Ethnic ignorance part of the debris cleaned-up by student volunteers

June 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Posted in African American, American Bigotry, desegregation, Disrespect, ethnic stereotypes, Ethnicity in America, European American, Ladanae Thompson, minority, Oklahoma, Oklahoma education, Prejudice, public education, Race in America, The Oklahoman | 1 Comment
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An article printed in The Oklahoman (5-2-13) showed just how uninformed and steeped in ignorance certain segments of society still are. The article, “Douglass Students battle stigma through volunteering,” involved a group of Douglas High school students, a predominately African American school, traveled to a small town in Oklahoma that had been hit by a tornado to help with the clean-up efforts. Being neighborly, they wanted to show their compassion and caring towards the people who had been affected. Upon arriving at the town, some of the town’s people were alarmed at the sight of all these African American youths. Their first reaction was defensive because they though these young people had ridden in busses to their town to loot and steal whatever they could from the damaged area of town. The article noted that “A resident expressed fears of looting when the group arrived for the cleanup effort Friday.” The local people, evidently, relied on stereotypes relative to the school and its African American students for their fears.
According to the article, “The Oklahoma City School’s sophomore class helped clean up tornado damage in Little Axe, but first some local residents had to be convinced that the young people were there for a good purpose.” Little Axe is a rural community about 20 miles from Norman, Oklahoma with a population of predominately of European Americans. So, seeing several busloads of young African Americans in the town was not a customary occurrence. However, to assume these students had come to Little Axe in school buses to loot and steal defies common sense. In any event, we are told that “Matt Tilley, a 10th-grade English teacher and trip organizer, said Wednesday that he had to vouch for the students.” We wonder what is meant by Tilley having to “vouch for the students.” We know what the word “vouch” means, but why would students sitting in big yellow school buses need to be validated by their teacher to the local resident? Although the article did not state it, we must assume that Tilley is European American, and the resident would not accept the word of the students.
The students apparently thought that volunteering to help at a site damaged by a tornado would be welcomed. We learned that “About 120 students worked in teams for four hours to remove tree branches and debris from residents’ home and take it to the curb.” In addition, “Many of the students had never volunteered before nor had they seen such intense tornado damage.” So, this trip was an opportunity for both the students and the residents to learn something about each other.
The reaction of the residents of Little Axe made a serious and troubling statement about the lack of information in our society regarding the changes in the negative stereotype of ethnic Americans. What we can recognize in the residents reaction is that society in general, and the media specifically helps to promote the negative stereotypes of ethnic Americans rather than the positive. In effect, most Americans see or read about non-European Americans generally in a negative context. The positive activities and events associated with Ethnic Americans are not usually promoted. We can use this article as an example of limited access to the media. The chances are the efforts of these young Douglass High students would not have been covered by the press and come to public awareness had it not been for the negative reaction they received from some of the residents of Little Axe. The attention these students would have received by the media without the negative reactions from Little Axe would not have been considered worthy of reporting. Could it be that the actions of these students did not fit the stereotype?
For years Americans have been living in segregated communities not interacting with people who do not look like them. Our educational institutions as well as the media contribute to the ignorance we have concerning our fellow citizens. So, when we are confronted with people we are not accustomed to seeing in our community, the lack of accurate and current information about these citizens serve to create fear and negative stereotypes we have been fed for far too many years.
One student commented on the reaction of a resident’s fear stated that “’They had heard so much news from Douglass about fights or stealing, they probably expected it to happen there, too, but it never happened.’” Society and the media have a long history is creating and promoting negative stereotypes regarding ethnic Americans. Because the majority of stories involving ethnic Americans is negative and generally involves crimes, the fear of some ethnic Americans is created. What are obvious to many ethnic American males are the actions of mature European American women who clutch their purses tighter, lock their car doors, and cross the street to the other side when they see an ethnic American walking towards them. Although these actions are good measures to be taken in generally for safety reasons, it takes the sight of an Ethnic American to trigger the response.
What the people of Little Axe did not realize is that the world and society has and continues to change whether they know it or not. Their community seems to be closed to all but the inhabitants and anyone else became suspect especially if he or she happens to be ethnic American. However, something happened, according to the article, “When the residents saw what the students could do, their attitudes changed. The young students saw tears, received thank you notes and were invited back to Little Axe.” The experience turned out to be a learning one for both the students and the residents. The Douglass students were looking for an opportunity to contribute in a positive way: “Our class motto is ‘with our own hands,’ and it’s basically saying when a road to success can’t be found we build one with our own hands, and that’s pretty much what we did,’ Douglass sophomore Ladanae Thompson said.” She added that “We helped clean up. We helped another community with our own hands; that is what the class of 2015 is trying to do.”
We trust that the residents of Little Axe and similar communities can benefit from this experience where people can discard long-held negative stereotypes and beliefs of ethnic Americans and embrace the common sense reality of people just wanting to help other people. We will, however, need the media, our educational institutions and society to step-up their contributions in presenting a more balanced and realistic picture of America with all its diversity.

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  1. Frederick Douglass would be proud.


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