Diversity awareness group brings teens together to talk about stereotypes
Kassidy Aikens said she felt hurt and angry when peers scrawed stereotypic words describing people of six different ethnic groups on sticky notes and posted them in a Hope College classroom. One described Native Americans as “junk.” Others described Caucasians as “rich,” “snooty” and “preppy.”
Kassidy, a seventh-grader at Black River Public School in Holland, said she is both Native American and Caucasian, but she doesn’t fit any of those descriptions. “In small groups, words get tossed out that you don’t think will offend anybody, but they’re right there and you can see by their faces that they do hurt,” said Ashley Garza, also a Black River seventh-grader.
Kassidy and Ashley were among almost 200 middle-school students from 12 Ottawa and Muskegon county schools who participated Tuesday in “Calling All Colors,” a daylong race unity conference hosted by Hope College. The sixth-annual conference is a project of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, which gets its funds through grants and corporate and private contributions.
Through diversity dialogues plus music, dance, storytelling, and cultural workshops led primarily by Hope international students, LEDA was trying to increase students’ awareness of stereotyping and its effects. Keynote speaker Dr. Fred L. Johnson 111, a Hope College professor of history, told students that, in the least common denominator, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., are rooted in stereotyping.
People around the world consider Americans to be haughty, self-centered and lacking virtue. Many Americans fall into the same trap, assuming all people who resemble the terrorists are bad. This stereotypes undermine the strength humankind can celebrate if differences between people were honored, the professor said. “If you cover your eye with one hand, and cover one ear with the other hand, you’re not seeing the whole picture and you’re not hearing the whole story,” Johnson said.
The foreign policy specialist said he is confident Americans will tap into the same rugged determination that ended slavery, helped the nation emerge from The Great Depression, and put men on the moon-to improve racial harmony. He said he is encouraged by the sensitivity of young people active in Calling All Colors groups in their school communities.
Nevertheless, Johnson said recent global conflicts prove that adults can’t wait for teens to grow up and build a more racially sensitive world. Adults must begin now, he said. Participating in the conference were students from Holland’s East and West middle schools and Black River Public School; Grand Haven’s Lakeshore and White Pines middle schools; Spring Lake Middle School, Walden Green School and St. Mary’s Catholic School; Muskegon’s Bunker and Steele middle schools; Reeths-Puffer Middle School; and Fruitport.
Also participating were youthful offenders from the Ottawa County Juvenile justice Department’s Courage Program, which represents 13 area schools. West Ottawa’s Macatawa Bay School and Muskegon Heights School were invited based on past participation, but did not send students this fall.
LEDA director Gail Harrison said future conferences may be opened to Zeeland Public Schools, Holland Christian Schools, and various home-school networks, which have asked to send students, but organizers said no because of space limitations. An LEDA representative typically works with adult liaisons at each Calling All Colors school to implement student plans to promote racial unity.
For instance, the Calling All Coors group at West Middle School plans to highlight important people, holidays and historical events form a different culture each month of second semester in a prominent display case.
White Pines Middle School plans to have a Cultural Spirit Week that features a concert by a band whose specialty is songs from around the world, and a field trip to an Amish Village. Black River students hope to organize a work bazaar featuring the food, music, art and history of many cultures. They’d also like to paint a mural with a diversity theme at the school’s entrance.
Teaching ways to promote peace and harmony couldn’t be timelier, with the United States now conducting air strikes on Afghanistan, a nation with a reputation for harboring the terrorists suspected of orchestrating the attacks on America, said Karen Legg, the West Middle School liaison.
The conference was an eye-opener for many students, including West Middle School sixth-grader Mario Mireles. “I think I learned that even if you don’t really like a person, you can still stick up for him’ Mario said. “That’s justice.” Students were invited to return for a spring conference at Grand Valley State University.