmental laws or regulations, or even raising the consciousness of the camp community. The solutions require a personal commitmen to valuing diversity. Unlearning the isms is a continuous process. We have been socialized to see the world from the view of the majority culture and often we do not realize how we continue to perpetuate stereotyping and prejudice. Most of us as white people see our white heritage as generic in this country. Many consider men's experiences as the human experience. Thus, when we read that a person received an award we assume it is a white male unless the description says otherwise. Even some people of color are socialized to be attuned to their own communities and the white culture but not to other people of color (Whitten, 1993). We generally assume people represent the dominant culture unless we use an adjective to describe how they might be different, such as "woman lawyer," or "black doctor," or "gay plumber."

Unlearning any of the isms requires that we acknowledge our prejudices and stereotypes and then move forward. Helms (1984) and others (e.g. Airall, 1992) have written about the way ethnic identity is developed and the process that many of us go through in learning to accept ourselves and others. The process includes the following stages: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion, and internalization. These stages, as applied to camp situations, may be useful in understanding how camp directors and their staff can appreciate diversity and welcome diverse staff and campers.


It is impossible in this society not to encounter people different than ourselves. Even so, people have tried to distance themselves or pretend that cultural differences do not exist, with the false assumption that we are all just one big happy societal family. Often in this pre-encounter stage, denial exists. Denial is at work when we think the laws that have been passed have eliminated all discrimination and prejudice in our society. Denial is also at work when we take the view that "I didn't cause the problem, so I'm not responsible for its solution."

Freysinger (1991) described a number of distancing behaviors that many of us us unconsciously in the pre-encounter stage. For example, some people distance themselves by suggesting that prejudice is not a problem in camp or in society in general. Other people discount prejudice if a concrete definition and a concrete, easily attainable solution does not exist. Other distancing occurs when people suggest that nothing can be done about racism, for example, if African-Americans do not step up and become involved. They blame the victims an suggest eliminating prejudice is their problem. These forms of distancing play themselves out in camp when, for instance, racism is so blatant that black families would not even consider sending their children to the camp.

Some individuals distance themselves from prejudice by intellectualizing the problems or viewing their own knowledge as being superior to others. The view that "I'm an OK person about (an issue such as) homophobia" may only serve to continue the status quo and stifle an individual's ongoing need to learn and grow in understanding.

Failing to acknowledge that we are all racist, sexist, heterosexist and so on, simply because that was how we were socialized, also continues to diminish our ability to unlearn these isms. Further, believing that racism only occurs in th south, or classism only occurs in big cities, or heterosexism doesn't occur in one's camp, are other forms of distancing.

The problem with behaviors in the pre-encounter stage is that most of them do not appear to be bad or hostile. In the 1990s, most people realize it is socially desirable to give lip-service to acknowledging diversity. Even though an individual may be prejudiced, he or she is usually smart enough not to make blatantly discriminatory remarks. Thus prejudice is often more subtly disempowering and institutionalized. Once we become aware of these naive behaviors, it is then possible to move into the next stage: encounter or acceptance.


In the encounter stage, we move toward trying to understand and accept what diversity means. We not only get to know others within a particular oppressed group, but we also acknowledge the prejudiced attitudes we may hold.

In this stage, we must recognize and confront our own privilege in this society Most of us who are white, for example, never think about what it would be like to be black unless we see a blatant example of racism occurring. For instance, we take for granted that when we turn on the television, we will see mostly white actors. We assume that when someone is talking about a person, he or she is talking about a white person unless he or she says "black person." We are used to being the majority color in most social situations.

We have to confront such privileges and not feel guilty about them. Once we understand that privilege or lack of privilege is a part of our own individual identity, we can better understand others who may not be in the same situation.

