While my 5-year-old body plummeted from the roof, I started to realize that maybe copying my brother wasn’t always the best strategy. But it was too late. I had already felt the wind in my hair and was about to feel the cold hard ground on my bottom. Like him, I had climbed 50 feet onto our roof. Unlike him, I fell. And as the younger sister, I would probably copy him all over again.
That childlike “monkey see, monkey do” mentality continues to afflict young minds today. Children are often susceptible to the influences around them, modeling observed behaviors—from healthy eating to generosity to strangers to climbing on roofs. Kids know what they’re shown.
This reflection brings me to our current political context. In a time where texts are sent in a split second, articles are published by the minute, and presidents can shake the world with 140 characters or less, we need to be more conscious of what children see. These are the ideologies and behaviors that will grow to shape their own voice—the voice of America’s future. And if we let the ignorant prejudice inflamed by Trump’s presidency perpetuate, that may very well be our future.
Already, days and weeks after the election, high school students in New Jersey chanted “10 feet higher” at the Latino students, referring to the wall that would purportedly be built on the U.S./Mexico border. #whitesonly was scrawled onto the bathroom stalls of Maple Grove high school in Minnesota. Chants of “white power” could be heard down the halls of York Tech High school in Pennsylvania. White students from Ladue High School in Missouri, one armed with a hot glue gun, screamed at Black children to sit at the back of the bus.
These are children who are witnessing the mistreatment of people of color, Muslims, and immigrants by our president-elect and his supporters (perhaps their parents), and emulating it—at an age when they are protected by, but likely ignorant about, the Bill of Rights. Hate speech is not illegal. But hate speech can be a precursor to hate crimes. And hate crimes are illegal. These children are well on their way to creating issues much bigger than how to get out of P.E. class.
Maybe we can’t stop the hate speech and hate crimes that have sharply risen since the election, according to human rights organizations. Maybe we can’t make those who elected Trump accept Mexicans as people, rather than drug smuggling job thieves, or agree to let women decide what they should do with their own bodies. Maybe we can’t stop Grandpa from thinking America needs to be “great” again. But we can stop children from following suit, from climbing on the roof.
My generation—the 18 and older college students from around the country—must be the examples we want to see for those just a few years younger. We must loudly and actively teach children that different isn’t bad and that there are better, alternative ways of thinking. We must monitor the hate crimes and put faces to the names so we can start to acknowledge each other as people instead of stereotypes. We must emphasize facts, not ignorant hate.
I have the opportunity to do so—to help set this example—by working with the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) through UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. The DVC lab is monitoring and verifying the hate crimes publicized through social media in an attempt to stop the racial prejudice and encourage acceptance by understanding the truth. Technology makes it incredibly easy to spread misinformation, regardless of the political perspective.
It’s no secret that my generation and the ones that follow walk around glued to our smartphones. With various social media apps always at hand—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram—we are always connected. We find out information within seconds and spread it even faster. But we need to be smart about what we spread. The DVC lab hopes to find ways to spread truth as opposed to rumors by verifying information and connecting people to the source. We may not be able to dispel opinions, but we can dispel ignorance. And the key to doing that, is by focusing on facts.
Children aren’t born with prejudice, they learn it. We can’t stop them from seeing, but we must stop them from doing. We must teach them the truth.
Ilaf Esuf is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Human Rights Investigations Lab and Digital Verification Corps.