<em>Red the Book</em>: The Interracial Generation, Part I

In the wake of Obama's race speech, I asked some of the book's authors, representing a full range of perspectives, ages, geography, and yes, ethnicities to write on how much race is--or isn't--a part of their lives today.
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In the two years and 800 essay submissions I've spent with American teenage girls in putting together this book, both the most heartening (what I'm hearing from people who are under 18) and most disheartening response (what I'm hearing, always from white people, usually over 40) have been about race.

Heartening: Today's teen population is the most racially diverse this country has ever seen--the largest percentage of non-white and multiracial Americans are under age 20, by 2050 we'll have a white minority for the first time--and in many delightful ways, they're over it. They have friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents of all kinds. Race isn't necessarily something they think about--or choose to write about. As wildly diverse as the young authors of Red are, racial identity, theirs or others', was rarely an issue that came up in their essays.

Disheartening: This disturbed some of the older people, and a troubling, complicated kind of racism kicked in again and again. "Why are so many of the girls in the book white?" a reader, and purported fan of the book, would ask. The first few times it happened, I'd defend my choices by rattling off a list of the ethnicities represented. Then I realized this is only more of the same, and I was acting like an old person. I'd smile (if live) or kindly reply (via email) with, "What is it that makes you think these girls are white?" And then the racism began. Turns out, if you're of color in this country, the generation before you expects you to write about The Struggle--not TV or even your dad, not 9/11 or private school or museums.

So, in the wake of Obama's race speech--and to take back the horrible assumptions made by adults--for RED's first HuffPo blog, I asked some of the book's authors, representing a full range of perspectives, ages, geography, and yes, ethnicities to write on how much race is--or isn't--a part of their lives today.

Welcome RED authors, teen pundits, and Chicagoans Zoe Mendelson and Cammi Henao--neither of whom wrote about race in the book. Visit their daily blogs at www.redthebook.com. --Amy Goldwasser

***

Zoe Mendelson, 17, will be attending Barnard College in the fall on a full scholarship.

The all-white North Shore Chicago suburb in which I spent most of my childhood is a place where it is normal to live in a mansion. The stay-at-home, au pair-employing moms gossip as much as their daughters, while their husbands play golf and nannies clean their houses. They only come into contact with people of color, or the generally disadvantaged, in service positions or on Girl Scout outings to the soup kitchen. Extravagance is commonplace and privilege always unacknowledged. It was just the kind of place that young professionals go to raise children, and my father was a young lawyer with a successful, high-profile firm. I remember going right with it: approaching anyone who wasn't white and asking them whose nanny they were, and taking years to learn that this was wrong. I thank God it all only lasted about seven years, and I like to think those years didn't corrupt me completely.

When I was eight years old, my father's law firm went under, the bank foreclosed on our house, and my mom divorced him. Without going into detail about the collapse of the firm, there was a sentencing hearing involved, during which my father received merely a year of home confinement and 500 hours of community service. His former law partner's attorney remarked, "Young black boys go to jail for a lot less."

My father remarried and moved to another wealthy, white neighborhood--but in the city this time. The same lack of acknowledgment of affluence seemed to exist here, only it seemed far more sinister, almost calculated, even. It could literally mean turning your head and avoiding the eyes of another human being.

Two years later, when I was 13, I moved with my mom into an underprivileged neighborhood on Chicago's north side. Although we're merely a mile from where my dad lives, the distance between the two neighborhoods is immense. My father's part of town is populated by rich, white, young professionals. Ours has a lot of homeless drug addicts, largely because of its high concentration of methadone clinics and shelters.

During my split weeks between houses, I soon realized which community I preferred. At first I was a child of the suburbs and avoided of the herds of black kids, imagining elaborate muggings at every turn. I was afraid of the skinny women chattering with hunger; I would keep my hand on my phone in my pocket and practice dialing 911 without looking. It didn't take long for me to notice though, that the only people to really worry about were the white firemen sitting in lawn chairs outside of their station making catcalls.

