2000-09-29 Grand Rapids Press Hate is Hard Work - 300 Attend Town Meeting on Racism

Hate is Hard Work - 300 Attend Town Meeting on Racism
Grand Rapids Press

Elwood Knox says he knows what it is to hate.

His life experience as a member of America’s indigenous people provoked it.

He bore the brunt of racism in school. He experienced racial discrimination in the armed services. He learned to hate with a vengeance all the individuals and institutes who oppressed him.

“Hate is hard work,” said Knox, a member of the Tlingit tribe, who spoke on Thursday at a “Town Meeting on Racism” at St. Francis de Sales Church. “I’m over it now, with help of a $120-an-hour therapist.”

Knox and dozens of the 300 people who attended the meeting say they are now seeking more than personal healing from prejudice.

They want Holland to achieve true racial unity.

The town meeting was sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. Views expressed at this conference, as well as views from a Nov. 2 town meeting in Grand Haven, will be carried forward to shape the agenda for Ottawa County’s first “Summit on Racism” to be held Feb. 13 at Hope College.

Seven panelists opened the two-hour meeting by recounting instances of racism they have encountered in Holland, and suggested ways the community could make them feel more valued.

Panelists included Trino Perez, president of Latin Americans United fro Progress; the Rev. Charles Johnson of Full Gospel All-Nation Pentecostal Church; Ruther Coleman, director of the Learning Enhancement Achievement Program; Teresa Lamb, founder of Zeeland Public Schools’ Latino Pride group; Machael Viola-Vu, director of multicultural affairs at Davenport University; Pastor Socheth Na of the Cambodian Fellowship of the Christian Reformed Church and Tom Bos of A.D. Bos Vending Co.

Moderator was the Rev. Andy Fierro of Crossroads Chapel.

Knox and Pam Olsen, also a member of the Tlingit tribe, criticized the Alliance for pacing blacks, Hispanics, a Vietnamese, a Cambodian and a Caucasian on the panel but neglecting to ask a “first American.”

“I don’t have a story,” said Bos, a white male. “Racism in this community is a largely transparent issue to me. It only becomes visible when I hear these stories. When I become aware of a problem, I cannot ignore or condone it, or I become an accomplice to it.”

People of color shared many instances of racism. Some were overt but more often, they were subtle. Teacher Laura Shabazzi said subtle racism is easier to deny and therefore, more difficult to correct.

A Hispanic man complained of being stopped three times in a six-month period by Border Patrol officers. Some said white youth are “counseled” in school when they misbehave – while minority children are more likely to be “punished.”

One argued that the county’s judicial system is biased and “making the road to prison comprised mostly of people of color.”

Hope College freshman Jason Yelding, a black man, said he believes hiring more minority teachers would help children better embrace the diversity of the world.

Pine Creek Elementary School music teacher Jauanna Jackson called for more minority students to pursue careers in education. She also lamented the “white flight” her school is beginning to experience now that its minority enrollment has climbed to 70 percent.

Kristina Kyles, a freshman in Project TEACH, Hope College’s incentive scholarship program designed to help minority students become teachers, said people need to peel off all their preconceptions based on how a person looks.

She says black kids are fed up with people assuming they are “naturals” at dancing and shooting basketballs.

Miguel De La Torre, an assistant professor of religion of Hope College, said he doesn’t believe racism is rooted in a lack of education. He says the crux is people in the majority who hold power not wanting to relinquish their power.

Some people who have served on committees examining racism expressed agitation over years of good intentions that have not yet blossomed into racial harmony.

The Rev. Wayne Coleman of Church of the Burning Bush said blacks face racial profiling and many other obstacles in the central city.

He described the past few years as “hell” in terms of people being accepted for who they are.

Several white people spoke about how their lives had been enriched through relationships with people from foreign cultures, and coaxed others to “get out of their comfort zones” and make friends with minorities.

English as a second language teacher Carol Braaksma’s voice choked with emotion as she described being embraced as a minority in China – an experience she knows few minorities experience in Holland.

Katlego Stshogoe, a South African who is a sophomore at Hope College, said people need to wake up and realize minorities are individuals.

“People are always treating me like I’m a representative of Africa and all Third World nations,” Setshogoe said. “They expect me to know where people are starving, who’s the president of every country, and all these other things.”

“I tell them I represent only myself,” she said. “if they want more I say, ‘There’s the Internet. Go look it up yourself.’”

Lamb summarized the discussion by quoting a former Mexican president.

“Respect to the rights of others,” she said. “That is peace.”