AN Essex girl may be the first lady with a tongue stud to have set her sights on the White House. The wife of Dennis Kucinich, a left-wing Democratic congressman and 2008 presidential candidate, is a 29-year-old hippie chick from Upminster at the end of London Underground’s District line.
Elizabeth Kucinich, née Harper, has been on the stump with her husband, a 60-year-old anti-war campaigner from Cleveland, Ohio, mingling with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama backstage at the Democratic presidential debates. “There’s a kind of camaraderie,” she said.
A 6ft tall willowy redhead who has been compared to Arwen Evenstar, the Lord of the Rings character, she towers over her diminutive husband. “Who cares?” she said in an interview. “I like wearing high heels so I’m used to being taller than most men I stand next to.”
Nor is she bothered by their 31-year age difference. “I have never noticed it at all,” she said. “Dennis is a very mature but young-at-heart gentleman and we complement each other.”
Kucinich met her husband-to-be two years ago when she visited his office in the House of Representatives with her boss
as a volunteer worker for the American Monetary Institute, an offbeat group dedicated to reforming the “unjust monetary system”.
It was love at first sight for both of them. Immediately after their meeting, Dennis Kucinich phoned a friend and said: “I’ve met her [my future wife].”
He was mesmerised to receive a business e-mail from Harper with her usual signature line from Kama Sutra, one of her favourite films: “Knowing love, I shall allow all things to come and go, to be as supple as the wind and take everything that comes with great courage. My heart is as open as the sky.”
He proposed at their second meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and they married three months later. The Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine attended their wedding.
“I knew at once I really wanted to marry this man,” Elizabeth said. “When you know it, why hang around?” It was Dennis’s third marriage, but by the time he met Elizabeth he had been single for more than 20 years.
If Dennis were elected, they would make a great team, Elizabeth said. “Can you imagine what it would be like to have real love in the White House and a true union between the masculine and the feminine?”
There were clues in her childhood that they were destined for each other, Elizabeth believes. She lived with her mother, a divorcée, on the outskirts of London in a farm labourer’s dilapidated house that was lovingly restored over the years. “The address was 4, Dennis’s Cottages, Dennis’s Lane,” she said.
Her mother runs a healing and therapy centre and passed on her love of new age philosophy to her daughter. Known at school in Essex as “the Jolly Green Giant” because of her height, she studied religion and theology at Kent University and spent time in India and Tanzania, where she worked for Voluntary Service Overseas.
It was in India that she encountered somebody with a tongue stud and later had her own implanted — a bar with two delicate balls on either side.
On her MySpace website she lists one of her favourite bands as Coldplay and says her heroes are “my beautiful husband and anyone else who embraces peace”. She describes Dennis as a “very philosophical, deep thinking person” rather than a new age type, but he is a vegan, unlike her — she still cannot resist occasional dairy products.
At Kent she unexpectedly signed up for a master’s degree in conflict resolution after meeting the course lecturer in a pub. She knew she had chosen the right subject when her final exam took place on September 11, 2001.
“The rest of the world was sending out its love to America but US officials just wanted to kick out. I remember thinking then I’d love to come to America and help them to reconcile with the rest of the world,” she said.
A shy girl in class, she has now learnt to speak in front of thousands of peaceniks and activists on behalf of her husband and his presidential campaign. Dennis was slated for his anti-war views when he first ran for president in 2004 but now “represents the voice of the majority”, she said. “Americans have come to understand he was right all along.”
As the wife of a congressman, she mixes with politicians across the political divide. Earlier this month she attended a reception for the Queen at the British embassy with Dennis, and was thrilled to meet her. “I have great respect for the royal family because of their dedication to public service,” she said.
Another of her heroines is Diana, Princess of Wales. When she died, Elizabeth’s mother rang her daughter in tears. “I was in shock for a very long time,” Elizabeth said. “She held an incredible position in my heart. I was devastated. There hasn’t been anyone able to bring that compassion back into public life.”
If Dennis makes it to the White House — admittedly an unlikely prospect — Diana will be the first lady’s role model. Americans, who always loved the princess, would like that, but they might tell Elizabeth to lose the tongue stud.
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.
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.
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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