Because of the clean sidewalks and expensive stores in my father's neighborhood, I had the initial assumption that I would be safe. But I couldn't deny that the people in Wrigleyville, who drunkenly spill out of bars after Cubs games and crowd the trains were extremely uncivil to me. Walking past the ballpark on my way home I've had my butt boldly grabbed and beer spilled on me, but mostly just cold shoulders and upturned noses.

In my neighborhood, people tend to say "hi" when you pass them, hold doors open, and smile. Kids do fight on the street corners--but so do the drunk, middle-aged white men outside the baseball field, whose anger I have more trouble rationalizing. I imagine what their high school probably looked like compared to the one in Uptown, or how I've seen the police break up fights completely differently. Outside the baseball field it mostly just consists of pulling the men off of each other and sending them on their way. In my neighborhood, there is often inexcusable violence towards the young black boys and arrests.

The worst police incident I've seen was this past Halloween. I was getting off the Red Line El coming home, and when I got to the bottom of the stairs, four white cops were beating a limp young black boy--in plain view of at least forty onlookers. He looked like he was fifteen or sixteen and almost unconscious, but the cops repeatedly bashed his head into a pole for at least five minutes. I was standing frozen and terrified while the growing crowd struggled with their cellphone cameras and screamed things like, "That's so wrong you fucking pigs! We have this on video!" Soon one of the cops was approaching the people with phones and threatening similar treatment if they didn't delete the pictures immediately. I walked home shaking, sick, and infuriated.

Gentrification has taken hold in Uptown, and its damage is visible everywhere. Apartment buildings full of people have been drained and demolished to build condos, and I feel directly responsible. The cookie-cutter townhomes like mine are an insult to Uptown's prided architecture and are driving up property taxes. I live in a gated complex, and every time I open the six-foot iron gate and close it behind me I cringe.

There is an apartment building across the alley, on the other side of the gate. In the summer a group of Hispanic kids sit on its back steps, hanging out, playing music, and kicking a ball around. Sometimes I skateboard up and down the alley, hoping that they'll want to talk to me, but I know that they probably think I am just a stupid, rich white kid. They have no interest. But even being the staunch supporter of breaking down race barriers that I am, I've never worked up the courage to start a conversation. Eventually, the apartment building across the alley will probably be knocked down. The people who are being displaced will never have a shot at the spoiled suburban life or receive the same second chance my father did.

The high school that I attend has almost an equal racial breakdown between blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics, and a 60 percent poverty level. It is still one of the top 100 public high schools in the country, and I'm blessed to attend because I get a constant 750-person living forum on the issues of race and diversity. People are often confused to see the free-lunch star on my school ID. One classmate remarked, "I seen ya ass gettin' outta that Benz in the morning, how you gon' steal money like that?" Instead of relaying my life story to him and explaining that my mom is a student at community college and it's her boyfriend's car, I just told him that I bring my own lunch to school anyway. It was true, but still a cop-out.

Many of the perspectives that Obama mentioned in his recent speech are represented at my school--students from blue-collar white families wondering why they can't sign up for a race-specific scholarship to students from white-collar black families wondering who gave anyone the authority to say that they "talk white." I come in offering a forked perspective. What makes the diversity real though is the unity that comes of constant, often aggravated, discussions of these issues.

The most heated example I remember occurred freshman year when the African-American club decided to give out achievement awards at their annual Other Grammies event. Originally they were only to be given to oppressed minorities. After some uproar, white women were added. After more uproar, homosexuals were eligible. Jews were added to the list, too. Eventually the only ineligible people were Christian, white, heterosexual males. The student body became polarized and furious. Chaotic town hall meetings were held, and in the end no awards were given out.

I remember a generally scary feeling in school the day the announcement was made. Sitting in silence listening to a long awaited verdict over the intercom, everything was eerie and wrong because nobody remembered a time that we had been more divided.

