What's Wrong With This Picture?
Race Isn't a Factor When My Generation Chooses Friends.
By Justin Britt-Gibson
Sunday, March 18, 2007; Page B01
"It's no big deal," I tell myself. I'm sitting on the subway in Manhattan with Caroline, a woman I'm seeing. Her head rests on my shoulder, her auburn hair tangled in my scarf. Though it should be the last thing on my mind, I can't help but wonder what inspires the elderly African American woman across from us to shake her head disapprovingly: the Detroit Tigers cap I'm wearing or the company I'm keeping. After all, my beloved Tigers had recently defeated the New York Yankees in the American League playoffs. Then again, I'm also a young black man sharing an affectionate arm with a white woman.
As a 25-year-old member of the post-Gen X generation dubbed the "Millennials," I'm used to displays of warmth between interracial couples being ignored or barely noticed. They're hardly on our minds at all.
A similar carefree attitude toward racial mixing reigned at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, where I shared cafeteria tables and Nintendo controls with friends whose parents hailed from Pakistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Colombia -- and Pittsburgh. To my parents' generation, our devil-may-care attitude toward diversity is striking, a symbol of racial progress. Ninety-five percent of 18-to-29 year olds have friends from different racial backgrounds, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll. Many Millennials take it further: To us, differences in skin color are largely irrelevant. That's not to say that young minorities never experience racial inequality. Prejudices still exist, and serious economic gaps still yawn between racial and cultural groups. But I feel fortunate to live in an era when, in choosing friends or dates, race can be among the least of my concerns. Essentially, it's no big deal.
But it felt like a big deal on that subway -- much as it did two years ago in Rome when Federico, a new Italian acquaintance, casually inquired, "Do you listen to black music?" I was a Temple University senior studying art and film in Italy's eternal city. It was my first night out with fellow students. We ended up at a small, smoke-filled dive where we met five 20-something men who spoke in stilted English and didn't hide their attraction to the women in our pack. Eager to ingratiate ourselves with the locals, we accepted their invitation to join them.
I had been told by a black student previously with the program that many Italians don't take kindly to people of color, so Federico's question set off an alarm. Lowering my beer, I calmly asked what "black music" was. When Federico admiringly cited artists such as Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg, I realized this was his way of describing hip-hop, that his intention was no different from my own clumsy attempts to describe my adoration of Italian cinema. Federico just hoped to make a new hip-hop-appreciating friend -- and he did.
In Rome, I learned that whatever I was told to expect, it was best to assume nothing. My five months there also taught me that the indifference to skin color stretches way beyond American soil. Federico and his crew treated me like a brother -- they even referred to me as "brother." Not once during my stay did anyone ever treat me as unequal; my skin color was never a subject of discussion -- at least not to my face.
Weeks after that first meeting, Federico's posse took us to an underground club in the city's college district. Throngs of dreadlocked Italians were smoking joints, drinking beer, grooving to the rhythms of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and other reggae icons. Most striking was how comfortable these Italians seemed in their appropriated shoes, adopting a foreign culture and somehow making it theirs. The scene reinforced my sense of how far we've come since the days when people dressed, talked and celebrated only that which sprang from their own background. For the first time in my life, I was fully aware of the spiritual concept that we're all simply one.
That sense hasn't left me. Everywhere I look, I see young people -- such as my two younger brothers, a Japanese-anime-obsessed 11-year-old and a pastel-Polo-sporting 21-year-old -- adopting styles, hobbies and attitudes from outside the culture in which they were raised. Last month in a Los Angeles barbershop, I was waiting to get my trademark Afro cut when I noticed a brother in his late teens sitting, eyes closed, as the barber clipped his hair into a " 'frohawk," the punk-inspired African American adaptation of the mohawk. Asked why he chose the look, the guy, without looking up, shrugged, "Something different." Immediately, I understood. Minutes later, his "different" cut became my new look.
Sporting a 'frohawk doesn't mean I'll be pulling kickflips in a pair of Vans at the local skate park anytime soon -- I favor Gap jeans, European-cut shirts, British Wallabees and street-smart hoodies. Increasingly, fashion is a mix of everything. My generation's embrace of various subcultures makes once-autonomous racial groups difficult to categorize. Friends who live in different parts of the country all report seeing blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians adopting facets of one another's cultures without taking flak from members of their own group.
Just a decade ago, Matthew Hencke, a biracial independent filmmaker who grew up in Washington, was called "Uncle Tom" by black students at schools he attended, he said, "because of the music I listened to or the clothes I wore." Hencke, who now lives in Manhattan, was scorned for wearing Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts -- even though he adored the Fugees and Scarface. "My problem was, why couldn't I like everything?" said Hencke, who believes that hip-hop artists such as Kanye West, Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco have made diverse choices acceptable by saying, "Yeah I'm black, but I love rock music, skateboarding and wearing preppy clothes -- and that's okay."
