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Exploring race through white teens' eyes

A sociologist compares students' experiences in two high schools with vastly different racial compositions

By Stephanie CookStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2002

When Pamela Perry was studying anthropology in graduate school, she posed a tough question to her colleagues: What does it mean to be white?

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Most struggled to give her an answer.

They didn't think they had an ethnic identity, she recalls. "I thought, culture is something everybody has. Why is it as a white person I don't think I have a cultural identity? Well, ethnic means minority to most people. White people identify with the majority – and we don't call it anything."

Those conversations sparked Ms. Perry to write a book about a phase of life when identities are often shaped: the high school years.

In "Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School" (Duke University Press), she writes about her two-and-a-half-year experience in two California schools in the mid-1990s. The two schools, near Santa Cruz, were practically identical in academics, size, socioeconomics – in nearly everything but ethnic composition.

Clavey High is the name she assigned to a large, diverse public school in a metropolitan area on the Pacific Coast. Only 12 percent of students there are white. Valley Groves (also a pseudonym) is about 20 miles away, in a onetime agricultural area that has now become suburban. The student body represents both working-class and professional families and is 70 percent white.

Perry attended classes, chatted with cliques, and talked with white teens to gain their insights on prejudice, privilege, and "white guilt."

Many students told Perry that racial groups became more boldly defined in high school as kids etched out their identities and became more aware of pressure – from society and their peers – not to cross racial lines.

Two white friends at Clavey, Kirsten and Cindi, recall how their taste in music changed over the years. Kirsten says that she and her friends, regardless of race, listened to rap and R&B in elementary school. But she now listens to alternative and country.

"As you get older ... you discover what your 'true being' is. So then people's musical tastes change," she told Perry. "There's an undercurrent ..., a desire to feel accepted."

Now an assistant professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Perry spoke with the Monitor about what she discovered at two schools with such contrasting racial compositions.

On students' willingness to open up:

[At the multiracial school,] students were accustomed to opening up to more diverse groups. Students weren't as open at the mostly white suburban school – the kids tended to be more sheltered.

The white kids felt solidarity as whites at Clavey. There were distinctions between cliques, but they weren't hard and fast ... whereas over in the white school, they made a sharper distinction among themselves as whites. So punk-rockers and jocks weren't hanging out together.

On the atmosphere at each school:

Students in the mostly white school are used to getting more individual attention. The multiracial urban school was run more like a penitentiary.

There was an assumption that the students were bad – even though there was almost an equal amount of crime at both schools. At one school, the dominating theme was nurturing.... The other was more punitive. [Young people] absorb that.

On how the students' views differed:

At the suburban school, they could see how they were privileged in a way that was empowering, but they would also say, 'This is so unfair.' They wanted to address racial inequities.

In the urban school, there was a bit of both comfort with other races and tensions. I heard a lot of contradictions – but white kids said they wouldn't change the experience ... of befriending different [races].

But the same students would say the most racist comments – stronger than [the comments made by] any students in the white school. They saw their privilege but also saw the black kids in remedial classes. [There was also] a desire to understand and overcome racism.