We also understand that our student body is by no means a microcosm of the world. We're all well aware of it when we go home to our divided neighborhoods, or turn on our televisions to see stereotypes of each other and ourselves being sold as truth. We know well and with great disappointment that after we graduate, we will probably never encounter another environment with diversity so genuine. We understand that the racial relations in our school do not mirror reality and that racism is far from an outdated notion when the poverty cycle and white privilege are thrown into the mix.

In Chicago, the most stratified city in America, we know these things well. Seeing segregation in America is as easy as riding the Red Line train long enough to see all of the white people get off and the black people get on.

***

Cammi Henao, 14, is an eighth grader who will soon be going to a high school too far away from her home in Chicago. She likes Lipton Tea, writing, running, Fakin Bacon, and the Beatles.

Race--any group, class, or kind, especially of persons. You see it everywhere, all the time, anywhere, and it's a part of who you are. It's your heritage, religion, language, color, traits, everything. You are part of a race--and so is everyone around you. We are part of the human race, yet, we refuse to see it that way.

In my native country, Colombia, it is strange to see someone who isn't from South America. But here in Chicago, it isn't. We see Americans, Hispanics, Poles, Asians. Hell, I even talked to an Australian once! But every country is prejudiced. At school, the teachers look at the Hispanics and African-Americans like they have a little something more to prove. And it's not the white Americans getting pulled out of class.

It's not as if my teachers are racists, but sometimes we feel the small sting of prejudice, and some of the kids think acting out is a way to reverse it. It can be annoying when Hispanic kids (like me) start acting out in class. That contributes to the prejudice in classrooms, I think. The teachers see the kids acting out, and see that it's someone of the same race almost every time. I think that's sad, the way we sometimes see each other as a color, a language. Being Colombian people will sometimes confuse me for Puerto Rican, Mexican, or they'll think I'm talking about Columbia, or California.

Some will not even believe it when I say, no, Colombia, and maybe it's because I don't exactly look like their idea of Hispanic. I have Asian-looking eyes, peachy skin, brown curly hair. At the end of 7th grade, I passed around my class book, and one boy signed it (I rummaged around for the book, just so you know): "Bring me some burritos from Mexico since I think Colombia is somewhere around there, or something." That made me so mad, the fact that he was so completely ignorant, so stupid. How could he write something like that? Why would he write something like that? But he did, and it's because we'd rather divide each other, separate ourselves from other people.

I cannot understand this. Each of us matters the same as individuals, so why should we see and treat each other differently? Why wouldn't you listen to a band because the lead singer is Chinese? Who cares as long as the music is good? Why wouldn't you hold the door for a Hispanic person? Who cares as long as you've done a good deed? Why wouldn't you pay attention in class because your teacher is African? Who cares as long as you pass? I have unfortunately seen all of this in action.

My math class is taught by a Korean woman, and it just seems that the second we walk in, many of the kids zone out, or start making fun of her accent. Then at report card pick-up, they are the ones begging for a higher grade. Only prejudice allows us to call one person a friend and the other an oddity. We all live on the same ground, and here's my advice: Get over it. Race is nothing, color is nothing, accent is nothing, origin is nothing.

Diversity is a beautiful thing, and it is about time we learned to embrace it for what it is. Take for example, the election. How many times have I heard "Obama sounds too much like Osama. OBAMA-OSAMA!" or "Hillary Clinton is a girl. Girls have no power. If I had to vote, I'd vote McCain just because Clinton is a girl." EXCUSE ME, WHAT? I'm a girl, and look at what I've achieved. It's certainly more than you, immature, stupid little teenage boy!

At almost every family meal my mother or father has commented on how people will not vote for Obama based on the utterly insignificant fact that he is black, or will not vote for Hillary because she is a woman. It's sad, it's stupid, it makes me ashamed to be a part of the human race.

I am not trying to make myself sound perfect, but I simply do not pay attention to things like skin color, whatever. As long as you are a nice person, you can be my friend. It is an ugly part of the human nature, racism, and you have to be willing to change it to become a better person. It's as easy as being nice to everyone around you, opening a door for a stranger, sharing your native food. We can co-exist in this chaotic world, I know we can, and you know we can, and so does the rest of the world.

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