by Marsha Rakestraw

In the wake of more mass murders in Paris, Beirut, and beyond, there are calls for retaliation, for closing borders, for blaming immigrants, Islam as a whole, and more.

When we are angry and terrified and devastated, we tend to lash out. We look for someone to blame, and the more different they are from us, the more we tend to “other” them.

Our stereotypes and assumptions of people and groups different from ours limit our empathy, our compassion, our openness and receptivity, and our willingness to look for meaningful solutions.

That’s one reason it’s so important to nurture early in our children a foundation of tolerance, empathy, and compassion.

The activity Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged uses props (or photos) to explore our snap perceptions of others. It’s perfect for grades 4 and up and can be done in as little as 30 minutes. It can be also be done as a teacher- or student-led activity.

Here’s how it works:

Teacher-led version:

1.    Come into class in your normal clothes and with your normal hairstyle. Tell the class you will be stepping out of the room and when you return they should look at you and immediately write down their feelings, impressions, and thoughts based solely on your appearance. Leave the room and come back wearing a white lab coat (or one of the other costumes listed below). Give the students a minute to write down their impressions, and then leave again, and repeat with a different costume.

You can come back wearing an item such as:

  • dreadlocks
  • a nose ring, lip ring, eyebrow ring or other unique piercing
  • a suit jacket
  • ragged, dirty clothes
  • a Muslim head covering for a woman/turban for a man
  • a yarmulke
  • a spiked, colored wig
  • jewelry, carrying a shopping bag from an “upscale” store
  • glasses (if you don’t already wear them)

and so on.

2.    Lead a discussion. Invite students to share what they wrote, and to discuss how stereotypes and prejudices (pre-judgments) limit our openness and receptivity to others.

Student-led version:

1.    Hand out a bag to each student, which has some costume element in it (see above list). In turn, have each student put the item on and have the other students write down their immediate impressions.

2.    Follow-up with the same discussion.

Mix and Match:

If you are leading this activity by dressing in costumes yourself, mix and match what you’ve brought (e.g., wear the dreadlocks with the suit jacket or the dirty, ragged clothing while carrying the Tiffany’s bag). If the students are wearing the costumes, have them mix and match. Discuss what happens when we are confronted with people who defy our stereotypes.

Photographic version:

1.    Pass out photographs, and have each student write an immediate impression of the person in the photo.

Photos might include a picture of:

  • a Hasidic Jew
  • a Muslim woman in full head and body covering
  • a young, black man with knit cap, not smiling
  • a young, black man in designer clothes, smiling
  • an obese white woman
  • a skinny, white teenage girl in designer clothes
  • a person with missing teeth
  • a white middle-aged man in a suit
  • a person in a wheelchair

and so on.

2.    When all the photos have been passed around, ask the students if they imagine details about the person in the photo (e.g., assumptions about the person based solely on their physical appearance in the photograph), and, if so, to write these details on a piece of paper. Collect these comments and the photos and randomly attach a page of student comments to a photograph.

3.    Pass the photos out again with the randomly attached comments and have students read aloud the comments while showing the photograph to the class. Could the comments be true for the accompanying photograph even though it was probably not written about this photo? Do we really know anything about people based on our stereotypes?

4.    Lead a discussion. Ask students what they learned about themselves from the exercise, and how it would feel to be stereotyped based on their physical appearance alone.

Download the complete activity.

For a more in-depth exploration with older students of our biases and assumptions, check out our activity More Than a Label.


Image via beauty.lover/Flickr.