AUGUSTA — When groups of high school students gathered here for a conference on civil rights and were asked to name words that are stereotypically associated with the colors black and white – whether negatively or positively – the results were jarring.

For “white,” the kids suggested “Christian,” “can’t dance,” “rich,” “racist,” “pretty,” “white trash” and “Aryan race.”

In the “black” column, they offered “athletic,” “can dance,” “can rap,” “ghetto,” “Africa,” “illiterate,” “poor,” “violent” and “rapist.”

The idea was to get students thinking critically about the sensitive and in some cases harmful ways we think about race. In that, the event was a success.

That race is a sensitive subject was not a surprise to any of the more than 500 students who attended the conference Monday at the Augusta Civic Center.

Each of those students belongs to civil rights teams at high schools around the state.

Those teams began forming in Maine high schools in 1996 with the goal of preventing bias or discrimination toward people of particular identities.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office began promoting the teams as a way to build appreciation for the principles laid out in the Maine Civil Rights Act.

The attorney general hosted Monday’s conference with support from the Maine Humanities Council.

Upon arriving Monday in Augusta, the students were broken into three groups and rotated between different workshops.

One of those rotating sessions was a dialogue facilitated by the Lewiston High School civil rights team.

That is when participants were asked to come up with the stereotypes for each color.

The resulting discussions were inclusive, but they also embraced the discomfort that can spring from such conversations.

That openness has been a defining trait of the Lewiston team’s members.

In 2014, they made news when they raised a poster on school grounds that featured the words “#blacklivesmatter,” then were instructed by school officials to take the poster down.

The poster was a reference to the protest movement of the same name that has sprung up on the social media platform Twitter and around the country in reaction to the high-profile killings of unarmed black people by police officers in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

The movement has laid bare a long-standing rift in U.S. race relations that some Americans thought had passed with the election of the first African-American president in 2008.

The topic of race is pronounced in Lewiston, a city that has attracted a large population of Somali immigrants, making it considerably more diverse than other parts of the state.

After the Lewiston students were instructed to take their poster down in 2014, what resulted was a productive, community-wide dialogue about race and identity that hasn’t ended, according to Paula Gerencer, a teacher and an adviser to the Lewiston High School civil rights teams.

OPENING UP ABOUT STEREOTYPES

In some ways, the event Monday was a continuation of that dialogue.

Students from other schools and backgrounds were frank and open about the stereotyping they’ve seen in their communities.

One girl mentioned that female students who want to take classes in welding and other vocational subjects may be criticized.

Another student noted how her classmates have made fun of Asian students’ names.

A third described the way in which students make jokes about their classmates from war-torn Iraq that involve bombs.

Abdul Mohamed, a sophomore from Lewiston, led one of the breakout discussions.

He asked students to consider how they can be allies to peers who may face discrimination for their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

“For example, I’m black,” Mohamed told the group.

“If I’m picked on for the color of my skin, I can be an advocate for myself.”

But, he continued, it can also be helpful if people who are privileged and aren’t picked on because of their skin color come to his defense.

To that end, Mohamed also asked students to think about their own privileges and what effects they may have.

Another session at the conference Monday was led by Vishavjit Singh, a Sikh performance artist who wears a turban and challenges Americans’ understanding of ethnic identity by, among other things, approaching people while wearing a Captain America uniform.

In his breakout, he explained to students the role of comic book characters in shaping our understanding of identity and urged that comics feature more heroes from different backgrounds.

Olivia Turner, a senior on the civil rights team at Gardiner Area High School, took that message to heart.

Interviewed after a keynote address by Singh, she said she now wondered what superheroes might be like in other countries where pop culture doesn’t feature so many white people.

She also expressed her appreciation at the opportunity to speak with people from different racial backgrounds about issues that can be difficult to raise in Gardiner, a community that she described as not having many people of color.

Charles Eichacker can be contacted at 621-5642 or at:

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