In the encounter stage, a camp director might ask how privilege may have resulted in unconscious discrimination in the camp. Within a camp, one might begin to struggle with questions such as: What are our written camp policies toward the prevalent forms of discrimination? Have we really done as much as we could to recruit, train, and supervise staff from different backgrounds? At the same time these questions are asked, some of us may begin to feel guilty and overwhelmed by the work that needs to be done. It is not uncommon to pass through feelings of resistance and redefinition when encountering the isms. Immersion

In the third stage, immersion, a person accepts the diversity of other people and becomes interested in deeply understanding the differences that exist. The differences among people are seen and respected. An individual learns that difference does not imply hierarchy, but simply means difference.

Initially the interactions directed toward understanding may be with others who are similar to the self; but a genuine effort is made to gain as much information as possible.

In this stage, an individual can articulate why it is important to unlearn one' prejudices. A camp director may come to believe that discrimination and prejudices are problems that committed and active camps can solve. At this point, the work that is done in understanding others is personal. But the individual seeking to unlearn prejudices reaches out to others like and unlike him or herself to find support for his or her changing beliefs.


The final logical step is to internalize one's changed beliefs. People at this stage will become champions for diversity and will adopt policies that will cultivate multicultural organizations. They actively become involved in efforts to eliminate prejudices existing in their families, organizations, and in society in general. They see the links between the impact of prejudice on the individual level, the impact of institutionalized discrimination, and the overt discrimination that occurs globally.

This stage involves a lifelong journey of learning and action (Airall, 1992). I this stage, people will actively seek to involve themselves in whatever way necessary to fight prejudice and discrimination. The acknowledgment of being members of a global community is lived, not just described. Cultural difference of various types are acknowledged as strengths, with all people contributing in their own ways to the good of the community. Those who have reached internalization are actively involved on a daily basis in making the world a better place to live through personal as well as professional involvements.

Camp directors in this situation will see themselves as role models and will turn philosophy into policies and action. In camp, they will continually examin ways to work more effectively with campers and staff coming from different cultural situations. They will not only examine, but find ways to address the barriers to multiculturalism in their organizations. Such efforts might include trying to understand the resistance to change in the organization, examining th rewards and consequences for striving toward multicultural goals, addressing th lack of sensitivity to offensive attitudes and behaviors, and continuing to provide training in the elimination of prejudices and discrimination.


This overview has only touched the surface of how camp directors and staff can address prejudice and discrimination in our lives. None of us is free of the isms no matter how hard we try. Many of us may have to go through these stages several times. Most of us have a great deal of learning to do and many opportunities for teaching others within our organizations.

One important goal of camp organizations ought to be developing multicultural organizations that reflect the contributions and interests of diverse cultural and social groups. This goal can be implemented through both our mission and ou operations (Jackson & Holvino, 1988). Further, camps should act on a commitment to eradicate social oppression in all forms within the organization and ultimately within society. Camps, as a microcosm of society, can take on this goal. The challenge is great but our opportunities are many in helping to make the unlearning of isms an important first step in designing "better camping for all."


Airall, A.M. (1992). How whites can grow in racial identity. Cultural Diversity at Work, 5 (1), 1-2.

Freysinger, V. (1991, March). Addressing cultural diversity in the curriculum. Paper presented to the SPRE Teaching Institute. Chapel Hill, N.C.

Jackson, B. & Holvino, E. (1988). Developing multicultural organizations. Creative Change, The Journal of Religion and the Applied Behavioral Sciences (reprint).

Johnson, C. (ed.). (1988). Sticks, Stones, and stereotypes: Curriculum resource guide. Amherst, Mass.: Equity Institute.

Helms, J.E. (1984). Towards a theoretical explanation of the effects of race on counseling: A black and white model. The Counseling Psychologist, 12 (4), 153-164.

Whitten, L. (1993). Managing student reactions to controversial issues in the college classroom. Transformations, 4 (1), 30-44.

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Curriculum in Leisure Studies and Recreation Administration at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is currently a member of the ACA National Education Council.
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Title Annotation:prejudice and diversity
Author:Henderson, Karla A.
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:The wealth of diversity.
Next Article:Touching the lives of counselors: what it means to experience diversity at camp.

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