By Nkechi Obioha,
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Reprinted from February-March 1992

“I remember on the first day of school, being the only black in my honors Chemistry class. People were looking at me like, ‘what’s she doing here?’ When it was my turn to answer a question, the group leader looked at me apprehensively. But, when I gave my answer, they looked at me like, ‘Oh, you’re different than the rest of them…you’re not stupid.’ It really bothered me that I had to prove that I was not stupid just because I was black.”

—Christina Clark, 16, Hamilton High School Junior

When Christina told me her story, I was angry. Is this all we have to show, after all the tears and blood shed during the civil rights movement? Christina’s story reflects a sad but basic truth: Blacks are still not regarded as equals. I’ve grown up in a world where blacks and whites have always been divided—in schools, in neighborhoods, and in my history books. I think back to kindergarten, when my teacher used to sit me in a corner to do my work, away from the other white and Asian kids. She was racist, but I didn’t know that. I couldn’t comprehend that someone could be so cruel. Even though it happened 12 years ago, it still hurts when I recall this incident.

But this is not just my story, this is the story of black teens. Racism is a damaging social disease that has robbed blacks of their identity. In talking to black teens from across the city, I have seen how racism has affected us all—from the quality of education that we receive to the image that we have of ourselves.

Society would have us believe that being black is more than just the color of our skin—that it’s being inferior, thinking inferior, and acting inferior. As a result of this, many blacks struggle for their own definitions of what it means to be black. And they expect other blacks to live up to them, by speaking, thinking, or behaving in a certain way.

Some of the ideas thrown around by other black teens of what it means to be black are ludicrous to me. I don’t see why I have to wear Guess overalls, baggy jeans, or earrings from the Crenshaw swap meet to prove to anyone that I am black. Why should I talk with an attitude, or use bad English? Yet I feel that if I did these things, other black teens would accept me more.

Those who don’t conform, or fit the stereotype of a typical black person, get quickly chastised. As Jean Roquemore of North Hollywood High School wrote in her article (My club helped me define my black identity), she has often heard people ask her, “How come you don’t act black? How come you don’t dance black? How come you don’t talk black?”

The dilemma of how to “act black” leaves some blacks confused. “You can’t act black or act white,” said Shakari Cameron, 17, a Washington Preparatory High School senior, who has been “accused” of acting white, and talking white because she spoke proper English. But is there really a white way of behavior? What Shakari’s accusers fail to recognize is that whites can act and talk differently without denying their racial or ethnic heritage.

To make matters even worse, blacks get flak from other blacks if they date outside their race. Heaven forbid that we should feel attracted to someone who is white. My friend Natalee called me up recently, and told me about her new love interest. “Kechi…he’s black!!!” she squealed, as if she had finally accomplished a lifetime goal. And I know how she feels—our black peers make it seem that we haven’t done right until we’ve dated someone black.

Blacks are individuals

What are some people forget is that blacks can be individuals. We are free to speak how we want to speak, dance how we want to dance, and love who we want to love. What we choose to do with our lives should be an individual choice, not something dictated to us. For example, Lorraine Dixon, 17, a senior at Washington Prep, believes that everyone has his or her own choice, but that she would not date someone of another race. “I believe in keeping the culture strong,” she said.

Amy Saxton, however, has a different point of view. The 16-year old Harvard-Westlake Junior has been told she is racist because she doesn’t date blacks. But as the product of a mixed marriage (black and white), she is open to interracial romance. “I don’t see how I could be otherwise. I personally find it more interesting to have diversity in romance.”

After Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, I talked with friends about what image of blackness they portrayed. I read an article that asked—who is blacker, Thomas or Hill? Did Thomas deny his own blackness by opposing affirmative action, almost as if he’s not a part of the race? Or is it better that blacks only get the jobs they really deserve? It is not fair to say that Clarence Thomas denied his race because he held a different point of view. I felt good about the fact that the hearings showed so many positive examples of accomplished blacks, but I was upset because the hearings divided the black community once again. The hearings became a forum for me and other blacks to discuss “the problem”—how can we as blacks stand up against racism?

