2007-12-23 Holland Sentinel "Program opens eyes to racism"

Program opens eyes to racism
The Holland Sentinel

Can you go shopping alone at night without worrying you're being followed?

The answer to that question may depend on the color of your skin, according to Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

And it's one of many questions Harrison asks a racially mixed group of people, from business owners to college students, during an exercise called "Unpacking the Knapsack," for the Institute for Healing Racism, which has been co-sponsored by LEDA and the Holland Chamber of Commerce for five years.

The next eight-week winter session begins Feb. 5.During the activity, participants are asked to step forward each time they identify with statements such as, "When I'm told about my heritage or civilization, I'm shown that people of my color made it what it is," or "I can open the newspaper and see people of my race represented."The exercise, Harrison said, demonstrates "white privilege" -- advantages many whites don't realize they have.

"People look around to see where they're standing compared to their colleagues," she said. "And what I hear from people is, 'Now I get it.'"Racism in the United States has changed since segregation, Harrison said.

That's why the program focuses on how people discriminate subconsciously."In today's world, 80 or 90 percent of us say we're not racist," Harrison said.

"But the truth is people are unaware of the unintentional biases they have."As an example, Harrison cited a survey LEDA performed in 2005 in which students contacted landlords about rental housing over four weekends, calling once with "white-sounding" names and then again with African or Latino-sounding names.

"We noted differential treatment -- who got calls returned, who got asked to come see the apartment, who was told how much rent was," Harrison said. "Yet if you were to ask (landlords), 'Do you not want blacks or Latinos living here?' they'd say no, that there are laws against that."These are the business practices that the Institute on Healing Racism works to eradicate, she said.

Jane Clark, president of the Holland Chamber of Commerce, said the program has become important for a community that is diverse."We want to have a city that is accepting and welcoming of people from all over the world," she said.

Mike Strohauer, mortgage officer for Chemical Bank who participated in last spring's event, said listening to stories others shared during the sessions about being ignored or excluded in public were emotional and intense.

And they've prompted him to look at race relations in a new way."I'm speaking out and speaking up now," when he sees discrimination happening, he said. "I'm not quiet."

To sign up for the next Institute on Healing Racism, contact the Holland Chamber of Commerce at (616) 392-2389.FACTS

Institute for Healing Racism
Co-sponsored by Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Holland Chamber of Commerce
Eight-week winter session begins Feb. 5Information: (616) 392-2389