2002-05-01 Muskegon Chronicle Students address racial attitudes at conference

Students address racial attitudes at conference
Muskegon Chronicle

What is it about the complexion of person’s skin that sometimes colors the way her or she is treated by others? That was one of the topics of conversation among 174 students from 11 West Michigan middle schools who attended the sixth annual “Calling All Colors” racial unity conference Tuesday at Grand Valley State University.

Schools participating in the daylong conference included: Muskegon Heights, Bunker, Steele and Reeths-Puffer of Muskegon; Walden Green and St. Mary’s of Spring Lake and Fruitport; White Pines Middle School of Grand Haven; East and West Middle Schools of Holland; and Black River Public School of Holland.

Many students said they were alarmed by the 1991 ABC-TV “Prime Time” documentary, “True Colors,” which depicted people of color being charged a higher price than a white buyer for the same car. In the news documentary, white customers tended to get retail service more quickly than blacks. It also showed unfair housing practices that minorities too often encounter when they rent an apartment or buy a house.

The racism in the students’ world may not affect the money they have to spend, but it does leave an emotional wound, they said. One girl of Asian ancestry said she was hurt because classmates took to greeting her with the phrase “Got rice?” Another girl with Hispanic heritage said it’s a real downer when others assume her whole family is on drugs and in gangs.

Students also explored the issue of racial prejudice and ethnic appreciation through cooperative games and cultural presentations. Shacara Burrel, 13, of Steele Middle School in Muskegon, said the activities helped her discover that white people experience prejudice, too. When a group of African-Americans don’t acknowledge the one white person who walks I, the white person may feel uncomfortable and discrimination.

“If racism isn’t tolerated by our parents in our homes, or teachers and students at our school, the attitudes of my generation will change the world fast,” Shacara said. “We are the new millennium.” The groups hope to start a Calling All Colors group next year at Reeths-Puffer High School.

The Calling All Colors group at Holland’s West Middle School tried to promote racial acceptance by organizing a school wide Diversity Week in March. They encouraged students to record their ethnic backgrounds on a leaf and hang it on a tree-shaped sculpture that serves the whole school, and to tell about holidays celebrated by other cultures during morning announcements.

“It’s important that students have opportunities to spread the message of racial tolerance and equal rights throughout their schools,” said Karen Legg, a West Middle School counselor who advises the group. The conference was sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, and was coordinated by Ortencia Ruiz.