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'Beauty and Bias' program uses art to help kids see beyond stereotypes

Anyta Wilson works with students at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - “When you look at me, what do you see?” Anti-Defamation Leagueprogram training facilitator Anyta Wilson asked a group of mostly white sixth-graders at the St. Louis Art Museum this past Tuesday.

“Girl.” “Long hair.” “Dreads.”

Accurate, yes, but Wilson pressed on: “What color am I?”

“Brown,” several replied, as Wilson nodded.

“It’s OK to say what you see,” Wilson told the group. “If you notice I have long hair and I’m female you can’t pretend I have no color to my skin.”

Being an impartial and accurate observer is just one of many lessons provided by ADL’s “Concepts of Beauty and Bias” program, part of its World of Difference Institute, honored Thursday by SLAM for its two decades of participation. But the overarching message is about thinking beyond snap judgments to see what’s below the surface. 

“Sometimes, what’s inside is more important and more interesting,” Wilson explained in a discussion with students from St. Ambrose School of Godrey, Ill., to which the Beacon was invited.

‘How can I grow, how can I change?’

“Stereotype,” “classism” and “heterosexism” are among the terms middle-school social studies teacher Jean Heil’s been working on with her St. Ambrose kids in preparation for their “Beauty and Bias” experience.

Many of her students have grown up together in a mostly white, financially comfortable world. She’s heard her share of age-typical comments like “that’s just weird, that’s bad and that’s gay” and she feels it’s her responsibility to challenge her students’ comfort zones. That’s why she jumped at the opportunity to have them participate.

“The first instinct of human beings, and children in particular, is to make a judgment,” Heil said. “I want them to think critically, to look at themselves and say, ‘How can I grow, how can I change?’”

In the “Concepts of Beauty and Bias” program, specially trained docents lead participants -- middle- and high-school students -- through a predetermined art museum tour.

Featured works include a Chinese figure of undetermined gender and the bust of a black man that students almost always pigeonhole as a slave but who is actually a 16th-century Venetian sailor. The dissonance provides a teaching moment, according to World of Difference project director Tabari Coleman.

“Many are surprised to find out he’s not slave but a free man,” Coleman said. “It allows us to think about the assumptions we make when we see people.”

It’s the kind of situation that Coleman understands on a personal level.

“As an African-American man, depending on what I have on, some people are more likely to be nicer,” Coleman said. “Yesterday, I had on a shirt and tie and jacket and I found people to be a little more friendly -- I guess I’m less threatening.”

‘It was like she was sad’

Another piece of art that caught Heil’s students’ interest is a contemporary Playboy bunny sculpture. When Wilson initially asked students for their thoughts, several hands shot up to talk about the scantily dressed cocktail waitress.

“It was like she was sad,” volunteered A.J. Bower. “She was probably poor and she had to take that job.”

But classmate Kasey Smith disagreed.

“I didn’t see any sadness. We don’t know that she didn't want to work there,” she said.

Both seemed valid pronouncements from students who have learned their lessons well.

Kasey’s comments illustrate the importance of impartial observation, and A.J’s remarks demonstrate taking a deeper look into people and their motivations.

And while the program gets students thinking about impartiality and prejudice, there’s an added bonus.

“It also gets them to think about art, describing, analyzing and evaluating it,” Coleman said.

ADL is working on a similar program with the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum at Washington University.

Teachers and school administrators should contact the World of Difference Institute if they’re interested in their students experiencing the “Concepts of Beauty and Bias” program.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.