A learning experience from racial differences La. college course breaks color barrier

May 21, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

SHREVEPORT, La. -- Some students travel halfway around the world to learn about another culture.

Charlotte Huff's journey was less than a mile, and it took her from her mostly white, working-class neighborhood to a mostly black neighborhood in this city, which some say still prides itself on being the last capital of the Confederacy.

Ms. Huff, a graduate student at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, spent 10 weeks this spring with an African-American family as part of a course called the Bi-Racial Undergraduate Learning Experience.

She slept in Carrie Coleman's teen-age daughter's bedroom. She ate with the Colemans at their kitchen table. She shopped with them at Wal-Mart, visited their favorite barbershop in the " 'hood," even sang in the gospel choir with the Colemans at an all-black Baptist Church.

LSU-Shreveport is offering its students an opportunity to learn first-hand about life in the homes of other racial groups.

"I wanted to be in a black family to see if they were the same, to see if they had the same family ties," said Ms. Huff, 24. "I wanted to know how the men reacted. I wanted to see if a black woman was like a white woman, if their roles were the same or harder. Did a black woman have to work twice as hard to make the same money?"

Ms. Coleman, who is taking the same course, placed Ms. Huff under similar close scrutiny. She wanted to know if the things her mother taught her about whites were true, that whites were "nasty, could not be trusted, were lazy, and ate from the same bowls their cats ate out of."

Students in the program are expected to become leaders in race relations, helping to erase stereotypes and breaking down racial barriers on college campuses, in the workplace and in the community.

The concept is being tested in Shreveport, a city of about 200,000 where race relations have reached a boiling point. Norman Dolch, a sociology professor at the university who created the program last year, believes if the exchange idea can work in Shreveport, it can work anywhere. The program is being monitored closely by social scientists across the nation, Mr. Dolch said.

"The reason for the extended time is, if you put them in a home for a weekend, everybody will have a wonderful time," Mr. Dolch said. "They will wine and dine each other. We want blacks and whites talking about racial issues. After three weeks, you must talk around the dinner table about what life is really like."

So far, only three students, including Ms. Huff and Ms. Coleman, have enrolled in the three-credit, independent study class.

Keena Franklin is one of four African-American faculty members on the campus and teaches a course called Minorities in America. Her "liberal-minded" students did not sign up for the class because, they said, " 'My dad will kill me.' "

Demographics have changed in Shreveport, she said, but attitudes have not. Shreveport, according to Ms. Franklin, is still a city where "relationships between whites and blacks are based jTC on how well we like our maid," and the old social question "Did my grandfather know your grandfather?"

Blacks make up about 50 percent of the population, but they have made little progress politically or economically. Many live in poor areas of the city with dilapidated housing and high unemployment and crime rates.

Ms. Huff grew up in a predominantly white, working-class community and attended integrated schools.

A marriage ended in divorce, and she has returned to live with her parents in their three-bedroom, brick house on a street shaded by tall pine trees. White families are beginning to move out of the subdivision as black families move in.

Ms. Huff has black friends and would often invite them to her home, in an area where blacks were once unwelcome. Whites once threatened to boycott a birthday party she was host of because she invited blacks.

Ms. Coleman, the mother of four, grew up in a poor neighborhood that whites rarely visited. She attended a racially mixed high school, but she said the atmosphere was not friendly. Blacks did not want to be there and whites did not want them there, she said.

Ms. Coleman once depended on welfare, but now she works in the front office at the university and lives in a middle-class neighborhood where she owns a four-bedroom, brick house.

During Ms. Huff's stay, she and Ms. Coleman discovered they had a lot of differences: language usage, eating habits and reactions to movies.

Ms. Huff described her hair as "tangled" when it needed to be combed, while Ms. Coleman described hers as "nappy." Ms. Huff eats tuna out of the can, bakes her chicken and drinks low-fat milk. Ms. Coleman dresses her tuna up with mayonnaise, fries her chicken and likes onions, pickles and spices.

But the two women shared more similarities than differences, such as feelings about religion, family and career. Their chats, which sometimes had them talking past midnight, helped Ms. Huff gain a new respect for black women.

"If I was in a hiring position, I would look twice at a black woman because of their strength. They give a lot," said Ms. Huff, who is preparing a research paper on the experience. "I always pictured black women as resentful of what they have to give, and I don't see that resentfulness."

Ms. Coleman said Ms. Huff has helped changed her attitudes about whites, even though she still experiences racism daily.

"For my children, I know they will encounter prejudice and discrimination in this world, but when they encounter a negative experience, they can look back and see Charlotte," Ms. Coleman said.

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