Courageous Ignorance

By Chris Thurber

If you’ve seen my photo or met me at a conference, you might wonder what gives me—a white male—the qualifications or street cred to write about prejudice and diversity. And some would consider that racism.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? My provenance isn’t clear from my skin color. Neither is anyone else’s. So why pre-judge my talents based on my skin color?

Sure, I could tell you that I’m a quarter-Swedish, a quarter-German and half-English. That might explain my light skin and blue-green eyes. But like you, I don’t define myself by the phenotypic expression of melanin. My identity is more defined by the fact that my maternal grandfather was a German Jew whose parents escaped the Holocaust, that my paternal grandmother was a public elementary-school teacher in New York City, that my divorced parents are both health-care providers, that my wife is an immigrant from former Yugoslavia, and that I’m an Orthodox Christian. Whew. At most gatherings, those last two factors usually grant me some type of minority status, albeit an invisible one.

Look Around
After escorting a high-ranking administrator around Belknap, the camp where I’m about to spend my 33 rd summer, this person remarked, “Chris, this is a beautiful camp. I just wish there were more minority children.”

“But there are ,” I insisted. And I wasn’t talking only about the few Asian, African-American, and Hispanic campers we had, each of whom made a wonderful contribution to Belknap. I was also talking about the socio-economically disadvantaged children—of which there are many in central New Hampshire—whom I had helped to bring to camp since the early 1990s.

“See that boy there?” I asked. “He comes to camp in a car with his mom, like most kids, but unlike most kids, he lives in that same car. With his mom.” Silence. “There are more minority children here than you might imagine.”

As this administrator eventually did, I’m sure you also accept that there are different types of diversity, such as socio-economic or religious or geographic or sexual or ethnic. You might also concede that my minority status—at least in some circles—gives me a sense of how valuable multiculturalism is. But surely I don’t have any experience with racism, so on what ground do I stand teaching about equity and diversity?

Close To Home
I don’t have to go outside my own extended family for evidence of racism. My grandfather, for example, fought against the Japanese from the U.S. Navy base in Eniwetok, in the South Pacific, during World War II. He had pointed words to share with me about the creators of the Nakamichi tape deck that my parents bought me for Christmas one year.

Or consider my Serbian mother-in-law, who is fond of reminding me that Croatian Ustaši killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs—Nazi-style—during World War II. Things are tense in my house when American friends point out to her that Serbs perpetrated their own brutal brand of nationalist violence during the Balkan wars. “All nationalities have blood on their hands” is my standard attempt at diplomacy, but it does little to defuse racism when the finger-pointing starts.

And for goodness sake, don’t get my mother-in-law—an otherwise warm and generous person—started on the 500 years of Turkish domination over the Balkans. Longstanding historical injustices, such as slavery, anti-Semitism, and imperial yokes are powerful fuel for contemporary discrimination. And while I’m grateful not to have been on the receiving end, I’ve borne witness to enough bigotry to see how harmful it is.

Why defend my multicultural credentials? Because it justifies my most important recommendation: Ask.

Accidental Learning
Asking about another person’s experiences is the first essential step toward preventing prejudice and racism. If we assume, based only on what we see, that another person’s perspective is limited or predictable, then we have created a problem where there wasn’t one. If, on the other hand, we have the courage to recognize our own ignorance, to remind ourselves that we must ask, “What is this like for you?” then we have created an opportunity for boosting our multicultural IQ.

One of the most beautiful learning experiences of this type that I ever witnessed was serendipitous. Camp professionals are trained to engineer social connections, but this one just happened. It was during a rest hour in my second summer as a full-fledged cabin leader. I asked my group of 12-year-olds to be in their bunk beds and quiet. They and I all needed some sleep. (At least I did.) The cabin was hot and stuffy on that early July day … and as I began to drift off, I heard singing. No, not singing, exactly. More like chanting.

As a YMCA camp, Belknap is Christian in its orientation, but with 30 percent of the campers being Jewish, we put the “Judeo” in the Y’s Judeo-Christian value proposition. (By the way, 40 percent of our campers identify as Christian, and the remaining 30 percent say they are not religiously affiliated.) In any case, I knew enough to realize that one of the campers, Noah, was chanting his Torah reading for his Bar Mitzvah.

