Students take time to study stereotyping 12th-graders organize week of talks, events at Wilde Lake High

'We're not all bad'

One Muslim student shares death threat left in her locker

December 28, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Assmaa El-Haggan stands in front of her Wilde Lake High School classmates and talks candidly about the life of a veiled Muslim teen-ager in Columbia.

Like any senior, she has homework and college applications.

But she also has had a death threat left in her locker.

"The note said, 'I want to skin you. I want to get rid of these Muslims from this school,' " she says. "They called me a 'sand nigger.' "

No one moves in the diverse crowd of teen-agers. Eyebrows go up. Moments later, the conversation begins.

Candid, honest, disarming, it is the type of conversation that Assmaa had in mind when she and two 12th-grade classmates -- Surobhi Mansur and Lauren Berry -- conceived and planned a week of discussion and celebration of cultural diversity.

Assmaa is a student commissioner with the county Office of Human Rights, and Surobhi is an intern with the director of that office. Lauren works with an international nonprofit group -- the National Coalition Building Institute -- that seeks to combat prejudice; she wants to start a chapter at Wilde Lake, which would be the first in a Howard school.

The 1,400-student campus is one of Howard County's most diverse. Barely half its students are white; more than a third are black. There are Ethiopians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. There are dozens of immigrants, more than 50 who don't speak English fluently. Some call it the United Nations.

"This is like a microcosm of the real world," says Roger Plunkett, the principal. "If they can survive here, they can make it out there."

Surobhi says: "You come to our school and you're surrounded by people of other cultures and religions. We pass in the hallways."

Adds Assmaa: "But we don't even acknowledge one another. Now we're giving them a chance to shine."

Says Lauren: "If you just give people a chance to vent their feelings without being interrupted -- it's a relief to get some things off their chest."

For several hours just before the holiday break, the teen-agers talk about stereotypes based on race, gender, religion -- any group identification.

Like Assmaa and her description of the death threat, they approach the sticky topics head-on. Their language is raw, their emotions on the table.

They are not afraid to point fingers and use words rarely spoken above a whisper. But there is no animosity, only earnest discussion.

"All Indians work at quickie marts and Jews dominate the economy -- there are so many stereotypes," says Surobhi.

Says Leonie Prao, a ninth-grader: "People always say black women have a bad attitude. They say we have hair weaves and fake nails, and we're all on welfare sitting around at home with a bunch of kids. A black woman on television basically looks like a 'ho.' I'm sick of it."

Another student leaps head-first into the fray. Listing stereotypes of white men, he jockeys from the politically edgy to the stereotypically comic to the unspeakable in one breath:

"Don't think think every white male is a racist. Don't think we're at fault in any type of oppression that's happened in the past," senior Kevin Jones tells about 125 students. "White men don't always get jobs before everybody else."

He continues: "I don't want anyone to think white men can't jump." Catcalls and a smattering of applause.

Then the kicker. "Don't think white males are any less, you know, endowed than anyone else."

A stunned silence, a gasp, giggles. Kevin, blushing, get claps on the back from his friends as he takes his seat.

Students such as Kevin -- who voice the thoughts many are afraid to utter -- were the heroes that day. These youths seem eager to confront head-on topics that members of their parents' generation usually sidle up to nervously.

The week starts with a cultural bazaar -- exhibits and dances, music and food, even an unusual rear-end-bumping dance that two male students from Liberia perform.

"No one even laughed," Surobhi says. "It was totally respectful."

Later, a heated but relatively friendly one-hour Youth Rap on affirmative action is held.

At the end of the week is the full day of caucuses on stereotypes. One by one, classes file into the auxiliary gym and cafeteria, a melange of teen-age America -- low-slung trousers and puffy jackets, silver lipstick and combat boots, boys in preppy garb and girls with cropped hair.

They are asked to define themselves by the group to which they belong. Black women, white women, women. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Asians. Black men, white men, men. Musicians, blonds, wrestlers, procrastinators. They may choose only one.

One student wants an "other" category because, she says, "You get sick of being put into a group when you don't feel you belong to anything."

The interface begins before the groups form.

"Aw, man, you're a sellout," says one half-joking student to another who chooses the athletes group over the black male group. "You've got to go with the black man," he says, chuckling and raising a black-power fist.

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