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Youth Workshops Break Down Ethnic Barriers : Prejudice: Teen-agers confront preconceptions about themselves and other racial groups on the way to better understanding.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For hours, the Torrance teen-agers had tiptoed on the edge of the racial unknown.

They talked at length about stereotypes and race. Some admitted their discomfort at revealing their true feelings. Some said nothing. And then they were ordered to make a choice.

Four big signs hung in each corner of the lodge: Asian/Pacific Islander, Black African-American, Latino/Latina and White.

“Which group do you identify with, racially and culturally?” an adult leader asked. The 53 teen-agers segregated themselves in corners labeled with their own races.

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“And what racial group do (you) know the least about?” the leader asked.

A sea of more than 40 students--black, white and Latino--silently moved to the “Asian” sign. The few Asian teen-agers in the room stared at them. An unsettling realization hit all of them at once.

They had graphically illustrated a deep rift, one of many that divide the 1,631 students at Torrance’s North High School.

The acknowledgment of that rift became one of many unpleasant realities that North High students confronted for three days this month at an interracial workshop sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

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The workshop, at Camp Max Straus in Glendale, was part of the conference’s ongoing two-year Brotherhood/Sisterhood project aimed at promoting better understanding among racial groups at high schools.

But at moments like this one--on a Friday afternoon, with the workshop already half-completed--the process seemed hell-bent on tearing blocs of young people apart.

A young Asian girl in a baseball cap stood alone, wide-eyed, as her classmates crowded under the “Asian” sign.

“Look at all those people over there! . . .” she blurted out, looking close to tears.

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There would be other wrenching moments: when a white boy called a racial epithet across the room; when a white girl confessed that she associates Latinas with getting pregnant and dropping out of school--a remark that instantly sparked strong dissent from Latinos and propelled the white girl out the door in tears.

“To expect us to talk about racism without getting emotional is naive,” said Henry Aronson, 30, the ebullient but thoughtful ex-teacher who is coordinating the two-year North High program.

He thinks the teen-agers are strong enough to manage the occasionally brutal candor. “A lot of times, people soft-pedal what these people can handle,” Aronson said. “They can handle a lot more. They want to handle more.”

And there would come a kind of resolution.

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Meeting in small and large groups, the students wrestled with painful issues of racial prejudice. They strained to be honest about their own feelings and to try to understand students of other ethnicities.

On a Saturday afternoon, as two buses waited to take them home to Torrance, students held on tightly to one another, some crying, some laughing. Many promised that North High life would be different when they got back--more open, less fixated on stereotypes.

That is exactly the attitude this program hopes to inspire.

North High is the eighth Los Angeles-area school to participate in the two-year National Conference of Christians and Jews program, which began in 1986. The conference, a 64-year-old organization not affiliated with any particular religious or ethnic group, pays for about half of the program’s estimated $35,000 cost. The school’s share is financed by a state grant.

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Some students have suggested that other Torrance schools join the project--an idea that Torrance schools Supt. Edward J. Richardson said he would support, but which may be unaffordable because of budget constraints.

“Would we like it at all our schools? Absolutely,” Richardson said. “It’s dramatic, and dynamic. It’s soul-searching. It’s a whole process (which) once these kids are involved in, they’re never the same.”

The racial divisions at North High are also evident at many schools in Torrance and elsewhere in the South Bay.

North High’s share of white students has dropped from 62% to 42% in the last decade. Students of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage make up 36% of the school population, Latinos make up 17% and blacks make up 3%. The ancestry of the school’s Asian students is primarily Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese, state figures show.

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North High has not experienced racial strife such as the blacks-versus-Latinos brawl that erupted earlier this year at nearby Gardena High School. But many students and some staff say that North High’s biggest racial problem is a lack of understanding between Asians and other racial groups.

Some say the Asian students are seen as the school leaders, the straight-A students, the creme de la creme-- and that has caused resentment among some non-Asian students. The problem may be exacerbated by language differences and a relative lack of Asian history taught in the schools, students and administrators said.

The Dec. 5-7 retreat came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an event that has stirred anti-Japanese sentiment in Torrance and nationwide.

