Luca Varadi Studies the Spread of Racist Attitudes Among Adolescents

Why are racism and prejudice widespread today? When and how are these views formed and what can we do to stop the process?

These are some of the questions Luca Varadi, Marie Sklodowska-Curie research fellow and Nationalism Studies Program Visiting Professor poses in her research into racist attitudes among 9th graders in Budapest, Hungary. Varadi shared her findings with high school teachers at a recent event at CEU, where the discussion centered on what teachers can themselves do to counter racist attitudes among their students.

“Everyone who’s normal, hates the Gypsies” one highschooler told Varadi, in an interview at the initial phase of her research. Addressing the group of teachers, she explained how this line took on a primary focus for her work: Aghast at what she had heard, Varadi set out to learn why racism and hatred towards the Roma (an ethnic group of about half a million people in Hungary), is considered acceptable for many high school students. She was particularly interested in whether generally held opinions influenced individual students.

After the initial interviews Varadi developed a questionnaire to learn more about teenagers’ concerns and attitudes towards racism. In 2016-2017, she visited schools and asked 9th graders to fill out the questionnaire at the beginning and the end of the school year, so that Varadi could measure changes (if any) in attitudes.

All situated in Budapest, the schools were either state or church run. A total of 1,400 students took part in the initial part of the survey. In her findings, Varadi used the results from a total of 22 classes, in which at least two-thirds of the students had filled out the questionnaire on both occasions. 

The majority of Hungarian students start high school in 9th grade, usually changing schools and joining a new community. Varadi, among other things, wanted to know whether this key first year--when the individual students become members of a new class community--shapes later views. “How does a class become a community, and does this process make student views converge?” she asked.

At the beginning of the school year, a single high school class had a majority of the students who said that they would agree with a classmate making an anti-Roma remarks. Yet most students—incorrectly—believed that the majority of their classmates would accept such behavior. By the end of the school year however, many students had shifted in their attitudes, saying that they would agree with another student making anti-Roma remarks. This shift in attitudes affected half of the classes, with in seven cases, the majority of the students had now become accepting of anti-Roma sentiment.     

According to Varadi, students are trying to conform to what they perceive as their classmates’ opinions. “They’re teenagers and they try to fit in – which is neither new nor surprising”.

According to the data collected by Varadi, when it comes to racist attitudes, teenagers do not conform to the real opinion of their peers but instead to their perception as to what those opinions may be. They believe their classmates think that it is OK to be racist, when the reality might be very different. Ultimately, those with anti-racist attitudes believe that they are in minority and are therefore reticent to speak out. And thus what the researcher terms as the Spiral of Silence pushes the class towards more racist views.

“This is a vicious cycle. Classmate opinion is already important at the beginning of the school year - and by the end of the year it has become even stronger. The opinions become more homogeneous, they affect each other” Luca Váradi says.

When asked about the attitudes of their teachers, the teenagers said that teachers would not be happy about the students’ anti-Roma attitudes, that is, they perceive their teachers as anti-racist. However, students conform to the imagined views of their peers, not their teachers.

Varadi believes however that while it is the opinion of their classmates that students are swayed by, teachers have a key role in stopping the cycle. They need to make space for the voices of those who do not agree with racist manifestations to be heard, offering encouragement and support to those who speak out. Teachers should find colleagues for mutual support, and they should also ask for help from organizations that run for example, sensitization trainings. Organizing a class visit to a theatre to watch a play that could initiate a discussion of this topic is also a good way to bring up the issue in school.

“Most of the students were simply happy that someone was interested in their opinion” Luca Varadi recalled her experience during her interviews with students. “When we were chatting in groups, it’s clear that 45 minutes just isn’t sufficient time for a full discussion around issues of racism and prejudice. Students want to talk about this, and they will open up when someone is willing to listen.”

The research was funded by the Marie Curie Fellowship of the European Commission.