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School Club Tries to Bridge an Ethnic Gap

January 15, 1987|DOUG BROWN | Times Staff Writer

Josslyn Luckett's parents had trouble buying a house in Orange County because her dad is black and her mom is white.

Anh Lu fled Vietnam seeking freedom, only to find that some Americans shun Indochinese.

Jenny Adcock found racial separation here a painful reminder of the segregation practiced by fellow whites in her native South Africa.

The three Woodbridge High School students said they are troubled by the ethnic divisions they see at their Irvine school.

"The Asians stick together; the blacks stick together, and the whites stick together," said Jenny, 17, a senior. "Most kids here don't see anything wrong with their not having any friends outside their own ethnic group."

To turn the commemoration of Martin Luther King's birthday into something more than a day off from school, the students this week helped stage a series of skits, films and talks on the life of the late civil rights leader.

They said their Freedom Celebration was an attempt to bridge the gap between the different ethnic groups on the 1,450-student campus.

On Tuesday about 400 students lunched on sandwiches, chips and milk in the school's main quad as they listened to speakers from six civil rights groups in Orange County.

Later many stopped by information tables manned by representatives from Amnesty International, the Vietnamese Community Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the Orange County Human Relations Commission and MECHA (Movement of Mexican-American Students in the Southwest). They passed out flyers and discussed their groups' aims.

Surveying this scene, Josslyn, Anh and Jenny said they hoped that their classmates were gaining a greater awareness of the need for racial reconciliation. That's one of the goals of their club, Woodbridge High School Cares: Vision. It sponsored four days of activities ending today to coincide with King's birthday.

The intercultural club's 30 students have also attempted to increase social and political activism on campus by raising money for overseas victims of natural disasters and running food drives for Orange County's hungry.

Despite Woodbridge's upper middle-class homogeneity, the student body is ethnically diverse: 60% white, 22% Asian, 10% Latino and 8% black, said activities director Colleen Cross.

"I'm not aware of any racial conflict," said Cross, who helped organize the Freedom Celebration. "If it exists, it must be very subtle."

But students said ethnic tensions do exist, especially focusing on Asians. Their proportion of the student body has jumped from 5% to 22% in just two years.

"You always see the Asians together . . . in the library or the multipurpose room," said Josslyn, 17, a senior. "They're so quiet and unobtrusive. I wish there was some way we could break through those barriers that separate them from us."

Success Resented

Asians are most resented for their academic success. Josslyn said, "Kids will say: 'I didn't get an A because there were too many Asians in the class.' "

Added Jenny: "People use Asians as an excuse for the grades they get. . . . Kids ask: 'Why did (Asians) do so well?' They never ask: 'Why don't I do better (by studying harder)?' "

Anh, who escaped Vietnam nine years ago, said many Asians don't feel they are accepted by their classmates.

"The Vietnamese came to America for freedom, not for people to look down on them," said the 15-year-old sophomore. "Maybe Asians, Caucasians and blacks don't get close because they feel insecure around each other."

He stopped by the Vietnamese Community Center table to talk to Ha Ngan Hoang, the organization's youth counselor, to see how he could help Vietnamese students overcome the isolation he said they often feel at Woodbridge.

Advice to White Teens

Jenny said she believes some white teens in Irvine wouldn't be as prejudiced if they thought less about their "cars and clothes." They should try to learn what life is like in an authoritarian country where people have few, if any, civil rights, she said.

"As an immigrant myself (from South Africa in 1979), I understand the motivations of the Asians. The way to succeed in this country is to do well in school.

"If you were Vietnamese and had risked your life fleeing the Communists, wouldn't you make the most of the opportunities offered in this country?"

Despite the enthusiasm of students who participated, the majority of Woodbridge students opted instead to have lunch elsewhere on the campus or at nearby eateries.

"I just forgot about it," said Lisa Remley, as she returned from having lunch off campus.

Lisa, 17, a reporter for the school newspaper, said she didn't believe "many kids are participating (in the Freedom Celebration)."

Positive Sign Seen

"They're just not interested," she said. "I guess if you live someplace where you feel oppressed, you'd care about (civil rights). Here, all the Martin Luther King holiday means to most kids is that you have another day off to go skiing."

But Woodbridge Principal Greg Cops saw the turnout of 400 students as a positive sign. "We've had an increase in our population of Asian-Americans. That's caused some cultural misunderstanding.

Events like Freedom Celebration are helping break down "subtle cultural misunderstandings," he said. "We're trying to raise students' awareness that despite their ethnic differences, they are now all Americans."

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