Diversity Discussion Illustrates the Painfulness

Of Stereotypes at Ferndale High School

By, Crystal A. Proxmire


Over 50 students, school administrators, School Board members and parents met April 27, 2010 at Ferndale High School to talk about diversity in the global age.  The talk was led by world-renowned diversity educator Gary Howard who is in Ferndale for two days to work with Ferndale Schools on encouraging diversity in the district. Howard is the author of the book “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know,” a primer on diversity education.


Members of the FHS Diversity Club gave a presentation about stereotypes at their school.  They said that Ferndale High School is divided by stereotypes of what cities students come from.  The district has students from Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township.  The students listed stereotypes about each city, which caused members of the audience to become defensive about their hometowns. 


They said that Ferndale has a reputation for being called “fag-dale.”  Royal Oak Township is perceived as being “ghetto,” “black,” and having “gangs.”  Pleasant Ridge is known for having “rich,” “white,” people who “send their kids to private school.”  And Oak Park is considered to be “boring,” “ethnic,” and a “city of Jews.”


As people in the audience listened to these stereotypes they became defensive.  “There are small houses in Pleasant Ridge,” said one parent.  “Ferndale is a family-orientated community,” said another.  “I take offense to hearing Royal Oak Township being called a ghetto,” said another.  “My grandmother has lived in Royal Oak Township for 71 years.  It is a place where everybody knows everybody and we all look out for our neighbors.”


The intensity of the audience response drove one of the presenters to tears.  Howard reminded audience members that the students weren’t attacking the cities themselves, but repeating the false judgments that are a reality for students every day at school.


“The point was made in a painful way, which is how painful it is to be separated by stereotypes.  Even in your community with four cities there are stereotypes that no one wants to be boxed into,” Howard said.


The students ended by saying that Ferndale High School should be a place for people to come together.  “We’re proud to be welcoming, diverse, positive, educational and accepting,” they said.


Howard has the diverse group of attendees separate into groups of four around tables in the school’s media center.  Each table had at least one adult and students were separated from their normal cliques.  They discussed questions about stereotypes and equality, like: How long will equality take? Why does it take so long?  What’s in the way?  And what can people do about it?


“It’s really easy to get stuck in the part of the discussion about diversity where we talk about the problems.  We need to move past that painful part and talk about the vision,” he said.


“What I try to look for is this – Who are the students who are able to build bridges or who are able to go to different groups?  …I try to teach people that part of getting out of my comfort zone means taking a risk and being able to trust other people. …Conversations like this can help create more acceptance.


He ended the evening by asking each table to come up with a suggestion for how to create more diversity and acceptance at the High School.  Students came up with a variety of ideas, including anti-stereotype t-shirts, starting to teach kids when they are younger, have discussions about what communities are like, and having conversations with the whole school instead of just a couple of groups of students.


Howard will meet with teachers at all grade levels to suggest ways they can continue to grow acceptance and diversity in the district.