But, to Aronson’s dismay, only a handful of Asian students attended this month’s retreat. School and program officials are not sure why so few Asians took part. North High Principal Patricia Kromka speculated that the seminar may have conflicted with academic requirements or athletic events.

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Aronson, who is Filipino, said the absence of Asians was an undeniable flaw in the seminar, changing the dynamics of the process.

Even so, the retreat would take on momentum, gathering energy as the hours went on. It changed character constantly--from Scout camp to high school mixer to church retreat to psychotherapy session. The facilitators led the way, microphones in hand, some sounding like “no pain-no gain” aerobics instructors.

That momentum began building Friday morning, as students were asked to give examples of stereotypes. The examples came flying.

“All black kids dance, sing, run fast, have big lips.”

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“All Mexicans eat beans.”

“All Jews have big noses.”

“All blondes are bimbos.”

“If you wear a particular hat, a particular jacket, you must be in a gang or something.”

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“All white people with shaved heads are racists.”

“All Asians are smart, rich, have straight hair.”

A facilitator talked more about stereotypes: “Sometimes they’re right. And sometimes they’re wrong, and they hurt people. . . .”

Later that day, when the four signs went up in the lodge, the teen-agers found themselves choosing corners--and talking about perceptions of their Asian classmates.

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“They stick to themselves.”

“They’re always together.”

About half the students refused to comply with an adult leader’s next order: “If I had to be another race, I would least like to be of this race.”

They stood at the center of the room, disconcerted. “It’s like saying the racial group you dislike the most,” one black youth said.

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On Friday night after dark came the exercise that several students later would call the most revealing of the session.

Again, they segregated themselves by race in the four corners. And then, one by one, they rose to their feet to state one thing they never wanted to hear, see or feel again.

“I don’t want to see someone, as I walk by a car door, lock it.”

“To have someone say that I’m superior just because I’m white.”

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“That the Asians are taking over the country.”

“A cop beating up on a Latino.”

“To hear people say that we’re all on welfare.”

“People coming up to me and asking me if I can speak English.”

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The session had a church-like solemnity. And it would have an impact.

Senior Larry Horn, 17, who spoke of car doors being locked, said he was later approached by people “to say that they do it, and they’re sorry.”

One intent of the two-year program, which will end next summer, is to create a lasting framework at North High. Last week, about 40 students gathered in a small campus classroom to talk about life after camp and how to maintain the momentum.

“What I want to do is see if we can avoid what happened at Gardena,” Aronson told them.

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The students talked of supporting black classmates who organize Black History Month in February. They discussed a need for a campus Latino organization. Some students said they were interested in attending a one-week Brotherhood/Sisterhood camp next summer.

Others think the campus needs a multicultural club.

“When it comes from the kids, it’s much better than when it comes from us,” said Principal Kromka, who attended the retreat with several teachers and staff.

And in the retreat’s wake, students from different racial groups are still communicating with one other, she and others said. “They’re making an attempt,” Kromka said. “That was their commitment.”

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Freshman Alberdee Lazo, 14, whose family is Filipino, said that since returning from camp, she is more conscious of racial tensions at the school.

But a dialogue continues among the camp-goers, she said. “We said hello in the halls and started conversations,” she said.

Junior Teisha Smith, 17, who is black, has talked to her Asian friends and urged them to get involved in the Brotherhood/Sisterhood project.

“One person can be a link, and you can build a whole chain. That’s the attitude we have now,” she said. “We started something. Now, we’ve got to finish it.”

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The Changing Face of North High School In the last decade,t he Anglo student population of Torrance’s North High School has decreased, while the number of Latino and Asian students has increased. In an effort to deal with the racial tension that sometimes accompanies ethnic change, a group of North High students has been taking part in a seminar sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. 1981-82 2,290 students Filpino: 1.8% Black: 2.3% Latino: 9.8% Asian / Pacific Islander: 24.3% Other: .1% Anglo: 61.7% 1990-91 Filpino: 1.5% Black: 3.1% Latino: 16.9% Asian / Pacific Islander: 36% Other: .3% Anglo: 42.2% Source: California Department of Education


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