Finding a cure for prejudice
Institute treats insensitive attitudes as a pervasive illness
BY RICK VANGROUW
The Holland Sentinel
One spring day in 2003, Eleanor Lopez of Hamilton stood with her back against a wall. Marianna Maver, a close friend, stood nearby. Others were there, too.
A voice described a true-false scenario: "I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time."
Lopez didn't move. Mayer, a Caucasian, took a step forward.
The voice said, "If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live."
Again, Lopez held still. Again, the majority of the group, including Mayer, stepped forward.
After 15 true-false assertions, a broad gulf separated Lopez and Mayer. Others -- African American, Latino, Asian -- were scattered throughout the room.
"When they asked us to turn around, we both looked at each other and we were amazed," Lopez said. 'She said, 'You're way over there,' and I said, 'Yeah, 'I'm over here.' It was pretty powerful."
This so-called "unpacking the invisible knapsack" exercise, designed to depict white privilege in American culture, is an important lesson of the 10-week curriculum of the Institute for Healing Racism. Lopez, manager of information resources at Holland Hospital, is one of more than 400 area residents who have taken part in the institute since the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance first offered it in winter 2001.
"It's pretty clear that racism is alive and well and it's a root cause to so many other things," said Jay Peters, executive director of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance and president of Development Strategies, .
Peters participated in that same institute in April 2003. He, too, was moved by the invisible knapsack exercise.
"It was a really, really powerful thing," he said. "Half the class actually broke down with emotion because it is such a powerful demonstration of what people of color live with on a day to day basis."
Begun in the 1980s in Texas, independent Institutes for Healing Racism have since sprung up across the nation.
"The institute model is about looking at racism as a social pathology, as an illness," said Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. "Our society is racist and has been built on racism. We have been influenced by that. Regardless of the fact that we want to be good people, we need to understand how our perceptions have influenced us."
The Institutes have taken firm root in West Michigan, with seven organizations offering sessions in racial healing in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland.
Each institute session unfolds as a metaphor for clear communication and equality: Participants and facilitators sit shoulder to shoulder in a circle with nothing separating them.
"It's symbolic, but it also means there is no hierarchy," Harrison said. "Sessions are led by two facilitators, and one is always a person of color and the other is always white. We are there simply to facilitate the discussion that follows the exercise."
Mixed-race sessions are vital, and sometimes painful, Peters said.
"You have to have people of color or people who are discriminated against to make it effective," he said. "For them it's like ripping scabs off old wounds every time they do this. But they're willing to do it because they see the lightbulb go off in the (Caucasian) people."
Sessions begin with participants sharing examples of racism culled from newspapers, magazines and other media.
"Then we might watch a video about the history of racism or current manifestations or something that helps us to better understand racism," Harrison said.
Participants also do a lot of talking.
Fred Johnson, an assistant professor of history at Hope College, moved to Holland in 2000 and joined LEDA as a board member, participating in an Institute for Racial Healing in 2002.
"As an African-American participant in the institute, (other participants) were surprised at our commonalities," Johnson said. "Some people were surprised at the impact that racism continues to have, not just in the Holland area, and its ongoing influence as a result. Something can be consistent in a very passive sort of way; this is consistent in a very impactful way."
Johnson went on to receive training as a facilitator. He and Harrison are leading an institute that starts Thursday.
"There is a pattern for facilitation, a road map," he said. "I emphasize that the road map is there only to guide the facilitators because the emphasis is put on allowing people to express themselves. ... I try to make people understand this is not a vehicle to attack people for whatever inequities have occurred in the past. In any kind of a group setting, you have to earn the people's trust. ... It's an amazing transformation. When people start engaging, when it's going well, the people will take it over themselves."
The sessions can get emotional; they are designed to stir emotions.
"It's a safe zone to have these discussions," said Peters, of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance. "The discussions are taken to a level very few have had before, listening to people and watching videos of people who say, 'I'm not a racist,' and then in interviews see that they do act differently when they're in the company of minorities, not because they want to but because of very similar ways they've been raised. Racism is perpetuated by very well-meaning people."
Graduates say the institutes have a profound impact.
"After this class, any time you hear any type of joke with a racial slur, you will hear it in a very different way," Peters said. "It's one of those takeaway things. You might find that the scales are plucked from your eyes."
Johnson said that after an institute, "Everybody was moved to a point they had to reassess how they viewed themselves and others. It was most pleasing to hear that if someone was standing in a store line and saw something going on, for example someone berating the clerk's English skills, before, they would think it was just a way of doing business. But now it bothers them. They want to do something."
Harrison attended an institute in January 1996 in Muskegon. In June, the first meeting of what would become the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance took place.
"That's not a typical response," Harrison said. "Usually it's on a smaller scale -- saying something when someone tells an ethnic joke, building a neighborhood community where you get together for a block party, doing something in your church community. We will talk with participants about what are the opportunities for building a more racially inclusive community. We hope that they're not only educated, but are given a springboard for change."