In the movie Freedom Writers, why does Erin compare the drawing of an African American student to the drawings of Jewish men during the Holocaust?

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The use of caricature in the Holocaust was one of the primary ways that the Nazis convinced the non-Jewish citizens of Germany that many of the negative stereotypes about Jews were not only true but the cause of the country’s problems. Joseph Goebbels, a prominent SS officer, was the key...

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The use of caricature in the Holocaust was one of the primary ways that the Nazis convinced the non-Jewish citizens of Germany that many of the negative stereotypes about Jews were not only true but the cause of the country’s problems. Joseph Goebbels, a prominent SS officer, was the key architect of Hitler’s propaganda machine, and in using negative images (like caricatures), the Nazi regime was able to spread negative stereotypes about Jews and false information about the genocide occurring in concentration camps. These stereotypes and use of caricature are a large part not only of how the extermination of the Jews began but how it was allowed to continue without outcry about the injustice.

In the Freedom Writers movie, Erin Gruwell draws a direct comparison between the caricature drawn in the class by one student of another and the caricatures drawn about Jews in Nazi Germany. In the movie, she says, “It starts with a drawing like this, and then some kid dies in a drive-by never even knowing what hit him.” The following conversation shapes the rest of the movie, from the students learning about the struggles of those in the world at large, and connecting to the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust, to embracing literature and writing as a means of expression.

For Gruwell, the connection between the drawing in her class and those used to spread hatred of the Jews is clear. In the movie, she makes a direct connection between the ideas propagated by hateful propaganda in the Holocaust to the ideas that are spread about minority children in the US. She implores the students to think beyond those stereotypes and see themselves and their lives in a different light. She sees the students buying into the propaganda as a factor in the life-or-death struggles that the students endure and their inability to have power in the world.

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Teacher Erin Gruwell compared the two apparently very different drawings for several reasons. Although shocked that any student was producing such a negative image, she still wanted her students—who were primarily African American, and who came from underprivileged circumstances—to understand the heavy influence of something perhaps deemed harmless. She helped them see even the most challenging surroundings can produce artistic interpretations. She also contrasted the content and intent of distinct kinds of drawings, from those that mock the subjects and can generate prejudice and even hatred through using stereotypes, and those that express the inner feelings of the artist and can be used to promote tolerance and awareness of shared conditions.

As she realized that many of the students did not know history from the World War II era and were unfamiliar with the persecution of Jews, which ultimately became the Holocaust, she decided to broaden her educational goals to further educate them about that recent history. She saw many parallels between the treatment of Jews in Germany and African Americans in the United States.

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This is a pivotal moment in the film, as well as in the book and real life story that the film was based upon. As eNotes reminds us in the summary of the book Freedom Writers Diary, "the paper revealed a racist caricature full of hate. Gruwell told her class that it was this sort of hate and misunderstanding that led to the Holocaust." The Erin Gruwell Education Project calls the finding of the drawing "a pivotal moment that would change [the students'] lives forever."

The students, who have never heard of the Holocaust, are nevertheless intimately similar to Holocaust survivors: they have experienced intense violence, feel trapped and helpless, and are often victims of racially motivated generalizations or even crimes. By recognizing that the drawing has exaggerated characteristics that are considered typical of a certain race (for instance, a wider nose in the African American caricature), Erin spotted an instance of racially motivated hatred in her classroom. By connecting it to the Holocaust through the study of The Diary of Anne Frank, she gave her students two crucial things. (1) She offered them a way to connect personally to literature through their experience. (2) She provided a grim comparison to the students' hateful behavior that made it clear that such actions were not funny, tolerable, nor justifiable in her class. By demanding justice and racial tolerance in her classroom, she won her students' respect.

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