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The New Minority : White students are vastly outnumbered in many L.A. schools--and they're feeling the sting of discrimination. But some say they wouldn't give up the pluses of diversity.

November 04, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One small word, uttered half in jest, reminds these students that they are different.

They squirm when history teachers bring up the contributions of their forebears.

They fear they will be stereotyped by skin color instead of treated as individuals.

They are white students, a minority in many public schools throughout Los Angeles County.

Look at the majority of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District: Fewer than 10% of students are white. The same is true in many suburbs. Alhambra Unified, for instance, is also less than 10% white.

"They're the ones who are left behind," says Gerda Steele, a Pasadena-based diversity consultant who is African American. "Nobody thinks about them because they're white. It's assumed they're going to survive, but they are dealing with the same things that minority kids deal with."

On many local campuses today, it is the white students who stick out, who get razzed because of their funny names and hair, who have assumptions made about their personalities or lifestyles.

As the demographic tables turn, white students are just beginning to experience a small taste of what traditional minority groups have undergone for years in white society.

White students realize that their stories might sound petty compared with the discrimination directed for years against African Americans, Asians, Latinos and other minorities. Still, these children live each day amid issues of race and prejudice that even adults find difficult to discuss.

Mavis Hildson, 15, a recent graduate of Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale, which is 95% minority and immigrant, says she once asked a black classmate about Martin Luther King Jr. and was told icily: "It's a black thing--you wouldn't know about it."

"Here I am trying to reach out and they don't want me," she says sadly. "People automatically assume I'm prejudiced because I'm white.

"We'd be talking about slavery, and all of a sudden, all the black people in class would turn around and stare at me," she recalls.

"Well, I didn't do it to them, it was my ancestors doing it to their ancestors, and it seems unfair that I have to pay. I am not my great-grandfather."

Iris Ring, 15, remembers clearly the pivotal day, at age 6, when she became aware of race. She was playing at her neighborhood park in La Puente, which is heavily Latino.

"Several girls came up to me and they said, 'This is a Mexican park, no white girls allowed.' I got angry and we started fighting. When I got home, I cried. I remember asking my mom, 'Why can't we be Mexican?' "

Some students attend mainly minority schools because of their family's progressive social beliefs. Others say their working-class parents can't afford private schools. For most of them, the issue is not race. They merely want the safest, cleanest and best education for their kids.

This demographic situation could not have been imagined a generation ago, when the dominant culture in Southern California was white. Textbooks praised George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Now, the California schools curriculum tries to impart a more ethnically diverse and less Eurocentric view of history and literature, bringing a new set of discomforts to the classroom: California textbooks teach how white settlers killed and took land belonging to Native Americans, exploited Latino farm workers, denied rights to Chinese and Japanese laborers, and enslaved blacks.

Elsie Cross, a diversity consultant based in Philadelphia, calls white students in mainly minority schools "little heroes." But while they may bear the brunt of individual discrimination, she says, they will graduate into a white-dominated society. Students of color still grow up into the more insidious world of institutional racism.

"Teachers will still treat white children better than black or Latino kids," says Cross, who is African American. "That white child is already armored by what society thinks of white people."

The plus side, educators hope, is that these students will be at the beginning of a truly diverse society, able to understand, work and play with different types of people.

"If we were raised with a lot of white people, we'd be more narrow-minded," says Jeremy Cutler, a 1993 graduate of La Puente High School, which is 97% minority.

His sister Mindy, 17, a senior at La Puente High, agrees. After years in mainly Latino schools, she is uncomfortable in all-white settings. It feels, well, foreign.

"Here, you're exposed to different cultures and backgrounds and it makes you a more well-rounded person," she says. "I don't really see any cultural tradition that white people have. But I envy Latin culture, it's so enriched with tradition."

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