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His Message: Deal With Differences : Culture: Psychologist Terrence Roberts teaches fellow African-Americans how to address race and class issues.

September 02, 1993|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COVINA — As a boy, Pasadena psychologist Terrence Roberts curled up with a peanut butter sandwich and a comic book to read a tale that illuminated a painful reality about racism in America.

Flash Gordon travels to Mars with his super-hero pals. Though the Martians understand English and plan a welcome party, Flash and his men don't speak Martian. Because of their ignorance, they assume the Martians are hostile, and blow them away.

"They cook all of these Martians," Roberts recently told a crowd at Covina's sprawling Faith Community Church.

"So what did I learn about difference? I learned you zap Martians. And how do you know they're Martians? They speak a different language and they look different from me. You learn about difference that way, and unless you do something about it, it takes over you."

Roberts, one of the first African-American teen-agers to integrate Southern public schools in 1957, decided to do something about it.

Now, he is teaching people to overcome their differences and see past barriers of race and class. To African-Americans attending Roberts' 10-week seminar at the Covina church, Roberts also sends this message: Self-awareness and a clear understanding of the realities of discrimination are the first steps to thriving in a racist society.

Learning how to deal with racism "is probably the central issue," Roberts said of the Monday seminars, which end Sept. 20. "All the other things--learning how to cope with life issues, how to work in relationships, how to be assertive--have to be looked at in the context of being African-American."

Roberts, 51, an assistant dean of student services at the UCLA school of social welfare and an eight-year Pasadena resident, speaks from experience.

He is one of the "Little Rock Nine," the group of high school students who, protected by the Army's 101st Airborne Division, marched through mobs of jeering whites into Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., to turn court-ordered desegregation into reality in 1957.

The youths braved daily abuse as white students spat on them, swore at them, and broke into their lockers and stole their books.

But with the proper tools and internal resources, anger, frustration and a feeling of helplessness can be overcome, he now teaches.

The civil rights era placed race squarely on his agenda, Roberts said. His ultimate goal, however, is to get it off.

"Racism," he mused at a Monday seminar, "I wish it would go away . . . poof . . . then I could just be Terry Roberts. Now, I have to be Terry Roberts, African-American, with all the baggage that it brings."

Parents of African American Children for Christ, a Faith Community group founded in part to "equip African-American children to live successfully in a diverse society," is sponsoring the Monday seminars.

The program has covered everything from dating and teamwork to dealing with family criticism, how to accept the fact that teen-agers are unruly and will not always do what they're told, and Roberts' own recipe for deflecting hurtful taunts, racist or otherwise.

"If someone comes at me with cold steel, I give them pure silk. It doesn't get cut. It just flows with the blade," Roberts told the audience.

Organizers stressed that Roberts' lessons are for everyone, and the sessions have attracted an ethnically mixed crowd. They were, however, scheduled with the needs of African-American families in mind.

Gloria Williams, a Walnut resident who founded the parents' group, said the African-American youths who attend Faith Community Church are constantly confronted by negative media stereotypes of black teen-agers.

"The gang activity and the poor grammar, the ignorance and all of the four-letter words that seem to be so prevalent in movies and the media about the African-American family do not reflect the values we have," said Williams, referring to the middle-class, Christian families who attend her church.

Williams said Roberts was already familiar to her from his other local workshops for African-Americans and the pages of old history books depicting his history-making days, when she started talking with friends about bringing him to the church.

Roberts said he hopes to teach the young people some lessons about coping with racism.

"Here are a group of kids who, for all intents and purposes, are no different from any other kids except for their skin color," Roberts said. "But because of that, they're forced to think about a whole lot of things. Just planning a day's activities, you have to plan for what might occur. It might mean being rousted by the police because there's 'a rapist loose in the neighborhood,' or getting poor service somewhere.

"The idea is to make sure that there's a response system in place that enables the person to channel that anger into a useful avenue, and not to blame self."

As for the teen-agers, some said Roberts' lessons are common sense.

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