Young People and Racial Justice…we must do better

Twenty five years ago, I was a high school sophomore in honors classes at a predominantly white school in one of Chicago’s tonier neighborhoods. Even at that young age, I knew that my life was nothing like my peers and figured that college and a career were most likely not going to be mine despite being in the same classes as the white children of the upper middle class. I was Black and I hailed from the working class and other than my parents supportive words, no one encouraged me to excel. I decided to create a self fulfilling prophecy by dabbling in drugs and alcohol and aligning myself with the “stoners” who would cut school most of the day and get high. By the time senior year rolled around, I had failed physical education one too many times along with chemistry and my only chance to graduate on time was to go to night school. My family didn’t have have the cash to send me to night school and I didn’t want to graduate late so a few days after turning 18, I dropped out of high school. Three months after dropping out of high school, I was married and two months after getting married, I was pregnant. My life should have been over, I should have become another statistic…a poor Black teenage mom. Yet the universe had other plans for me.

I haven’t looked back on my teen years in a long time. My teen years and large chunks of my childhood were painful and frankly race figured prominently in that pain. Too many years spent being the only Black kid or one of the only Black kids in a class. Never quite knowing my place in the world and aside from my family, never seeing reflections that looked like me. Even now, I can count the number of non white teachers I’ve had on one hand.

Last night I found myself on a panel with several young people from Boston Mobilization discussing young people and racial justice. The discussion triggered some deeply packed away memories. A reminder to me of just how critical racial justice is and how critical is that we start discussions of race early in life.

One of the panelists, a 17 year old Latina woman, described going through school being deemed “smart” yet receiving the message that she was not entitled to be “smart” despite ending up in one of the country’s premier high schools. At times she faced accusations that she couldn’t possibly have done her work; after all, she is a Latina.  She spoke of how from age 11-12 being aware that she was seen as a stereotype at times and not an actual person. Another panelist, a 21 year old Southeast Asian man spoke of how growing up in the shadow of 9/11 he and the men in his family had been racialized. How as a Sikh, he was viewed as suspect. He spoke about the duality of being viewed as both a suspect in certain settings and a math/computer whiz in academic settings. Neither of which described who he really was. His quiet demeanor revealing at least to me the pain that is always present when we are deemed nothing more than a “type” based off our skin color.

As painful as it was for me to hear the words these young people shared, unlike 25 years ago, we have created spaces (in some places) for young people to give voice to these feelings. We have created spaces that empower young people to name the “isms” that 25 years ago, I couldn’t even admit to myself. But young people of color should not have to face their youth grappling with a racialized existence; yet they do, and will continue to do so, because far too many white people don’t get matters of race and shy away from such topics. Even whites who consider themselves allies often falter when it comes to talking race with their own kids. Yet these kids will go to school and interact with kids of color and bring their own racialized view of what people of color are with them. It’s a self perpetuating system that keeps us apart. However as I heard a young white woman on the panel speak of her own identity as a white woman and her racial justice work, it left me hopeful that perhaps our future of change lies with young people. Perhaps it’s the role of the older heads such as mine to support this work because, to quote one panelist, younger minds are more open and more malleable and not weighted down by personal baggage and anecdotal stories and narratives that get in the way of us actually hearing one another. In large urban spaces, programs such as Boston Mobilization and by extension even mine have the capacity to exist. Yet in rural states such as Maine, we have to be more intentional in opening the dialogue on racial differences and creating safe spaces and that work starts in our own families.

PS: I just wanted to say thank you to all who reached out after my last post. That was a hard one to write because it required a level of vulnerability that even a touchy feely type like myself prefers to avoid. I know the post didn’t go over well with everyone but thanks to those who understood the spirit in which I wrote it and thank you for your support of this space.