Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Targeting prejudice by exposing stereotypes

Seven people share their experiences in workshop intended to generate discussion on diversity

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During a workshop on stereotyping, Beverly Lamberson offered herself as a prime example of why people should think before they speak.

The Washington, D.C., resident, a light-skinned African American, told a group of participants on Saturday evening that people routinely mistake her for a white woman, leading to awkward and occasionally offensive conversation.

‘‘No one knows what I am,” she said. ‘‘I have been privy to a lot of negative comments.”

Lamberson was one of seven people who shared experiences during the workshop titled ‘‘The Person Behind the Face,” held by the Montgomery County Committee on Hate⁄Violence. The workshop was meant to generate an honest discussion about stereotypes, prejudice and racism.

Valentine Davies, a Takoma Park resident and owner of The Culture Shop in Washington, D.C., where the workshop took place, said he thought the program fit well into the shop’s mission of creating a socially conscious community.

‘‘We want to be a hub or haven for folks looking to expand their thought processes,” Davies said to an intimate group of people Saturday night

Members of COHV, part of the county’s Office of Human Rights, are Montgomery County residents appointed by the county executive to advise county government on policies that prevent hate crimes and violence and demonstrate the positive aspects of living in a diverse community.

During the workshop, participants talked about their own battle over identity, their prejudices, and how an open discussion about race, religion and ethnicity can prevent hate and violence.

Wanda Lucas, an African-American woman, said by looking at her, people might not know that she is a breast cancer survivor, a native Washingtonian or that she loves golf.

‘‘We all need to work at stomping out stereotypes in [our] minds,” Lucas said during a question and answer session. ‘‘... You have to make an effort to look at someone at a different perspective.”

Amina Makhdoom, a member of COHV, is Muslim and does not wear the traditional head scarf. She said people are often surprised to find out she is a Muslim because she doesn’t wear the symbol on her head.

‘‘There is one piece of cloth between me being Muslim to everybody and going into hiding,” Makhdoom said.

Cheryl Kravitz, co-chair of community outreach for COHV and a Silver Spring resident, said these workshops help to create a dialogue around something people think about almost every day but may not necessarily feel comfortable talking about.

‘‘One of the things we ... talk about is that we shouldn’t be colorblind,” Kravitz said. ‘‘We should recognize and respect everyone’s background.”

Kravitz said the program also has worked well in professional settings. She led the same workshop for Montgomery County government employees last year.

Kravitz said ultimately she wanted people to leave the workshop knowing that they needed to be mindful of how their words and actions affect others. She told a story to the group about her husband’s high school reunion and the disparaging comments she heard about immigrants, Latinos and other ethnic groups. She said because she is a white American, people sometimes assume that these racist and discriminatory words won’t offend her.

She said she did not speak up then but wished she had.

‘‘The true meaning of integrity is listening to another person’s point of view. It’s incumbent upon all of us to speak out,” Kravitz said. ‘‘It’s not about political correctness; it’s about decency and respectfulness.”