European-Americans getting together to combat stereotyping of whites

December 08, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Like their black, brown and yellow counterparts, some white Americans are tired of ethnic stereotyping and are fighting back.

Twenty-seven families have joined a European-American study group in San Jose that was founded five months ago to promote cultural understanding of Americans of European descent.

The group's message is this: Americans of European descent, typically lumped together as whites but from varied cultural backgrounds such as Irish, Polish and Italian, are being blamed for the troubles of non-whites and are stereotyped as oppressors.

The study group says that is unfair and inaccurate, even if it is believed by many whites and others.

Group members want to promote awareness and pride in European cultures, battle negative stereotypes and scapegoating, spread the word that whites also are victims of discrimination and hate crimes, and push for acceptance of the term European-American rather than Anglo or white.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, member Sarah McCall said, whites were "being told that we were guilty" in the plight of minorities. Now, the group contends, many whites wrongly accept guilt for past injustices they had nothing to do with.

The group maintains that while European-Americans made mistakes in the past, so did others.

The study group is an offshoot of the Irish Task Force, a San Jose group that fights Irish stereotyping. Irish Task Force members founded the European group, which is seeking a broader constituency, said Dale Warner, a San Jose attorney.

For example, he said, "If someone uses the term 'lily-white,' we'll contact them and explain that that shows insensitivity to European ethnic diversity."

Ms. McCall, who heads the Human Rights Committee of San Jose's Human Rights Commission, said that the group knows its message may be called racist, but that racism is not what it is about.

Mr. Warner, a former vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission, said he began to look at the plight of whites when, as a member of the human rights community, he was mistrusted because of his race.

"A woman on the Human Rights Commission actually denounced me on the grounds that I was a white Anglo male and therefore could not be trusted. It was my skin color, nothing else," said Mr. Warner.

The study group, he said, promotes the rights of all groups. It also has alliances with minorities, such as Latino activists, on issues of mutual concern, such as proposals for regional government.

Spelled out in letters to newspapers and politicians and at public meetings, the group's message of equal treatment for whites has met with understanding but caution.

"This could be a good thing or a bad thing," said Steve Fugita, a Japanese-American and director of ethnic studies at the University of Santa Clara. "Certainly they [whites] have been portrayed in an inappropriate, negative way in certain discussions and writings, and I think that ought to be corrected," he said.

But while sympathetic to concerns of whites, he said, some minorities might be paranoid about European-rights groups, -Z fearing they are political power plays from the right.

Not Rebecca K. Valdez, a Hispanic and editor of San Jose's El Observador newspaper.

"I don't see it as racist or negative," she said, calling the group's agenda a positive and genuine attempt to give whites a sense of identity. "You have to understand that they are now seeing themselves as a minority. . . . It's sort of an identity crisis that everyone goes through."

But, she said, "a lot of minorities don't want to hear how whites are oppressed because they don't believe it."

So far, the group includes people of German, Czechoslovak, French, Irish, Italian, Polish and English descent.

Ms. McCall, a teacher, said white children are getting the message that they either have no culture or come from an inherently malignant culture that oppresses others. Not only is that untrue, says Ms. McCall, but it's bad for their self-esteem if it is constantly hammered into their minds.

Here is a high school writing sample that Ms. McCall, who is Irish-American, uses to illustrate what the group says is happening. It is by a white student: "I do not understand why my friends get to show off costumes and songs about their race and I don't, but most of all I don't understand why my teacher won't let me tell about my Irish and German grandparents for the class multicultural magazine."

At Anaheim High School in Anaheim, Calif., a new European-American club has touched off a debate over whether white clubs have more potential for racial divisiveness because whites represent the majority culture -- even when they make up a minority of the student body.

The club was founded in response to clubs celebrating the other cultures represented at the school. The student body is about 72 percent Hispanic, 19 percent non-Hispanic white and 5 percent Asian.

School board members said they could not treat the club any differently from other ethnic clubs they have approved in the past.

Donald Freiberg, an immigration attorney in San Jose, no longer buys into what he calls the white guilt trip.

But, he says, when whites try to assert cultural pride, "We are easily confused with the KKK and groups with a racist agenda, and that simply is not true. It does not make me a racist, it just puts me on the same level as [the minority groups]."

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