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Students Use Video Cameras to Focus on Bias, Insensitivity

Times Staff Writer

The high schoolers fidget as the teacher announces a meeting of the school’s Chinese Club. “What are they going to do, eat rice all day?” a boy asks. His classmates snicker, but in one corner, two solemn Chinese-American girls stare silently at their hands.

Four students in another room whisper worriedly in their native Vietnamese as they try to decipher an in-class writing assignment. A blond classmate glances derisively at them, then tells her friend, “This is an English class; they should learn to speak English.”

These scenarios were staged, but Irvine High School teacher Bruce Baron had heard similar remarks too often. So he and about 30 students in the school’s Ethnic Advisory Forum last year began videotaping these and other skits depicting prejudice and insensitivity, and using them to spark discussions.

“The program isn’t me, it’s what the students do,” said Baron, 33, who teaches history, African studies, and world cultures. Teams of students with different ethnic backgrounds show the tapes to literature and history classes, then encourage their peers to talk about what they have seen. Ultimately, they hope, the dialogue will help students feel more comfortable with one another.

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“Sometimes no one volunteers, so one of my students will say, ‘Oh, come on, you guys.’ Eventually what will happen is at least half of the class will say, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard something like that.’ Or one of the ethnic minority kids will say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been made fun of,’ ” Baron said.

“In a couple of classes, it was the Jewish kids who started things off by saying they grew up without encountering any prejudice. They shared what it was like the first time people started telling jokes about them because they were Jewish; they were really taken aback by it,” Baron said.

Baron began the forum in 1981 when he noticed that students from different ethnic groups were not intermingling on campus. “We never found that anyone was trying to purposely discriminate against anyone; it was simply what happens at all high schools,” he said.

The program, the only one of its kind in Orange County, is especially timely in Irvine, where the minority enrollment has increased by more than 1,000 in the last four years. As of August, 1984, the district had 1,898 Asians or Pacific Islanders, 952 Latinos, 496 blacks, 185 Filipinos and 14 American Indians or Alaskans. Of the city’s three high schools, Irvine High’s minority enrollment is the largest, about 35%, said Principal Gary Norton.

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“I’ve been called lots of names because I’m Indian, or because I’m Hindu,” said Radha Swaminath, who was born in Canada and is a forum member. Bang Nguyen, who came to the United States 10 years ago with the first wave of refugees from Vietnam, also knows what it feels like to be an object of curiosity: “In every class I went to (in my) freshman year, people were staring at me and saying I was a minority.”

But, he said, “It’s not like that now. We’re paving the way for future generations.”

Filipino student Lendor Tobias said the videotapes target the kind of prejudice he and a friend encountered recently from a store clerk.

Counteracting Ignorance

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“There were about five guys ahead of us who all happened to be Caucasian,” Tobias said. “The checker greeted them with a smile and a story, but when we got to the counter, he didn’t even glance at us. Those minute things can affect a job or a loan. Those are the things we want people to know do happen.”

Members of the Ethnic Advisory Forum, who meet one evening a month to plan their activities, also hope to undo simple ignorance about different cultures. “People are surprised when they find out I’m Peruvian and that I speak English,” said forum member Andrea Dworzak, who has lived in the United States for nine years. “They ask me if I lived in a hut in the jungle.”

Forum members say the program already has helped to break social barriers, as evidenced by the multiracial groups that now dot the campus at lunch.

In April, Baron and some of his students were invited to spend an afternoon telling over 50 teachers and administrators from Los Angeles County schools about their activities. The students’ stories were an awakening for many who attended, said educational consultant Jo Bonita Perez.

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“Some educators feel that such a program has no relevance to young people, that it’s just a warm, fuzzy experience dealing with non-academic learning,” said Perez, who helped organize the presentation. “What they learned is that kids have deep-seated reactions to being the focal point of prejudicial remarks, and that they really do hurt.”

Another sign of change is that the campus ethnic clubs have become interest groups, not racial organizations, forum members say. Several years ago, the Vietnamese and the Chinese clubs squared off in a softball game that ended when each side accused the other of cheating. Now, the Chinese Club has Vietnamese members and the Vietnamese Club has Chinese members, and white students belong to all the groups.


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