Children shown path to tolerance

March 20, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Sun Staff Writer

Fourteen-year-old Kim Riley struggled to find words to explain why she wouldn't touch a snake, even if people she respected and trusted told her the reptile was harmless.

"I just don't like [snakes], the way they feel. Like Jell-O, or something," Kim said, her face reddening under the intense stares of her West Middle School classmates. "They're different."

It is a similar, inexplicable dislike and fear of differences that causes racial conflicts, said Richard Bucher, a member of Carroll's Community Relations Commission.

"Snakes are stereotyped. People think that all snakes are harmful," Dr. Bucher said last week during his talk with eighth-grade students at the school. "Some people are like that to people of other races, or who are different from them.

"But maybe they are not what you think," Dr. Bucher suggested. "Maybe some snakes don't feel like Jell-O."

Dr. Bucher used such ideas to illustrate the points of his lecture: "Understanding and respecting people who are different."

The middle-school talk kicked off Carroll County's second annual Community Relations Week, which officially begins today.

"Too often we are reactive in this county instead of pro-active," Dr. Bucher said before the lecture.

"We should be educating people about the problems to prevent future problems."

Crowded into a second-floor classroom, about 40 students discovered the prevalence of subtle discrimination.

They watched a video in which two teen-age males -- one white, one African-American -- were equipped with hidden cameras while they walked casually down the street, sometimes asking people for change for a dollar.

The passers-by met the white teen's eyes and eagerly opened their purses and wallets to offer assistance. But, as the black teen approached, one woman turned on her heel and slipped into a nearby store, and another clutched her necklace as he passed.

And with only one exception, none of the people -- including several businessmen on a lunch break -- acknowledged having change when they were approached by the black youth.

The students also discussed prejudice against people because of abilities, behavior and intelligence, as evidenced in such terms as "retard," "geek" or "nerd."

"Why are we prejudiced?" Dr. Bucher asked the students. "How do we learn prejudice?"

"[We are prejudiced] because another person is different from us," said one girl. "I don't think we're born with it."

Other youngsters chimed in: We learn from parents. From schoolmates. From television.

"If the only contact you had with a certain group was through television, you'd have a pretty strange idea of what those people were like," Dr. Bucher said.

The students said that getting to know people who are different would help eliminate stereotyping.

Student Jay Moody gave an example of how people avoid those different from themselves: when "the yo's [hip-hop, street-wise] sit on one side of the room and the head-bangers [loud heavy metal music listeners] on the other."

Kim suggested a way to deal with prejudice. "Look past what they [other people] look like on the outside," Kim told the class. "See what they're like on the inside."

Dr. Bucher congratulated the class members for overcoming their initial awkwardness and discomfort at the topic.

"We'd rather not talk about this stuff," said Dr. Bucher, director of the Baltimore City Community College's Institute for InterCultural Understanding. "But we should talk about it; it's important to talk about it."

Patricia Gibson, a social studies teacher, agreed. "The more you talk about it, the better it is, the more problems you can solve," said Ms. Gibson, who, with language arts teacher Patricia Wolf, sponsored Dr. Bucher's visit.

Activities planned for this week include an awards dinner at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Frisco Family Pub in Westminster. The speaker will be the Rev. Bernard Keels, superintendent of the northwest district of the Baltimore/Washington United Methodist Conference and host of WBAL-AM's "Black Journey."

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