I thought about asking Noah to be quiet, but the heat and my drowsiness left me feeling paralyzed, which was a good thing because just then another boy, Jed, asked Noah what he was reading. Noah went on to explain his text, what a Bar Mitzvah was, and why it was important to him. His obvious dedication, combined with his scintillating discussion of the party component (with plenty of money, girls, and presents) had the entire cabin ready to convert to Judaism.

Asking Matters
When I finally did summon the energy to roll over and prop myself up on an elbow, I was amazed at what I saw. The eight other boys were huddled around Noah, full of questions and their own comments about their religious backgrounds or lack thereof. The discussion wandered from Judaism and Noah’s Bar Mitzvah to Christianity and the birch cross in the outdoor chapel at camp. One boy, Scott, even admitted that he didn’t know what Easter was supposed to celebrate, besides chocolate bunnies and jellybeans. A few other boys stared at him, incredulous. “Well,” he probed, “is someone going to tell me or not? It can’t just be about candy. We already have Halloween … and that can’t be a religious holiday.”

I found myself wondering how poorly this discussion on comparative religions might have gone if I had suggested something different besides “In your bunk beds and quiet” for rest hour. What if I had said, “Today for rest hour, we are going to talk about our religious heritage and any questions we have about religious holidays”? Sometimes, the most effective leadership is the one that gets out of the way. I was suddenly grateful that I hadn’t shushed Noah when I heard him starting to chant.

What promoted understanding in my cabin during the summer of 1987 is the same approach that has always promoted understanding: courageous ignorance. One person—previously, Jed—needs to be  brave enough to admit he or she doesn’t  know everything about another person’s experience. The courageously ignorant person then needs to ask, “What is this like for you?” or “What does this mean for you?” or “What is important about this for you?” or “What is your experience of this like?”

In Noah’s case, he might have suffered some form of racial microaggression if Jed had asked, “What’s that weird stuff you’re singing?” Implication: What you’re saying is not mainstream or familiar to me, and so it must be inferior or bad.

Responding To Microaggressions
In his work at Teachers College at ColumbiaUniversity, Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues have outlined a range of racial microaggressions that invalidate or insult others. Based on Sue’s research and the concept that small remarks—many unintentionally racist—can have lasting effects on self-esteem, my colleague Kevin Gordon advocates a five-point response plan for youth leaders. This approach teaches rather than punishes:

  1. Notice your reaction. What personal meaning does your observation have? If you are having a strong reaction to something you witnessed or were even the target, reflect on what fueled that response. Specifically, can you identify which of your own biases are at work?
  2. Identify your role and goals. What do you hope to accomplish by responding? In your role as a youth leader, you have teaching goals, community-building goals, and an overarching goal to boost children’s multicultural IQ.
  3. Consider the context. What is really going on? What are others’ perspectives? Did anger or curiosity spark the behavior, or was someone provoked? Does someone feel as if he or she is in the non-dominant social group, and if so, why?
  4. Listen without judging. Ask, “Can you help me understand what you meant?” This is the central question in the spirit of courageous ignorance. You will learn a lot about others’ biases, viewpoints, and intentions by listening carefully at this stage.
  5. State your concern respectfully. As I’ve written many times, it’s better to state the positive alternate behavior than to proffer a negative platitude, such as, “I don’t want to hear any more racist comments.” Saying what not to do is less powerful than stating your concern and the desired behavior.

The only mistake to be made is not speaking up when you hear prejudicial remarks or witness racial microaggressions. (By the way, I’m thrilled to tell you that Kevin’s educational videos on multiculturalism are now available on

In a happy irony, Noah ended up explaining to Scott the origin of Easter. I then added the part about Easter being called Pascha (or something related) in languages besides English, and pointing out that Passover and Pascha are both derived from the Hebrew word Pesach . That was way too pedantic, and it brought the conversation to a temporary halt. But what revived it—and what continued the cabin bonding—was another courageously ignorant question, tossed out by one of the boys who hadn’t spoken yet: “What’s for dinner?” Ah, camp.

And so it goes in our work with young people. The unpredictability keeps us on our toes. You’ve heard the quip about why we shouldn’t “assume.” It’s not always true. What is certain is that asking cures ignorance and understanding cures prejudice. Now the question is: Do you have what it takes to ask about what you don’t know?

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at PhillipsExeterAcademy, the waterfront director at CampBelknap, and the co-founder of the leading web-based educational resource for youth leaders,