How 24 teens talk about race
By Lisa Bonos
A year ago, as President Obama was sworn in to office, Americans shared a sense that we were about to take our long, often dysfunctional national conversation about race to a higher level.
Today, official Washington, so recently consumed by Harry Reid’s “light-skinned” comment, might say there’s been little progress. And mainstream America might agree: A recent Post poll found that only 40 percent of Americans think Barack Obama’s presidency has helped race relations, down from nearly 60 percent in 2009.
But on a recent Saturday, I got a chance to hear what a youthful slice of unofficial Washington thinks about race. The short answer? It’s got nothing to do with Harry Reid.
The 24 students from public and private high schools are participants in a program called Operation Understanding DC, which brings together African American and Jewish teenagers to forge interracial ties and learn about each other’s histories of persecution. When asked whether they were familiar with Reid’s gaffe, only four hands went up.
But the majority of the group clearly encounters comments like Reid’s in their lives. It’s worth listening to these teenagers, because they show us how we could be going about this conversation — if we really wanted to.
What’s the point, you might ask? Well, we’re not going to move forward on race relations until we share where we come from and start to chip away at society’s ever-present stereotypes. And these students are off to a good start.
The black teenagers are fed up with the low expectations society holds for them and the “black-on-black hate,” which one said is far stronger in his community than any prejudice against whites. They worry that if Obama doesn’t succeed, the world will see him as just another black man who can’t do his job.
And they say these stereotypes are reflected in how others perceive them. Nnamdi Nwaezeapu is frustrated that his black peers call him an “Oreo” because he speaks proper English. Stephen Doolittle tells the group how a friend whom he hadn’t spoken to in years thought he’d “turn ghetto by now.”
Among the Jewish teens, one says she usually doesn’t like to broadcast her faith because she doesn’t want to be defined by it. “There’s so much more to Nora — me — underneath,” she says.
It’s emotional and it’s not always pretty, but it’s honest. It’s also amazingly constructive — far more so than the gaffes, apologies and “beer summits” that dominate our national conversation.
If we’re serious about repairing race relations in this country, just having a biracial facilitator in the White House won’t get us very far. It’s up to all of us to get the conversations rolling.
The writer is an editor on the editorial page staff.
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