How did you grow up?

A symposium in St. Petersburg offers a safe place to talk about racism

The first time H. Roy Kaplan heard the insult "kike," he was in fifth grade. His family had moved from an all-Jewish neighborhood in Newark to a rural New Jersey town. It was 1953, not long after World War II, and white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan were still a dangerous element in the state. After arriving at his school, Kaplan discovered he was one of only three Jewish students.

"You didn't walk around saying [Jewish] things because people were making anti-Semitic comments," Kaplan recalls. "They would use 'Jew' as a dirty word."

So the Jewish kids stuck together, but they never let their identity out. Until the day a teacher noticed Kaplan acting uncomfortably while the class sang Christmas songs. When she approached him after class, he admitted he was Jewish. She invited him to talk to the other students about Hanukkah.

"Stupid me, I said 'yes,'" Kaplan says. "And from then on it was one fight after another."

Kaplan, now a University of South Florida professor who teaches courses on racism and American society, often points back to that seminal point in his life when he discovered racism.

"That was one of the reasons I got into this work," says Kaplan, former head of the National Conference for Community and Justice and a prolific author on issues of inequality. "I never liked seeing people taken advantage of or discriminated against. To this day I have a commitment to these things."

Kaplan is bringing his story to Eckerd College on March 21 for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a United Nations commemoration of a 1960 South African anti-apartheid demonstration that ended with police killing 69 people. Nine other facilitators will join Kaplan — including Leon Russell of the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, Ahmed Bedier of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Rev. Louis Murphy of Mt. Zion Progressive Baptist Church — to lead discussions on this year's topic: How did you grow up?

Local playwright Bob Devin Jones will give a dramatic presentation on the theme. Organizers will air a youth documentary, A Girl Like Me, which revisits the 1950s "doll test" by Dr. Kenneth Clark that examined how children reacted to black and white dolls. But the main thrust of the conference is for participants to meet in small groups, discussing ways they can take a personal pledge against racism and spread the message in their personal, professional and spiritual lives.

"The community is hungry for this sort of thing," says event chairwoman Alizza Punzalan-Hall. "They want to [express] their thoughts and have a safe place to do it in."

Racism isn't going away, organizers say, and Tampa Bay is no exception.

"Right now we're going through a period of hysteria," Kaplan says, blaming hate groups for stoking anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fears. "The white supremacists are not large in numbers, but because of their ability to use the Internet, they get a lot out there. They have a lot of propaganda and people read it."

Even in the academic world, Kaplan is constantly surprised by how prevalent prejudice can be.

"Every time, after we have a [Holocaust] survivor talk about his or her experiences, I'll have a student say, 'Now, I believe it,'" he says.

Fifty-four years later, Kaplan says he still looks at his school-age experiences with pain and perseverance.

"I figured out when I lost my last fight in the eighth grade, I'm not a fighter," he says. So he found ways to succeed: athletics, academia and socializing. By rising above the racism he encountered, Kaplan says he is now able to talk with others about their experiences. And then implore others to do the same.

"Everybody has a story," he says. "I don't care what color you are. We've all been made to feel different, an outsider."

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination commemoration, Wed., March 21, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Eckerd College, Fox Hall, 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg, free (registration required by March 14), 727-864-8297.