Millennials' cross-cultural tastes don't just affect how we dress or wear our hair; they influence our romantic choices. In my case, it isn't about seeking the most exotic woman. It's about liking whom I like -- black, brown, white or yellow. Dating outside the bounds of our own ethnicity is fairly common among people my age, as indicated by a 2005 Gallup poll finding that about 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they have dated outside their race. The general consensus among my diverse body of friends is: Who cares?
For the record, I've dated black women and expect to date more of them. My high school sweetheart happened to be Korean; I don't recall ever being criticized for our relationship, perhaps because so many other kids had similar ones. Reactions were equally blas? to cross-cultural relationships I had in college and beyond. In fact, the only disapproval I've noted when I'm with a woman who isn't black has been from black women.
Last fall, I was in a shoe store with Caroline when I noticed a beautiful sister staring at us. As we passed her, she muttered "Too bad" to her girlfriend. "It's sad," said Hencke, whose wife of six years is white. "I come from a family where my mother's black and my father's white . . . my own upbringing was colorblind. Race was never an issue in my family." I can relate. Having been raised by progressive, racially tolerant parents, I never feared incurring their wrath for bringing home a girl who didn't have a matching tan. Lately at movies, bars and restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and the Washington area, friends and I have seen an increase in black women dating men of other races. Still, considering black men's high rates of unemployment and incarceration, I understand black women's concerns about "losing" eligible brothers to women of other ethnicities.
So does my friend Majeedah Johnson, a 25-year-old African American writer living in the District. "If you meet someone you're compatible with who's outside your ethnic background, that's great," she said. "But if [the attraction] is based on self-hatred or prejudice, I have a problem with it." No kidding. A former college roommate of mine dated white women exclusively. His rationale: Because of the stereotype that black women are too strong, difficult and self-righteous, he perceived white women as an easier option. His skewed perception is very un-Millennial. Brothers who reject black women -- or any group of women -- are as foolish and repugnant as the white racists whom they despise. As Majeedah put it, "They're the ones missing out."
Of course, having been raised in a diverse middle-class neighborhood in Silver Spring and having attended a large, urban university probably has everything to do with my viewpoint. Barry Canty, 33, is a black Los Angeles filmmaker whose upcoming indie-comedy, "L.A. Proper" features a racially diverse cast of 20- and 30-somethings. Canty said that although many in our generation live or were raised in comparatively colorblind settings, those in more segregated communities probably see things differently. "What separates many minorities from embracing diversity is their socioeconomic background," he said.
In Mecklenburg County, N.C., where Canty grew up in a diverse middle-class neighborhood, the lower you were on the economic totem pole, the more segregated your neighborhood was. "In high school, many of the poorer blacks were shocked at how easy it was for me to interact with people of other races," he said. "I think their point of view was affected by their economic status."
Perhaps it seems that Millennials like me are deaf, dumb and blind to the continuing injustices that people of color face. Racism isn't extinct; its effects are ongoing. Earlier this month in East Texas, Chris Wright, a 26-year-old African American, was hospitalized in critical condition after being dragged by a truck driven by a 24-year-old white man who turned himself in and faces assault charges. Wright's girlfriend is white, and according to his family, the incident marked the brutal conclusion of racial taunts the couple has endured for months. The NAACP is pushing to have the assault classified as a hate crime.
As horrific as that incident was, it's important to acknowledge progress and to keep fighting for an even more tolerant society. Although popular, multiethnic TV shows such as "Grey's Anatomy," "Heroes" and "Lost" reflect our nation's and world's ever-increasing diversity, the most powerful force for bringing diversity into American homes is the Internet. Web sites such as MySpace, Friendster and Facebook have created multicultural and ethnic social networks that have made it possible to connect with and befriend people from a universe of cultures just a click away.
The recent uproar over journalist Kenneth Eng's infamous article "Why I Hate Blacks" in AsianWeek showed that some Millennials -- Eng is 23 -- aren't there yet. Eng's abusive grocery list of reasons why people should continue to "discriminate against blacks" was outrageous -- and instructive. My initial reaction wasn't anger but pity for the author, who probably constructed his hateful assumptions based on his negative encounters with African Americans. His article, however wrongheaded, was like this one -- observations drawn from scenes of his own unique experiences.
As strongly as I disagree with his statements, I have no problem with him freely speaking his mind. Everyone in this country has a right to be heard. It's his opinion. Considering how many real advances Americans have made when it comes to tolerance, I have to say:
No big deal.
Justin Britt-Gibson is a Los Angeles freelance journalist and screenwriter.