Forum offers opportunity to talk about race relations
More than 200 people gathered at a town meeting Thursday to discuss the potentially explosive subject of racism. They agreed the problem is real in Holland, but an opened window was the only sign of unwelcome heat in the room.
The ethnically diverse crowd filling the multipurpose room at St Francis de Sales Catholic Church shared their observations and experiences on racism in Holland, offering input that will be used to help plan a Feb. 13 summit on racism in Ottawa County. That meeting, modeled after Grand Rapids summits held in 1999 and 2000, will seek to develop specific strategies to fight racism.
“These town meetings are really to define, out of the experiences, what exactly the problems are,” said Tom Bos, one of seven panelists at the meeting. The atmosphere remained calm through the entire 2.5-hour session, sponsored by Lakeshore Ethnic diversity Alliance. More than two dozen speakers discussed their experiences with racism I Holland, though most spoke of general attitudes rather than recent, specific incidents.
Each panelist answered one of two questions posed by moderator Rev. Andy Fierro of Crossroad Chapel Reformed Church: “How has racism affected your experience in the community?” and “What do you need in order to feel more comfortable and valued in the community?”
Panelist Socheth Na, pastor of Cambodian Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, compared building a racism-free community to a cooking exercise. “I want to let the community know that I am part of the stew, and you are, too,” Na said. He said a community’s cultural “stew” requires all the ingredients to taste right.
Panelist Teresa Lamb, vice president of Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP), suggested denial of racism was a major factor in the Holland area. “Tonight, we need to admit that we have a problem. If you laugh at a joke about Mexicans, don’t say, ‘Not me.’ If you cross the street when a group of African-Americans is coming your way, don’t say, ‘Not me,” Lamb told the audience.
Joining Lamb, Na and Bos as panelists were the Rev. Charles Johnson of the Full Gospel All Nation Pentecostal Church, Ruth Coleman of Learning Enhancement Achievement Program, Trino Perez, president of LAUP, and Michael Hoa Viola-Vu, director of multicultural affairs at Davenport University.
During the open forum portion of the meeting, Miguel de la Torre, religion professor at Hope College, suggested a possible reason for racist behavior. “Racism may have less to do with ignorance and more to do with power and privilege,” he said. Audience member Kim Douglas commented on the existence of “institutional racism” stemming fro0m the way an institution or segment of society is organized.
Douglas said when her daughter, a biracial child, was born; hospital staff told her there was no space to check “biracial” on a birth certificate, she’d have to choose on race. One teen-age girl who didn’t give her full name said she was born in California but grew up in Holland for 18 years and considers herself a product of this city. She talked about generalized assumptions people may make about certain races and said those are not, despite intentions, necessarily positive.
“I can’t sing, so don’t expect me to sing you a chorus every time you see me,” said the students, who is black. She added that her parents taught her more than basic life skills as they reared her.”My parents had to teach me, ‘When you go into a room, many times you’re going to be black before you’re Christina,” she said.
Hope College student Katlego Setshogoe, a native of South Africa, said sometimes she’s frustrated when a professor asks her a question about Africa or a Third World nation. “I’m not a representative of Africa, I’m just a representative of myself,” Setshogoe said. “If they want to know, there’s the Internet, there’s the library.”
Several audience members suggested that working together was the solution to race-related problems, others emphasized respect or love. Many of Thursday’s stories described situations that didn’t involve overtly hostile discrimination, and audience members appreciated having time to share them. “You don’t even notice that it’s racist if you’re not a person of color,” said Setshogoe.
A second town meeting will take place in Nov. 2 in Grand Haven, also designed to gather stories of individuals’ experiences with racism.