Sharing experiences with racism
Town meeting opened dialog for upcoming Ottawa Area Summit on Racism
BY REGAN FOSTER
The Holland Sentinel
Kristina Kyles wants to talk -- about her life, about her experiences, about her heritage.
What the Hope College senior doesn't want to talk about are rappers, sweet potato pie or any other stereotypes of African Americans.
"I'm proud of where I am, I'm proud of where I've come from, and I'm proud of where I'm going," Kyles told participants of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance town hall meeting on racism Tuesday night.
"If you're interested in me as a person, I'm totally available," she added.
Kyles, an education major, was one of five panelists to speak about her personal experiences with racism in Holland. The meeting was meant to spur topic ideas for the alliance's fourth-annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, which will be in March.
The Rev. Andres Fierro, who moderated the meeting, said the stories the panelists and more than a dozen audience members shared at the meeting are not isolated events.
"This is about people's lives and experiences," he said. "They aren't just isolated experiences. They happen over and over and over again."
About 300 people, including local and state elected officials, packed into the basement of St. Francis de Sales Church to hear first-hand accounts -- from stories of questionable traffic stops to tales of racial slurs. They expressed optimism, however, that racial discrimination can be toppled through education and understanding.
The Rev. Wayne Coleman, the executive director of Core City Ministries, said that education should reach outside of the classroom.
"We're dealing with a weapon of mass destruction that is not hard to find," he said of racial stigmas. "If there's anybody who should be at the forefront, it should not just be the pastors but also the congregation."
The obligation to battle racism is laid out in religious doctrine, said Gail Harrison, the executive director of the ethnic diversity alliance. She cited the commandment to "love thy neighbor" as a reason the faith community should take the issue seriously.
"The faith community really needs to step up to the table," she said, adding that close to 10 area churches were actively involved in the meeting.
Danny Sphabmixay, a panelist and leader in West Michigan's Laotian community, said his daughter is experiencing the same sort of racial discrimination in her fourth-grade class that he did in the 1970s after he immigrated to the United States. She told him that other students didn't like her because she was different, he said.
"I didn't like that at all and now my daughter's going through the same thing," he said. "Let's get the parents educated and then let's get the children educated on 'What does it mean, this racism?' so we can all be one big, happy family in this wonderful community of Holland."
In order to overlook those differences in the classroom, a child needs to know that the differences don't matter at home, said John Reed, a 44-year-old bus driver from Holland. He said he is proud that he is doing his part to show his daughter, Breeanca, 20, that race doesn't matter.
"We are all responsible for what goes on in each other's lives," he said to a loud round of applause. "Failing to educate is failing the children.
"I am proud that when she marries ... her children won't know racism and their children won't know racism."