By Chris Parker
The Morning Call
Allentown, PA

When a 500-pound man walks into a room — or an interracial couple who kiss as they enter, or a lesbian couple holding hands — most people would deny being uncomfortable.

In their heart of hearts, everybody harbors some degree of prejudice, but it’s often masked by politically correct speech, said a cultural tolerance counselor Monday to a group of Panther Valley residents.

But unless people look into their hearts and acknowledge their bias, they can’t begin to change it, said Peter A. Vogel, founder and managing director president of Safe to Relate, an Empire, Colo., a cross-cultural understanding program.

Vogel presented a program to students, teachers, administrators and members of the public at Panther Valley High School in the second step of a journey toward a cooperative and respectful community after what police say was a racially charged melee that resulted in several arrests at a November high school football game.

Audience members spent the day exploring their prejudices and discussing how to overcome them and, by doing that, helping to prod society into appreciating differences among people instead of hating or just tolerating them.

The gathering was the ”birth of a committee” to address the need for appreciation and respect of differences in the community, Superintendent Chris West said.

The program followed a town meeting in December to discuss racial tensions. West said he planned to arrange further sessions. ”We want to take the time to do this correctly,” he said.

Coaldale Borough Councilman Richard Corkery expressed disappointment that no black people attended Monday’s session. ”That’s a shame,” he said.

West said he would continue to invite residents to the sessions in an effort to draw a racially and culturally diverse crowd. ”I’m not giving up,” he said.

The district hired Vogel for $10,000 last year to guide its diversity program.

”We’re all racist to a point,” said Frank Damian, a Panther Valley High School teacher who gives classes in cultural diversity.

One of Vogel’s exercises was to have a group imagine what they would think if a 500-pound man; a lesbian or gay couple; and interracial couple walked into the room.

After some embarrassed silence, people confessed their immediate reactions would include negative reactions.

Vogel, who admits that even after 20 years of teaching diversity he still harbors prejudices, told the group they must acknowledge their bias in order to change it.

”People go underground. They learn the right language and the right thing to say,” Vogel said. ”At the same time, they are ignoring the truth in their own hearts and souls as far as their own demons.”

Jose Rivera, a Tamaqua Area School District administrative aide, said he assumed a clerk was acting out of prejudice when she asked for more identification when he made a credit card purchase. But it turned out he simply had not signed his name to the card.

It’s not easy for people to move out of their comfort zone to get to really know someone about whom they are biased, he said.

”Real learning is uncomfortable,” Vogel said. ”Habits never give up without a fight.”

And the quest never ends.

Vogel said the past 20 years have been a ”personal Odyssey of examining my own demons.” He spoke of being in Harlem and being afraid of a group of teenagers following him down the street. He reacted with fear, sure the teens were hoodlums, he said.

One approached him and asked if he was Mr. Vogel. It turned out the teenagers were student leaders at a school where Vogel was to speak.

”That caused me to do an inventory of my own biases,” he said.

He said he hopes Monday’s group leaves the session ”being risk-takers, reaching out to the ‘other,”’ Vogel said. ”We all have the ‘other’ in our lives. I would encourage them to take the risk, walking the path t ogether and having a deep relationship — and that takes work.”