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 and teen pundits Zulay Regalado and Jordyn Turney--neither of whom wrote about race in the book. Visit their daily blogs at www.redthebook.com. --Amy Goldwasser
Zulay Regalado, 19, lives in South Florida and is a first-year student at Miami Dade College, majoring in journalism. She will be voting for the first time this November and works on music production and blogging for redthebook.com during her spare time.
Simply put, race is a disappointment.
I say it's a disappointment because I have no other way of perceiving a word that brings about such controversy. A word (which is all it has become) -- a cultural race to the top of God-knows-what that no one seems to be winning. It's as if everyone has forgotten what race really is. You just don't hear it in the context of the beautiful idea of diversity, do you? It's come to mean putting down someone's beliefs and background, or verbally damaging another's upbringing with shameful generalizations.
Funny how one little word, which contains such a rich abundance of social convention, can bring about so much negative backlash. And for that very reason, I say it's a disappointment--for what it's become.
I've been raised in a family that has taught me that America is a pool of different faces and races. My parents migrated from Cuba in 1980 with my two sisters. They managed to escape from a torn country, under the oppression of communist rule, to a much more prosperous one--which, although it gave them the liberty they sought, it also forced them to quickly adjust to its fast pace and labor and social norms. My mother had to work in a shoe factory at minimum wage, because the higher-positioned jobs only hired people who spoke English. My father worked full-time at a storage company, where he was luckily able to learn English through listening to his American coworkers. Sadly, he's now had to face his wife being discouraged to speak at the company dinners because no one wanted to talk to the woman who spoke only Spanish.
My family has walked into restaurants while on vacation in Orlando, Florida, a predominantly white tourist city, and received hard glances from customers and waiters. "Nos ven como extranos," my mother once said when I confronted her about it. They look at us because we're not the stereotypical blonde-haired, blue- eyed all-American family. And to this day I still genuinely wonder to myself, what's wrong with being different?
It made me become timid, sometimes afraid of talking to others outside of my race, because many people associate Hispanics--Cubans in particular--as loud, rude, uneducated people. But I've been fortunate enough to have parents who believe that we must never project the negativity we receive. I don't go to restaurants and cringe at the blacks walking in, and I find it very unclassy to ignore the one person who doesn't speak English in a group of people.
It's even harder for me to understand how people of my own culture, well known elders of mine who, like my family, live in this country for freedom and happiness, can judge their own kids for wearing cornroes in their hair because "estan retrasando la raza." They're setting back our race by mixing it with others that they think don't belong. According to those same elders, I'm too young to understand that all "gringos" are ignorant, bitter people because the minorities are barging in on "their territory."
Being raised in a predominantly Hispanic community keeps me trapped in my own skin when I witness the constant circle of discrimination. I can't help but pity those who refuse to accept anyone outside of their own beliefs, culture, anything, because they're missing out on something grand.
I grew up with a good friend of African-American descent whose family strived to continue the great legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for social equality. She was once told that she was hanging out too much with the "white Cuban girl."
Again, I think to myself, this is what it comes down to. It's a shame to know that society is nothing but a big play production, and I can assume the role of the white Cuban girl. A real letdown, a disappointment, to know that I am only as valuable as the person who has subordinated me.
I guess I just have to understand that the very land my parents believed would give their family freedom would leave us ALL prisoners of our own race. I guess I have to enjoy the Latin beats of my native music and the herbs and spices of a hot plate of rice and beans in the comfort and company of the only people who I know will never turn on the person I have become--a person who believes that race in this country is nothing but a sad disappointment.
Jordyn Turney, 18, is a college freshman in southern California, studying to be a kindergarten teacher. She is currently shopping her first young adult novel.
One of my favorite quotes is by that oh-so-wise Anonymous: "Choose your friends by their character and your socks by their color. Choosing your socks by their character makes no sense, and choosing you friends by their color is unthinkable."
Unthinkable. Absurd, unreasonable, inconceivable.
Unthinkable, and yet we're talking about it. Unthinkable, and yet race is an issue. Unthinkable, and yet it matters enough to be taboo. More taboo, it often seems, than discussing homosexuality or God or our views on abortion. Race is supposed to be immaterial, racism obsolete. But it is nearly a half century after the I Have A Dream speech and we are still discussing it. Somehow the Neanderthal issue of what color is your skin is something we're still not entirely sure how to deal with.
Unthinkable, and yet sitting in my Algebra class freshman year I heard the boy behind me laugh about the KKK. A boy who was friendly and likeable, a boy one of my friends had a crush on. I heard him laugh, like it was something funny. Laugh, like he accepted, agreed, appreciated it. Laugh, like he didn't see or care how narrow-minded, how mean, how sickening the whole idea was. And I sat there astonished, unable to say anything because I was still processing the reality of what he'd just said--a quote I can't even remember now.
Unthinkable, and yet jokes about race are amazingly common in the television shows and movies we watch. There are so few like Remember the Titans or the Disney Channel movie The Color of Friendship, that take matters of race seriously, and so many movies like Meet the Browns, that just poke fun and reinforce stereotypes.
Why is race an issue? Yes, we are different colors. We have different cultures and backgrounds and stories. Our ancestors came over from Europe. Our ancestors were slaves on plantations in the south. Our ancestors were discriminated against during WWII because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Our grandmas pass down recipes for corn bread, for nachos, for pumpkin pie.
We are different and we celebrate it, but at the same time those differences scare us, because we are creatures of habit and, whether we live in New York City or a small town in Texas, everyone lives in their own little bubbles of reality. We like familiarity, we crave comfortableness. And I used to think I was the only one. The only one who orders the same flavor ice cream every time, who watches the same movie every time she gets sick, who relies on the same songs to cheer her up. But I'm not. We're all like this, aren't we? Our comfort zones are outlined as clearly as if we had marked them with police tape. We do not step outside. We like inside. It is cozy and nice and warm and safe.
But people are not ice cream flavors or movies or catchy songs. We are much more complicated. We are not one-dimensional. My friends are Chinese, they are biracial, they are white. They are different but the same. They have the same faith or read the same books or watch the same movies or went to the same school as me for years. They are my friends because they are my friends, nothing more complicated than that. They are not my friends because of the color of their skin. That is crazy talk.
Thinking of the generations before me, when segregation was still a part of society and biracial friendships and marriages were unheard of, completely unaccepted, I can look at the world around me, the world my friends and I live in, and see how easy we have it now. How easy it is to see the unthinkableness of discriminating based on race. We are not segregated, black schools and white schools. We use the same water fountains, go to the same movie theaters with the same sticky floors because everyone spills soda.
And nonetheless we still come face-to-face with racial issues--self-segregation in high schools where Mexicans hang out with other Mexicans, Whites with other Whites, Blacks with other Blacks. We have it so much easier, and yet there are still problems. But if I and the people I know are choosing our friends based on more substantial, meaningful things than skin color, maybe other people are too. And maybe we cannot stop problems of race dead in their tracks but merely wear them down, generation by generation, as more and more people open their eyes.