The Quest for Identity

For some blacks, a big part of their search for identity is in finding the right word to describe themselves. This is not a new problem. Ever since blacks were brought to America as slaves in the 17th century, a myriad of names have been used to describe black people. It was only until this century that blacks started to search for an appropriate name for their race. Today, the list of names includes:
•    Black
•    black
•    Afro-American
•    African-American
•    colored
•    Negro
•    African

In 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Black was the term used. In 1990, Jesse Jackson called for blacks to be referred to as African-American. Not all blacks agree with this. For example, my brother, Igbo, who is the editor of UCLA’s black student newspaper, hates the term “African-American.” He feels that America has taken away everything that blacks are—to match African with American is an abomination of everything Africa stands for. Tiscia Howell, 16, a Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies junior, prefers African-American. “Black is just a color, you know? But with African-American you can relate to it.”

Sylvester Monroe, a black journalist who has lived in both black and white worlds, has a different point of view. He grew up in a Chicago project and went on to graduate from Harvard University. Monroe believes that, “African-American means a recognition that I have cultural roots that go back to the African continent. I think it’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really matter to me. More important than what we call ourselves is what we think of ourselves.”

How much do we know of our past?

But what do we think of ourselves? And equally important, what do we know of our past? My past, and the past of my parents can be traced to two different continents. My dad is from Imo State, Nigeria and my mom is from Selma, Alabama. While my dad was studying to become a teacher, my mom was witnessing the civil rights movement right before her eyes. I feel I know a lot more than other kids my age about my heritage. But as for the labels blacks give themselves, the issue really doesn’t concern me. If my mom’s American, and my dad’s African, that would make me African American. So what should everyone else be called? Is it constructive for me to spend a lot of time thinking about it?

The new Afrocentrism movement has given many teens their own views on Afrocentrism. To Christal Clark, 15, a sophomore at Beverly Hills High, “Afrocentrism” seems to be expressed by having African things rather than having a lot of knowledge about Africa. “I think of people coming from the ‘motherland,’ African canes, backpacks with African colors, and big African necklaces.” Her sister Christina saw afrocentrists as so extreme in their efforts to create racial pride that they create some of the prejudice they try to fight.

“It’s about knowing who you are and where you came from,” said Shakari Cameron. But is it really? Isn’t knowing your past, and who you are part of being a person, no matter what race you are?

Instead of blacks becoming divided over labels, or creating standards of each other that are hard to meet, we should think of more ways to bring ourselves together. Black student groups can help bring blacks together—but not necessarily so they can become “conscious.” They serve different purposes for different students. Some go because they feel they have to, others because they have nowhere else to go during lunch. For example, Howell describes herself as a “partial” member of Young Black Scholars. She said she attends meetings “somewhat out of a sense of duty…It looks good on your college record.”

Black student groups can also fill the need to associate with people of your ethnic origin. Carla Sheppard, a sophomore at UCSD, is a member of the Black Student Union because she feels racially isolated at her school. “In my classes, I feel like I’m the only black in a sea of 300 people.”

Clark, the Hamilton Humanities Magnet junior, said she does not attend Young Black Scholars or the black student group on her campus. She has no extra time to go to YBS meetings, and she was turned off when the Black Student Union recently changed its name to the Asiatic Student Union. “The justification behind this, was that ‘black’ was a term that the white man had given us. I think it’s good to be proud of your race, but it’s bad when it becomes so extreme that you help to create some of the prejudice that you’re trying to fight.”

There’s been a lot of talk about Michael Jackson’s video “Black or White.” Here’s Jackson singing that it doesn’t matter if you are black or white. But his nose has been reconstructed to look white His skin has been lightened. Said Lorraine Dixon, 17, of Washington Prep High, “He’s saying that we’re all people, and that we should stop looking at people because of their skin color. But it’s kind of ironic, because he bleaches his skin.”

Should blacks separate from whites?

I’ve been pondering the question of assimilation v. separation, which has been fiercely debated by black leaders. W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), used to say that blacks could only be free if they were separate from whites. I feel more in tune with Booker T. Washington, who argued that we should educate ourselves to find our place in society. Said Tiscia, “I don’t see either one adequate. A lot of people see assimilation as losing your culture. Separation makes the problem worse. It’s more of a personal choice…those who feel they can handle living with others and contribute something positive to society should…and the rest of the people can live somewhere else among people of their own race.”

We all come from different backgrounds. Some of us live in “The Hood,” some of us live in Holmby Hills. Some of us have a lot of melanin in our skin, and some of us have less. Some of us have six-digit incomes, some of us have no income. But either way, it makes no difference. We are who we are, not because of what we wear, how we talk, or where we live. By learning to appreciate one another for who we are, and by learning to accept our differences as human beings, we can only live better lives. It’s all a matter of how you feel inside. No one can really define what it means to be you, but you.