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Look, Listen, Speak Up
Margarita Martinez
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I was excited to be accepted to write for YCteen—until I found out that we were going to be writing about race and ethnicity. It’s not something that I like talking about, because the conversation usually ends with people blaming one another. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to avoid this topic. My fellow writers weren’t all that enthusiastic either.

But as we began talking about race we found we had things in common. All of us go to schools where the vast majority of students are black or Latino. We all live in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods of color. Several of us live in the projects and about half of us are being raised by single parents.

Even though we didn’t all love the idea of talking about race, we felt strongly that in today’s society race is still alive. Throughout the summer, we were reminded of how big a role it plays in the world. There have been news stories about assaults on Latinos by black teens in Staten Island; criticism over the hiring of city hall interns, who are mostly rich and white; and a controversy over the firing of Shirley Sherrod, a black federal official who was unfairly painted as a racist. (See “Cooling the Hate Wave,” p. 26, and story on Shirley Sherrod, right.)

Let’s Talk About It

The tone of most news coverage of these developments was informative, but not helpful. The stories I read never offered ways to prevent these things from happening. It seemed like people just pointed the finger at one another. Race issues need to be explained in a more healing way. That means talking about race, not pretending we’re colorblind.

Although I sometimes wish we could just ignore race, I think that if people really did, they wouldn’t see how unbalanced the world is. To this day, things remain unequal. People are divided both by race and social class. There is opportunity, just not equal opportunity. Equal opportunity would mean that everyone would have access to decent housing and a good education, and be able to walk down the street in a wealthy neighborhood without being judged based on skin color. None of this is the case right now.

image by Steve Castillo

Unless we can talk openly and honestly about race, it will be hard to achieve real equality in the future. This means we must talk about who has power and control, and work on spreading that power around. Throughout modern history white men have always had the upper hand, and for the most part they still do (even if they don’t realize it—see “An Invisible Force,” p. 17).

Whose Responsibility?

But when people talk about race, instead of talking about power they often bring up personal responsibility, saying that minorities who are doing badly need to work harder. I agree that personal responsibility plays a big role in any person’s life. But the burden is greater if you’re poor or a minority growing up in the ghetto where it’s easy to get sucked into the negativity that surrounds you, such as drugs, gangs, and violence. In an environment where it seems like no one cares, you have to push yourself to achieve great things.

Anyone with power wants to continue to be on top, but I think that it’s important for privileged white people to try to understand the situations that minorities face. I feel that the responsibility of a white person is to break the cycle of inequality and make a difference. Stand up for minorities, and if you wind up in a position of any power, use that power to help make everyone equal.

Of course, non-white people should think and talk about race as well. If all minorities decided to take more personal responsibility and work hard, the inequalities in wealth and education would begin to disappear. But that can only happen if everyone shows that they care about their communities, schools, each other, and themselves.

All of this is easier said than done, I know. This is especially true since our brains are actually hardwired to put people in categories, which can lead to stereotyping people. (See “Your Brain in Black and White,” p. 11.) We must make a conscious effort to overcome that. After all, recognizing our own stereotypes and prejudices is the first step toward racial healing.

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(NYC-2010-09-03a)

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