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Posted: Nov 5, 2006 7:13am
Jun 23, 2006
Focus: Racism
Action Request: Think About
Location: United States

Should race still matter to Generation Y?

By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News


To the coming-of- age-generation known as the Millennials, the world has never seemed more diverse.

Popular television shows such as The Real World and Grey's Anatomy show diverse casts mixing and mingling on-screen. Teens are exposed to the hottest R&B and hip-hop artists on VH1 and MTV. And in this Internet age, access to other cultures, trends and styles is only a few clicks away.

Pop culture serves up a "multiracial, multicultural nirvana," says Charles Gallagher, a Georgia State sociology professor, contributing to an impression of the younger generation as the first "post-race" generation – one where race doesn't matter.

"I don't know very many people who flat out have a problem with other races," says Andrew Moua, 17, a senior at Duncanville High School and a member of The Dallas Morning News Teen Advisory Board. "Everyone I know listens to some kind of hip-hop."

Generation Y's perception of diverse cultures and racial issues has been shaped by pop culture and mass media. But what they see on TV isn't necessarily reality, and that disconnect can lead to everything from personal misunderstandings to cultural collisions in classrooms or dorms. This is particularly true of whites, whose opportunities to mix with other races are more limited than others.

The average white person lives in a community that is 83 percent white and only 7 percent black, according to a 2002 analysis of Census Bureau figures by the Lewis Mumford Center at the State University of New York at Albany.

"Diversity is experienced very differently in the daily lives of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians," the Mumford report stated.

Many young people believe racism was eliminated by their parents' and grandparents' generations, when laws that upheld segregation were abolished.

"The discussion of the racial history in this country is severely limited. And when racism is discussed, it's always in the past tense," says Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, associate professor of sociology at Duke University.

As the nation prepares to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on Monday, should race still matter to Millennials?

Experts say yes. Those who can understand the perspective of other races and cultures, they say, will be more prepared to live and work in an increasingly multicultural world.

Shades of gray

The question stumps many of the students in assistant professor Pamela Perry's classes at the University of California at Santa Cruz:

"What does it mean to be white?"

Her white students admit they don't think about their identity in terms of race. They take their race for granted, she says.

Since the 1980s, many high schools and colleges have required students to take courses on multiculturalism, which focus on the perspective of minority races and cultures. But such courses may also contribute to the notion that race means something other than white.

"If they have no experience of why race matters, then they're going to believe that race doesn't really matter," says Ms. Perry, author of Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School (Duke University Press, $74.95).

Some college students have attended ghetto parties where they impersonate rappers, complete with baggy pants, jewelry and sometimes even in blackface.

Last fall, at Highland Park High School, some students wore Afro wigs, fake gold teeth and baggy jeans as part of Thug Day, an unofficial event for seniors. Eighteen students were sent to the office for inappropriate attire, according to school district officials. Separately on Fiesta Day, which was to honor Hispanic heritage, one Highland Park student brought to school a leaf blower.

Students interviewed at the time outside the school said they were surprised that Thug Day could be considered offensive to minorities and didn't see the actions – or themselves – as racist.

Cultural tourism

Dr. Gallagher, who studies white attitudes toward race says teens believe they can cross color lines through consumerism.

"You'll hear white kids say, 'What do you mean, racism? I have a 50 Cent CD. I have an Allen Iverson jersey," he says.

Cultural tourism has long existed in this country, says Ashley "Woody" Doane, sociology professor at the University of Hartford and an expert on race relations.

"In the '50s, white college students would go to Harlem to experience the jazz scene. Today, white college students are big consumers of hip-hop music. It's a tourist stage."

For some, ghetto parties go too far. They bear similarities to minstrel shows, a racist tradition dating back to before the Civil War, says Dr. Bonilla-Silva, who taught at Texas A&M and is the author of Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, $68).

Minstrel shows, which were for white audiences, featured white performers pretending to be black by darkening their faces with charcoal and acting in cartoonish, exaggerated ways.

Ghetto parties help sustain and circulate stereotypes that reinforce both racial and economic boundaries in America, Dr. Bonilla-Silva says. "It is the modern minstrel show," he says. "The fact that these kids don't get a sense of how problematic this is says a lot about what we're teaching in this country.

"We have collectively erased race from our teaching."

The presence of black doctors on TV shows and black artists on MTV doesn't by itself signal progress in race relations.

"You have to remember that over a century ago, African-Americans were seen as OK to entertain us but not to participate in other institutions, political and economic. It indicates an acceptance on a certain level, in the sphere of entertainment, but not necessarily beyond that," says Dr. Eileen O'Brien, a sociologist at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

When Dr. Doane talks to his students, he finds that they have little understanding of institutional racism – how social, economic and political institutions in the United States were set up historically to benefit whites and discriminate against nonwhites and of the persistent effect of those policies.

"I tell them the bottom line is not whether someone is racist. It's what can we do about racism?" he says.

Creating change

Students say that change starts with personal relationships.

"Going to a school with a large number of minorities totally opens you up," says Evan Faram, 18, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Located in the Lakewood section of Dallas, Woodrow Wilson's student body is approximately 65 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white and 11 percent black.

"It makes you see that there is no difference between people," says Evan, who is white. "My cousins live out in the suburbs, in Keller, and meeting some of my friends, they would be like, this is your Mexican friend, while for me it's just my friend. It's totally a different world."

Race remains an issue, he says, "because people are still acknowledging the difference. Even when you fill out test forms at school, there is a box that asks about race. I think that as long as you acknowledge the difference, we're not going to get rid of the racial profiling."

Humor can bridge the gap between races, but there are boundaries, says Chavon Charee Noel, 17, a senior at Carter High School in Dallas. Events such as Thug Day go too far.

"It seems like they are trying to mock our culture, to make it seem like what it is not," says Chavon, who is African- American and whose high school is predominantly black.

A member of The News' Teen Advisory Board, Chavon also noted how racially divided schools and neighborhoods can hinder personal development. She says she has not had a white friend recently, and she only occasionally talks with whites. "Once we go out into the real world, we may not be prepared."

Staff writer Gosia Wozniacka contributed to this report.


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Posted: Jun 23, 2006 10:24pm


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