Exploring race through white teens' eyes

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

On the degree to which students think race matters:

At the suburban school – most of the students had very little reflection on what it meant to be white, especially culturally. Students in the mostly white school felt white meant you were the majority. It meant, for several students – because of affirmative action – [that] you would be discriminated against for scholarships.

What pervaded was a race-neutral framework.

Because whites in the suburb had little association with people of color, their race sensitivities made them ignorant about what was going on.... They weren't as aware of huge discrepancies in white and black incomes. They thought, 'Now we're living in a world where race doesn't matter anymore.'

At the multiracial school no one said race didn't matter – regardless of being conservative or liberal. They wanted to meet to discover their sameness, which also makes us realize [that there are] racial injustices.

On academics and tracking:

At the multiracial school, a source of tension was academic hierarchy. White kids sometimes had to defend where they stand. But [they] knew that while they worked hard to be [in more advanced classes], there were a lot of injustices. Some kids were there because their parents put them there. I talked to counselors who would say that black and Latino parents wouldn't lobby as much to put their kids in advanced classes.

Suburban students were more defensive, fearing they were going to be [denied opportunities in favor of] someone less qualified.

In both schools, students were in the advanced placement classes.

In the multiracial school, these tracks were very racialized in students' minds. The Asians and whites were in upper classes while blacks and Hispanics were in the remedial or lower classes.

Kids [equated] whites [with] going to college and blacks and Hispanics [with] dropping out.

Tracking systems almost assured their futures.

On whiteness as 'normal':

The main commonality was the belief that white is the norm. Even white students [who are the minority] in the multiracial school said that.

We can't just be different and equal. It's hard for us culturally to all be "normal" – once you point out a difference, it has to be good or bad.

If we [whites] see ourselves as the norm, how does that affect how we look at difference? So when students see themselves as the norm they are more inclined to feel entitlement – not even consciously.

I have a complaint about multiculturalism in schools where you have an Asian-American assembly, an African-American assembly, and so on. We don't put white culture up as spectacle. So the concept of multiculturalism days reproduces the notion that white is standard and minorities are spectacles.

On integrated schools and new approaches to multiculturalism:

We should integrate our schools. It doesn't benefit white youth to keep them segregated – they don't understand other races and their own privilege of what it means to be white. They don't benefit when they become adults and work beside people of color.

Urban schools are in terrible disarray. [We need to] improve inner-city schools and neighborhoods in ways that will ultimately support integration.

There also need to be true multicultural programs in schools – schools that take on the task of integrating their student bodies and not segregating them by tracking. Detracking has the benefit of raising all ships. Tracking reproduces notions of racial hierarchy.

The purpose of multiculturalism should be that people can find and validate their histories through curriculum ... [that is] not so Eurocentric. There isn't just one kind of knowledge that is the right knowledge. We need to help white students make sense of their own race and not feel guilty.

• E-mail comments to cooks@csps.com.

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