Young People Speak on Race
Dr Toby Jenkins, author of "My Culture, My Color, My Self: Heritage, Resilience and Community Among Young Adults" response to racial discussion on Trayvon Martin case.
In the wake of the many conversations regarding race, stereotypes, and culture that have occurred as a result of the Trayvon Martin verdict, Dr Toby S Jenkins’ recent book, “My Culture, My Color, My Self” (Temple University Press, 2013) sheds light on how young adults of color think about and approach race and culture. Rather than compiling thoughts and perspectives from educators and experts, Jenkins spent five years talking directly with young adults—African American, Latino, and Asian men and women ages 18-21. This book shares the stories and a synthesis of what can be learned from them.
Excerpt From Book:
The books and articles that I read preparing for this project warned of the complicated and often contentious relationship between culture, race, and ethnicity. They are distinct yet similar, separate but still broadly tied. Racial identity is an important aspect of the development of a person of color. However, it very rarely escapes the tendency to frame identity based on categorizations of skin color and how individuals experience or interpret life based on these racial experiences. Race has been seen as “a surface level manifestation based on what we look like but that has deep implications in how we are treated.” Culture and ethnicity come from within (derived from the family and community). Race comes from without (derived from society). These terms are sometimes used interchangeably though they hold very different meanings. A statement by Simone de Beauvoir best captures the nature of culture, race, and ethnicity as processes, “One is not born white, but becomes white. One is not born a Latina, one is not born Norwegian, Arab-American, Afro-Caribbean, but becomes that.” We become “white” or “black” by learning about race from society and learning the positive or negative stereotypes associated with these labels. In my conversations with young adults of color in this book, their stories affirm that culture and race intersect but are still separate roads along which people of color travel through life. Racial issues were most often presented as very negative and unacceptable. From psychologically damaging racial experiences to family members being in physical danger because of racial prejudice, race was yet another externally imposed struggle to overcome. For some, racial lessons came from their family’s past. Keith, an African American male college student, relates the stories told to him by his grandfather: “My grandfather told me there were times when some white person would try and fight one of his siblings and all of his brothers and sisters would be there for one another. His dad, my great-grandfather, got shot and killed when he was young. He got shot for fighting a white man who hit one of his daughters.” As a young child, Keith learned of the physical danger that race often presents. He tells how he was warned to be careful in the world, particularly when interacting across racial lines—careful negotiation of race was literally a matter of life or death to his family. His story, like those of many of his peers, illustrates how negative issues of race often made culture (community and family) even more important. In his example, when facing racial threat, the cultural bond of family offered protection by “being there for one another.” And what the young adults in this study affirm is that racism is unforgivable. They are insulted by it, oppressed because of it, and psychologically hurt as a result of it. Young people were less forgiving of racial discrimination. In many ways, their stories show that if race is considered to be a storm that people of color must weather, their culture was seen as a shelter from the storm. Culture, in the form of family and community, looks out for us, defends us, fights for us, and teaches us how to navigate a racist society. Interestingly, one of the most racist institutions named by young adults is the American school system. This is a bit scary when you consider that this is the environment in which the majority of Americans learn to interpret the world. Many communities of color have had histories of negative experiences in schools, but African American men have had one of the most contentious relationships with the field of education.
America in general, and schools in particular have very strict codes of acceptable behavior. If you look, act, or behave a certain way it can quickly be labeled as unacceptable or deviant. In a broad sense, we groom students to play a very docile, silent, and inactive role in school. Good students are ones that do not “talk too much” or “act out.” And in recent years, Zero Tolerance policies have shown that there are potentially long and hard consequences for those students that are labeled a “troubled” (Echolm, 2010). All students with a challenging spirit and an inquisitive nature may find conflict with the social rules of conformity present in education. But, African American male students have particularly felt the weight of educational cultural norms that privilege silence, obedience, and system agreement. Though not the sole cause of attrition, this tendency to punish students that challenge classroom practices and to reward silence and conformity is just one of the many issues that contribute to the alarming drop out and suspension rates of young black men. The negative relationship between black males and school systems is an issue that has been steadily growing over the last 20 years. Perceived stereotypes about the way black boys dress, behave, speak…the music they consume, the clothes they wear, the way that they express emotion, insecurity or fear seems to translate to a threat for many Americans. In Garibaldi’s (1992) study of the New Orleans public school system, he found that although Black male youth only represented 43% of the educational community, they accounted for 58% of the non-promotions, 65% of the suspensions, 80% of the expulsions, and 45% of the dropouts. In 2010, The Shott Foundation published, Yes We Can, The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, revealing a national graduate rate of only 47% for African American male high school students. The following is shared in the report’s conclusion:
The American educational system is systemically failing Black males. Out of the 48 states reporting, Black males are the least likely to graduate from high school in 33 states, Black and Latino males are tied for the least likely in four states, with Latino males being the least likely in an additional four states. To add insult to injury, Black male students are punished more severely for similar infractions than their White peers…(p.37). Race, class, and cultural differences undoubtedly play a role in this dissonance between student and school. But these factors do not excuse bad behavior. Race and problems with the culture of schools do not erase the reality that all boys are often socialized to be aggressive and external environments repeatedly fail to correct wrong doing. Several years ago, I personally served as a fraternity house director for an all white male fraternity at my university. I was a young black woman living in a house with all white men ages 18-21. Aggression, hyper-masculinity, machismo, etc were seen in that house on a daily basis. On fraternity row, we constantly dealt with campus judicial issues related to alcohol abuse, rape, and physical violence. Yet White men aren’t stereotyped as threatening as often as their black male peers.
