FOR THE RECORD (January 20, 1998): Identification wrong: Penny Pearson was the person pictured sitting behind a statue of Rosa Parks on Monday Page 1. Pearson was misidentified in the caption.
These are lessons in hate and love, prejudice and the possibility of reconciliation.
The lessons go beyond the classrooms of Whitworth College and into America’s inner cities - the busy streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.
To learn these lessons, 21 Whitworth students are on a monthlong journey across the country. Their goal is to experience racism and prejudice through the eyes of those who know firsthand.
To understand people, you have to walk in their shoes, said Jim Waller, the Whitworth psychology professor who is traveling with the students.
“We can’t literally jump into someone else’s skin,” he said, “but for a brief period of time, we can expose ourselves to the history, contributions, celebrations and suffering of the people in our country.”
The trip is part of Waller’s psychology course called “Prejudice Across America.” The students, who have kept in touch by telephone, left Spokane on Jan. 5. They’ll be back Jan. 28.
Racism isn’t only about the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, Waller said. People also must learn about their own prejudices and gain some insight into what it’s like to live as a minority.
The students - all Caucasian - can’t learn that in Spokane, a city where 92 percent of the population is white.
“You have to take them to a place where they’re on someone else’s ground,” Waller said. “We’ve been in situations when we’re the only white faces.”
The students have been traveling by train and stopping at cities like Los Angeles, Memphis and New Orleans. They spend time in racially diverse neighborhoods, sleep in youth hostels and talk to people about their experiences with prejudice.
It’s uncomfortable sometimes because the students aren’t used to seeing so many people of color, said Penny Pearson, a junior who grew up in the Denver area. They’re not accustomed to being one of the few white people walking down the street or taking the bus.
“You notice what minority means,” she said.
Jennifer Lee, a 22-year-old senior from Spokane, didn’t have much of an opportunity to learn about race and culture until college, she said. She’s become even more aware during this trip.
After touring San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee said she’s learned about what’s most important to the Chinese: family, respect and education.
“These people have endured so much,” said Lee, a psychology major. “It’s tougher for them to get certain privileges, certain things that (white people) don’t even consider privileges.”
But there also are times when the stereotypes kick in, students admitted. Some expressed surprise to see rich or middle-class African-Americans in Chicago’s South Side, Waller said. They also weren’t prepared for the well-kept murals in one mostly Hispanic community. They expected them to be defaced or vandalized.
“I never considered myself a racist,” Pearson said. “But there are different forms of racism. Because of this, I’ve realized that I have my own prejudices.”
White Americans don’t typically get interested in race relations unless they “can be romanced,” said Waller, a 36-year-old who grew up in the South during the ‘60s. Some get involved because they think it’s morally right. Others because of the economic benefits.
The format of the tour - a trip across America - helps students get excited about the subject of race relations, he said.
More than 100 Whitworth students applied for the trip, but only a fifth were selected. This is the second time in Whitworth’s history that the course was offered.
The cost was $1,650 and included visits to national museums and historical sites. Before they left, students were required to read several books including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why We Can’t Wait” and Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a novel about the Holocaust.
So far, it’s been overwhelming, students say. Some broke down into tears during discussions with black activists and Chinese immigrants. A few showed remorse.
“I’ve felt some guilt because it’s taken me so long to get in touch with this issue (of race),” Lee said. “We’ve come a long way with diversity, but we’ve hit a plateau. …What more do we need to do to promote diversity and happiness between people of different races?”
Still, she hopes to take this knowledge back to Spokane, back to Whitworth and to her job at a local youth crisis center.
Pearson, 20, wants to start by refusing to tolerate racial slurs or negative stereotypes. When people made jokes about a certain group, she used to laugh, she said, or remain silent. Now, she won’t put up with it, even if the people making the statements are friends or members of her family.
The trip has also inspired her to learn about her own Swedish culture. Throughout the journey, Pearson has met people who have expressed so much pride in their race and heritage, as well as their temples and their churches.
“I’m almost jealous,” she admitted. “I appreciated their culture so much it makes me want to get in touch with my own culture.
“It’s all so sacred. They’ve taught me that culture and family and tradition are so important.”
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