Teaching Tolerance Becomes Child's Play : Education: School performance will show happily frolicking toddlers in effort to promote racial harmony.


A 3-year-old Latino child pushes a miniature police motorcycle across the floor of a high school auditorium. An African American toddler peers over his right shoulder. To his left is an Asian girl.

For the Palos Verdes Peninsula-based Multicultural Advisory Board, this is the end of the ethnic rainbow--and the beginning of a multimedia play titled "Human" that they hope will promote racial awareness in their community.

Footage of some two dozen toddlers and babies of various races and ethnic backgrounds frolicking together, planned as the play's opening scene, will be used to show that people are not born with prejudice, they learn it, said Mary Jo Mock, president of the advisory board.

The board, a group of about 35 parents and community members who advise the principal of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, has gathered about 500 essays, poems and drawings from high school students recounting their experiences with racial issues. Those experiences will form the basis for the play, to be written by students, board members and high school drama teacher Jim Bell.

Mock, a 52-year-old white housewife who is helping organize the play, says that "Human" will be a series of monologues about the lives of people from various ethnic groups. Footage of the toddlers and babies will represent the first years of the characters' lives, and then student actors will tell stories about being judged on the basis of their race, culture or religion.

"With the (1992) Los Angeles riots, we want to be proactive, so (racism) doesn't blow up in our face five to 10 years from now," Mock said.

Law enforcement officials for the four Palos Verdes Peninsula cities say they had reports of five hate crimes in 1994, including three incidents of racially motivated vandalism. And high school Principal Kelly Johnson said that isolated incidents of racism have occurred on campus.

The campus enrollment is about 33% Asian, 2% black and 3% Latino, school officials said. Whites make up 62% of the student population.

School officials and play organizers say students on the high school campus tend to congregate in ethnic groups, and the board hopes the play will help head off any racial flare-ups.

Although the student essays may not show that racism is a serious problem, they provide anecdotal evidence that it exists on campus and in the surrounding community.

One girl says she must hide the fact that she has a black boyfriend from her parents. Another student recalls that someone tossed pennies at a Jewish friend. An Asian student tells of being embarrassed in Burger King because she didn't know the word "ketchup."

Experts on promoting race relations supported the idea of a play.

"Often, (a play) is a good device to spark discussion," said Lecia Brooks of the National Conference, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Debra Stogel, a coordinator for an Anti-Defamation League program that combats racism, agreed with the advisory board's thesis that prejudice is learned. "And it can be unlearned," she added.

The board plans to raise $20,000 for the play, which is expected to open June 1 at the high school. The board has already raised close to $13,000 from organizations such as the Peninsula Education Foundation and the Korean Parents Assn.

The play, organizers hope, will have a greater impact than previous attempts at fostering multiculturalism, such as international festivals.

"We wanted something more meaningful," Mock said. "You can taste the food (at a festival) and walk away knowing nothing about the culture."

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