2000-11-03 Grand Rapids Press "Town meeting confronts issue of racism"

Town meeting confronts issue of racism
Grand Rapids Press

Speakers relate stories of racial slurs, insults and incidents of being made to feel unwelcome in the community.


not even settled into their new home 22 years ago when they quickly became the subject of scorn around the  neighborhood.

The family was from Colombia and, to some, the only thing they knew about the South American was its connection to the drug trade. Her father was labeled a drug kingpin, and word spread on the street to "watch out" for the new family on the block.

In the years since, Allen said her daughter has been told on the school bus that her kind "doesn't belong here." She and her son have been called "brownies" while walking his newspaper route.

"We are supposed to be 'human kind,' and we are not as kind to each other as we are supposed to be," said Allen, a Grand Haven mother of three who was among dozens of people Thursday night relating stories of racial insensitivity, stereotypes and outright bigotry.

The setting was a town meeting in Grand Haven that drew about 150 people and served as a prelude to the Ottawa County Summit on Racism next year in Holland. The summit is modeled after a similar effort conducted annually in Grand Rapids.

Speakers at the meeting, largely minorities repeatedly told stories of receiving racial slurs and insults, or being made to feel unwelcome in this predominantly white community.

"Sometimes people just don't understand and are not aware," said Phyllis Howard, a black woman who grew up in Grand Haven and was Grand Haven High School's homecoming queen in 1977. She attributed the problem to a small number of people.

Howard recalled an incident that once occurred on a bright sunny day as she drove to the beach with the windows on her new truck rolled down. As she drove past, a man on the sidewalk yelled, "Hey n-----."

"We should just stop the rudeness and stop the ugliness. We all have differences and we just need to learn how to live together," Howard said.

The meetings, sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, was set up so people could tell their stories of how they have been affected by racism, and to generate ideas on breaking down racial barriers. The alliance is a grassroots organization of volunteers working to increase the awareness of diversity.

Gail Harrison, the alliance's executive director, said the experiences voiced Thursday night, as well as during a similar town meeting held in Holland last month, will be relayed in December to a gathering of more than 300 business,  governmental, religious, education and community leaders from throughout Ottawa County.

Organizers of the Summit on Racism want to hear from those invited to next month's meeting, what they would do to improve face relations in Ottawa County, which has seen a sharp increase over the last decade in its minority population.

"They should have to know acceptance and tolerance, and they should have to be able to apply it to life," Chan said.

Tom Puleo Jr., a social studies teacher at Grand Haven High School, spoke of students who, after being raised in a homogeneous community, experience problems coping when they get into a diverse setting in college.

"We have kids here with an attitude, they've been so sheltered," Puleo said. "We don't seem to celebrate or what diversity around us."

Recent U.S. Census Bureau figures show that Ottawa County's minority population grew at a significantly faster rate than the white population did during the 1990s -- 54 percent for Hispanics, 39 percent for blacks and 21 percent for whites.

One of the ideas offered Thursday was more diversity education.

Denny Chan, a student at Grand Haven High School, suggested that the schools need to focus more on teaching students about acceptance and tolerance, just as they teach mathematics and social studies.