2004-01-27 Muskegon Chronicle Forum on racism focuses on need for diversity

Forum on racism focuses on need for diversity
Muskegon Chronicle

As a senior at Grand Haven High School, n institution with few people of color, 17-year-old Denny Chan, a Chinese American, knows a thing or two about race relations. Standing at a podium and microphone Monday night at a forum on racism, Chan sounded like a seasoned politician when he discussed his thoughts on racism in Ottawa County.

Chan, a member of Grand Haven High School’s EMBRACE club-Erasing Margins Between Races and Creeds-said one problem in Ottawa County is that some people overlook the problem by not thinking racism exists here. Chan said he recently went to a local restaurant with classmates seeking a donation for EMBRACE. The restaurant’s manager quickly quipped: “We don’t have a problem with racism here. It’s more a problem in Holland,” Chan said.

Chan smiled as he told the crowd that after a little convincing, the manager eventually gave him a donation. The forum, attended by about 50 people, was sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. The goal of the summit is to find solutions to racism in West Michigan.

Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance spokeswoman Gail Harrison said African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities are discriminated against during job searches and attempts to find housing. Some panelists and members of the audience said a lack of diversity is a problem for Grand Haven and Ottawa County. According to our records, Grand Haven’s population is 96.3 percent white, with remaining percentages divided African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.

Understanding racism starts with education, and while the Grand Haven school district has taken steps toward that goal, more needs to be done, Chan said. For instance, last week, students got Martin Luther King Jr. Day off from school. But on the school district’s calendar, the day wasn’t listed as a holiday. Instead, it was listed as a “records day”-which meant teachers were required to show up and work on grades and lesson plans.

That night, the school board’s meeting went on as scheduled. And that’s not something the board does for other holidays, Chan said. Chan said that needs to change. “That day is coming soon,” he told the crowd. “The work of a great leader is not being promoted and students are not seeing the importance of his work.” School districts need better multicultural curriculums, he said.

Develyn Howard of Grand Haven, an African American, spoke during the town meeting as well. She said racism has forced her to make a concerted effort to dress nicely and speak with proper grammar so people don’t peg her as an uneducated. If she doesn’t do those things, she fears she’ll be followed by security guards while walking through local grocery stores. And she said she can’t stop that voice of doubt form speaking inside her head sometimes. For instance, if a line opens up in the grocery store and the clerk invites a white person to be first to check out, she wonders if she wasn’t picked because she’s black.

Harrison said information shared during Monday’s meeting will be discussed in greater detail during next month’s Ottawa Area Summit on Racism at Hope College.