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Retreat Brings Teachers Face to Face With Other Races--and Themselves

Faced with ethnic tensions in schools, African American, Latino, Asian and white instructors meet to discuss cultural stereotypes and confront their own biases.


On a breezy seaside bluff in Malibu, far from the urban schools where they teach, 98 teachers attended a recent weekend retreat to come to grips with their own attitudes about race and ethnicity.

In heated, sometimes painful, exercises and discussions supervised by mediators from the National Conference for Community and Justice, the group reflected the cross-cultural tumult that has challenged Los Angeles and its campuses for decades.

In one particularly tense session, African Americans, Asians, whites and Latinos took turns speaking out about the things they never want to see happen to their respective groups again.

African Americans told of others tucking purses under their arms at the sight of them, and of being followed in stores by security officers. Asians were fed up with stories about how their women are servile and their children overachieving.

Latinos never again wanted to hear the word "wetback," or to see legislation that, as one put it, "harms my people." Whites were tired of being told they were privileged, that they didn't understand discrimination, and that they were to blame for historic injustices against people of other races.

"For me, this weekend has been like medicine, nutrition," said Antoinette Austin, an African American middle school teacher. "It makes me healthy to dialogue with my peers about these sensitive issues."

Austin's remarks addressed the primary goal of the three-day retreat sponsored by the nonprofit human relations organization formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Like a growing number of ethnic awareness programs, the Santa Monica Mountains campsite retreat was more about developing self-awareness in teachers than providing a list of rules for "getting along."

"Teachers are taught not to look at race; they are taught to be colorblind," said Lecia Brooks, director of the retreat. "But here, teachers look at themselves as members of specific groups, then try to assess their impact in classroom settings."

"They have to have an appreciation for who they are as members of a specific identity group," she added, "before they can relate to students from different cultures and begin the work of community building."

Brooks' approach is also advocated by Los Angeles Unified School District officials involved in counseling teachers who may feel uncomfortable tackling these topics in class.

"In the old days, we'd spend a few hours with teachers talking about how to make friends by learning about the ethnic foods folks eat and the days they celebrate," said William Sparks, a seasoned counselor with the district's intergroup relations branch.

Now the feeling is that "people have to find their own way to deal with the social complexities they are living in," Sparks said.

Concern about race relations on campuses, combined with the large number of new emergency-credentialed instructors in the district, may account for the record 98 teachers who showed up for this year's retreat, Brooks said.

Recent incidents of racial clashes include a principal's reported beating by two young men who said they didn't want him on campus because he is white, racially tinged shouting matches between parents and students at several Los Angeles schools, and Inglewood High School's decision to scrap its traditional observances of Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo because of tensions between black and Latino students.

Many of the participants in the retreat seemed shaken to the core by revelations about themselves and others.

Take elementary school teacher Kathy Stimpfel. When her principal told her about a chance to spend a weekend in Malibu she exclaimed, "Take me away!"

But after a day and a half of listening to the grievances of others, she openly wondered, "Well, gee, what is my own culture? Am I privileged?"

She was not the only white teacher who felt adrift without fixed points.

"I feel kind of bad that just because we're white, people lump us together with all the bad stuff," said third-grade teacher Karen Cabot. "Gosh, we had nothing to do with some of these issues."

"I didn't know people were this upset about things," she added. "It's sad."

"Ditto," said elementary teacher Rae Luce.

In another room, African American teachers complained out loud about white parents who accuse them of picking on their children for racial reasons, and a Latino teacher told horror stories about Latino children harassing a black classmate.

Then there was preschool teacher Virginia Crosson, a Latina who arrived with an open mind but was "shocked to learn something about myself: I have a big problem with white people."

"When I leave here, I'm going to think long and hard about this," she said. "I need to break the ice more often with white people, learn more about them."

Brooks had heard it all before.

"Magically, most of these teachers will reach a frame of mind where they will say, 'Aha!' " she said. "It comes the moment they realize that hearing about someone else's anger and pain does not mean it's directed at them."

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