By Sam Piha
Now more than ever, people across the country are engaged in discussions about race, ethnicity and equity. While February is Black History Month, we wanted to learn more about recent history- the reflection of young adults on their experience with race and ethnicity in America.
We invited a group of young people enrolled in a local community college class, focused on race issues in America, to answer a few questions. We asked about their early experiences with racial and ethnic differences and how those early experiences shaped them. Below are some of their responses.
"I grew up in a town which has a very diverse population, so my early experiences with racial and ethnic differences were abundant and positive. Starting at age 5, I played soccer where I was introduced to many families from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. My supportive and hard- working parents raised me to not judge people by the color of their skin or their ethnic background, so I was able to interact with people based on their actions or how they treated others. As I grew up, I continued to learn about other cultures and I became more interested in various international areas."
"My early experiences with racial and ethnic differences really started when I transferred to another high school where I felt like a fish out of water. In all my classes, I was the only person who was mixed race. Being biracial, I would get looks of curiosity or people would ask, 'What are you?' I always hated when people would ask me that because I would always wonder if people thought different of me. My core group of friends were Latino. Since I am half Latino, we could relate on that, but I learned that we had different cultures, holidays and eat different foods. I felt more comfortable with them because they never judged me about being biracial. When I joined the Black Student Union at my high school, the teacher and some of the students would say, 'I’m not black enough' or that 'I was whitewashed' because of the place I was raised.
These early experiences shaped me into the person I am today by making me very comfortable with who I am, a strong biracial woman. In my early years, I was almost ashamed of being biracial and not being able to connect with a specific group. Now with everything that is going on in the news, like Black Lives Matter, I see the importance in embracing who I am as a person of mixed race. I see that a person doesn’t need to specifically connect with a group just because they are the same race but being able to connect with them because they don’t judge who you are and the actions you take."
"Middle school was definitely harder because people were comparing themselves to each other and were less tolerant of individuals who were different. There were times when people said things about those in my race or other races, but this helped me to be kinder to others and tolerant. People have physical and cultural differences, but it’s the kind of person they are on the inside that really matters."
"My early experiences with racial and ethnic differences began when I was in 5th grade and could start to realize what were the differences between me and other students. An experience I could remember was when in class I was being accused of something I didn’t do and when everyone else pointed out the person who did do it, the teacher was in denial because they saw the other kid as innocent because 'that’s not in him to do, and not in his nature.' When I started to figure out what she meant, I realized that people of color are targeted at an early age."
"My mom raised my brother and I in an environment that was very diverse so we wouldn't have to experience racism as children. When she finally tried to teach us about racial differences and the history of racism, we didn't believe a word. Instead, my brother and I were actually upset; we thought our mother was racist for acknowledging the differences between races, for we saw everyone the same. We sat and argued with her, so sure that 'those kinds of things don't happen anymore,' and 'no one cares about that stuff like they used to,' not because it held truth, but because it was something we genuinely believed. As I started to get older and my knowledge grew, so did the people around me. Kids I’d gone to school with since elementary became more curious and more vocal about each other's differences."
"As someone wearing Hijab (headscarf) to represent my religion and modesty, I have seen people looking at me and treating me differently. It is challenging to live in a place where people think of me differently from other individuals. However, seeing minorities experiencing racial differences makes me stronger in different aspects. It makes me stronger in an encouraging way. It reminds me that I have a chance to prove them wrong for wrongfully hating us. My parents always taught me not to let racial discrimination or other issues in my life stop me from being who I strive to be. I was taught that if I have a chance to make a difference, nothing should stop me from achieving it. As an immigrant, I have an opportunity to prove to individuals that race doesn't affect whether someone can be successful."
"My first experiences with racial and ethnic differences was when I was younger and I would visit my sister’s house. My sister lived in a predominantly white town, and I lived in a predominantly Latino town. Her town was very quiet and everyone was in bed by 9 P.M. In my neighborhood the noise never stopped. It felt like being an outcast to be in her town because when people there saw a person of color, they often liked to stare.
Another time I experienced an aspect of being different was when my parents divorced. At first, I tried to hide it, but it was inevitable that people would find out. I didn't want to be seen as different. However, when people found out, such as students and teachers, I noticed I was treated a little differently at first. Teachers were more lenient accepting late work. My peers would avoid talking about their family outings around me. These experiences have shaped me into the person I am today because I learned that racism is not in the past and it still exists."
"My early experiences with racial and ethnic differences were good. As a kid, I grew up and went to school with people of all backgrounds and everyone got along. I thought of kids that looked different than me in class as just other fellow humans, not categorized as a different alien race. I still carry this mindset with me today as it feels easier on the mind because of its simplicity. In my opinion, if you try to simplify everything around your environment and not complicate things, it’s easier to achieve bliss."
"I’ve had a bit of a negative experience with dealing with differences such as caste. My family are Sikhs and part of the 'Jatt' caste (a farmer caste). My parents can sometimes look down upon other Sikhs that they would consider are part of a lower caste. I tell them to abolish this caste notion, that it’s outdated now that we’re in America. They don’t listen to me and still keep their biased view of thinking. These early experiences shaped me to be more welcoming of others and view everyone as a fellow human."
As schools prepare to re-open, afterschool program staff need to consider the experiences of youth who have been away from school and their friends due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We know these vary greatly depending on family income and racial/ ethnic background. What are young people's needs? What should we, as afterschool staff, do to help youth thrive when they return to afterschool programs post COVID? How might we build back school and program culture and a sense of "family" spirit and connection in our afterschool programs? Join Stu Semigran and a panel of afterschool program experts to learn how best to help youth thrive as they return to school and afterschool. To get more information and to register for our next Speaker's Forum, click here.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.