2003-11-17 Lakeshore Press Panelists will share on racism at meeting

Panelists will share on racism at meeting
Lakeshore Press

Twenty years after coming to Holland as a Vietnamese refugee, Hoa Huynh says he still experiences subtle racism. Hynh is the owner of Huynh Plaza, a strip mall on Douglas Avenue just west of River Avenue, which celebrate its grand opening in September. The mall houses Huynh’s Oriental and Mexican Food and Gift Store, which he has been operating in that space for 16 years, as well as a Vietnamese and Thai restaurant, beauty salon and liquor store.

Huynh’s entrepreneurial success is not without sighs and sorrows, he said. The 48-year-old businessman may share some of them Tuesday night, when he speaks as part of an age, gender and ethnically diverse panel invited to kick off a second town meeting on racism in the community.

The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance sponsored the first town meeting on racism three years ago to gain information to shape the agenda for the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. Tuesday’s town meeting will provide a second barometer on the issue, and help define the agenda for the annual summit meeting, to be held March 20 at Hope College.

A similar town meeting will be held in north Ottawa County in January. Video-tape form each town meeting will be compiled into a presentation at the summit. “I wanted to buy the opposite end of the plaza for a long time, but the management company said the owner wanted to hold onto it for his retirement,” Huynh said. His inquiries were met with no willingness to dialogue, let alone negotiate, Huynh said.

Then the day came when a third business owner in the shopping center stopped by Huynh’s grocery to say he had just bought out the second owner. Within a few months, the third owner sold Huynh the whole plaza-at a high price that drained all his savings. “I asked him, ‘Why won’t the other guy talk to me, but he’ll sell to you?’ “Huynh said. “He said, ‘Well, you’re not white.’ That makes me feel really bad.”

Four months after the purchase, Holland Township condemned the 40-year-old strip mall, and Huynh could not afford the extensive renovations necessary to bring it up to code because he had paid so much for the building. He said he would be in financial ruin if it was not for Dr. Richard Postma, a former owner of the building. Postma, upon hearing Huynh’s plight, loaned him the money to renovate the grocery and demolish and rebuild the other half of the mall. Postma even put him in contact with a quality contractor who agreed to move the project to the front burner so the grocery could reopen.

Holland Township officials also granted Huynh a variance for the project. His plaza is eight parking spaces short of the standard for an 11,000-square-foot shopping center. Huynh said he is grateful for Postma and township officials, who helped him, make his dream come true, and tries not to dwell on the possible motivations of the others.

“If we take a wide view, I think, we see the way to build a better society, is by making opportunities available to everyone,” Huynh said. “Bringing every-body up doesn’t mean pushing anybody else down.”

The Rev. Andres Fierro, who returns as moderator, said he is looking forward to the town meeting because people don’t often have a public forum to articulate their experiences with discrimination. It is essential that there be a communitywide dialogue on this issue because whites’ privileged position in society often blinds them to the racism minorities’ experience. They don’t know how discrimination feels. Many assume it doesn’t happen at all.

They don’t know how discrimination feels. Many assume it doesn’t happen at all. Scratch the surface and racism remains, said Fierro, pastor of Crossroad Chapel in Holland. “It will be good to hear from the people,” he said. “I’m proud the community is intentionally addressing racism. I think what we will hear is that we are making progress, but there are still things to resolve.”

Gail Harrison, executive director of LEDA, said the second town meeting will take the same approach as the fist: asking participants to share how they have experienced racism and what they need to feel more comfortable in the community. She said she hopes networks of support will forge out of this meeting, like the first.

Huynh and four other panelists will get up to five minutes to speak on that topic. Members of the audience then will be invited to step up to microphones to share their comments. Fierro said he expects Tuesday’s town meeting will draw 300 to 400 people, as did the first. Other panelists will include Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, a Hope College psychology professor from Mexico; Kristina Kyles, a senior majoring in education at Hope College, who is African-American; Sister Pat Lamb of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, who is Caucasioan; and Danny Sphabarnixay, who is president of the Laotian American Organization of West Michigan.

Harrison said racism remains the nation’s most significant social issue, although it usually is not overt. A report based on the 2000 Census. For example, ranked Michigan as the most racially segregated state in the nation based on housing patterns. “ I hope the white people of West Michigan who’ve been involved in this work won’t get tired, feel like they’ve done their part and move on,” Harrison said. “Rooting out racism takes valance. We have to go at it together.”