by Chris Drakeford
"If it ends with an 'a' it's 'a'-ok" explained Todd, after seeing my face cringe when he referred to his white friend as "my nigga." As 50 cent, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z use this word liberally in their music; teenagers have adopted the word as a synonym for good friends regardless of race. For younger generations, the shock factor associated with the N-word has faded. My parents would be appalled at the frequency of the word at my high school--even if it lacks an "er" ending. My own decreasing sensitivity is not disrespectful to my heritage but rather an uneasy adaptation to changing times.
I was the lone teenager at a table of black Baby Boomers last summer while out to dinner with family friends. My dad sparked a debate about whether racism was decreasing in younger generations. This question quickly produced a unanimous "no" amongst everyone at the table, with one exception - me. While finishing off my chicken, ribs, and macaroni, my mind drifted, blocking out the chorus of stories of "undeserved speeding tickets," "overaggressive police actions," and "suspected racial profiling." I reflected on my experience in Yorktown, growing up as a black male in a town where I never felt that I was treated unfairly, differently, or unequally. Perhaps I have been lucky or maybe racism is present but I don't see it because it lies outside the boundaries of my perspective. As I tuned back into the dinner debate, I defended my generation as less racist.
While the adults clearly had more experience on the race issue and experience is often seen as an asset when it comes to solving problems, it can also limit new thinking and ideas. I have never been very passionate about race but my views can be an asset as it frees me from seeing the same predictable pessimism of race which seems so unfitting to the moment of living with the nation's first black president.
I sit at a peculiar place at the intersection of race and class. I am a product of a proud black family that represents the diversity of black culture. My Dad, the son of a blue-collar lumberyard worker, was the first to attend college in his family. My Mom, the daughter of a doctor, is the fourth generation to attend college. Most of my friends are white and middle class; this has given me a unique window into both black and white worlds. I understand the older generation's disapproval of the "n word", but I also understand my friends' confusion when I tell them the word is "off limits" while it slips so easily off the tongues of black rappers and comedians. "Why can't we use it if they're using it?" they ask me. I often remain silent because, the truth is, I don't have an answer. I never use the word, and expect the same from my friends.
The only time I feel like a stranger in either of my two worlds is when the subject of race arises. I usually see both sides of the race debate, and regardless of the viewpoint I encounter, I often find myself taking the opposing side. I remember a peer arguing with me that racism is an insignificant factor in our society that is exaggerated for the benefit of certain groups. My first reaction was anger: How could anybody think such ignorant and misguided thoughts? Ironically, I found myself arguing with my peer using some of the same ammunition the Baby Boomers used at dinner that night. But I couldn't dismiss my classmate as racist. This kid had simply experienced his whole life as a white middle class male, in a town with few minorities. What opportunity would he have had to look for or see racism? None. How could I expect him to see something that lies outside the borders of his vision, something that is essentially invisible to him? How could I expect the Baby Boomers to see race based on anything beyond their experience growing up in a world still plagued by remnants of the racism that the Civil Rights movement sought to eradicate?
To me, racism is a complex, ever-shifting entity that moves about class, generation, and community without any consistency. It may never disappear and individual experience, a much larger force beyond generation, will always shape perspectives on it. While my thoughts around racism are still forming, my particular experience provides me with insight into both black and white worlds. Some might see my thinking as indecisive, but I believe there is a need for leaders who can see multiple sides of an issue and can make informed and empathetic decisions about seemingly unsolvable conflicts, such as those between Henry Louis Gates and a white police officer or even between Arabs and Israelis and blacks and whites. This leadership, which is demonstrated by individuals such as Barack Obama, is becoming more important in solving the issues of our increasingly complex and globalized world.
Chris Drakeford will be a senior at Tufts University in the fall. He is a 2010 graduate of Yorktown Heights High School in Yorktown Heights, New York.