Pop culture often has a large and subliminal influence on how we are socialized to form ideas about men, women, gender roles, marriage, and relationships. Repetitive messaging and portrayals of women as gold diggers and manipulators or controlling dictators in relationships make some men believe these things and teach some women that to act in such ways is expected. One of the best examples was a controversial Pepsi commercial shown during the 2011 Super Bowl. The commercial features a black couple in a series of day-to-day situations in which the wife seriously harasses, belittles, and demeans her husband. With each scene we are shown a message that ultimately communicates that black women drain the joy out of a man’s life. The commercial ends with the couple sitting on a park bench when a young and seemingly carefree white woman jogs up and sits on the next bench. The husband looks at her with the first lasting expression of joy and happiness that he has shown in the entire commercial (every other time he is about to experience a moment of joy his wife comes in and steals that moment). This other woman is superficially opposite to the African American woman—she is white, she is younger, she is fit (as she jogs while the black woman is sitting drinking soda). And so the message is that she is a refreshing departure from the dry marriage to which he is obligated. The commercial concludes with the black wife throwing her soda can at him and mistakenly hitting the white woman. And so the last scene is the culmination of the anger and hostility that society believes to be present in black women—she will control you and harass you, and she is capable of violence. Many folks laughed at this commercial, and I am not suggesting that this one commercial is responsible for the high levels of misunderstanding and negative opinions of men and women of color. But I am firm in my belief that it is just one of several examples of the ways that we have been socialized to accept and laugh at negative imaging of ourselves. Mass media surround us, and we now often pay to receive cable messages that are racist, buy tickets to movies that are sexist, and pay for admission to social functions that are classist. We have more access to society than ever before, and the result of that access has not necessarily been all positive. Never before have people so widely invested in their own oppression. And too often, we do not see how these structures subtly impact and influence our thoughts, priorities, beliefs, and values.
In past journal articles, I have sought to shed light on the larger historical context that has shaped the educational experiences of people of color—to illustrate that social exclusion hasn’t “just happened upon” people of color it has been a steady and intentional process. The factors that might affect why many young black men, for example, don’t finish or even get to college are numerous and have been building for years. In my article, “Mr. Nigger: The Challenges of Educating African American Men in America,” I discuss several issues that have contributed to why black men in contemporary society might be called “mister” but are in many ways still treated with a niggardly regard. Some of these factors include America’s racial past; community based poverty, crime, and addiction; a failing pubic school system; shifts in the criminal justice system; dysfunctional family structures; and media/pop culture’s impact on self concept. In his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King Jr. (1968) foreshadowed the growing frustrations of young adults: “If they are America’s angry children today…it is a response to the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant because of the inconsistencies, resistance, and faintheartedness of those in power (p. 34).” History has taught a black man that his life is at threat in the presence of a white man—through death, incarceration, or even being denied opportunity professionally. History has seen our grandfathers swinging from trees, burned at the stake, attacked by dogs, beaten by police. A contemporary society has seen our uncles, fathers, and brothers kicked out of schools, jailed, racially profiled, and shot at will by police. All of this contributes to why a young black teenager would view a white man following him as a threat, as a “creepy ass cracker.” It is also telling that based on his color, dress, and gender Trayvon could be more quickly identified as a “thug” rather than kid, student, or someone’s son. Gross misunderstanding, stereotypes, and a lack of truly living together causes none of us to truly trust one another. A racist society causes us all to live in fear.
A lens is an object used to form images...a lens helps us to see something more clearly. Every experience, issue, or topic in life can be interpreted differently depending on the lens (perspective, background experiences) of the person facing the situation. This blog represents my critical thoughts on various topics...told from my lens on life.