Darren: "I grew up looking like a Japanese baby with red hair."
You've got to be taught To hate and fear,You've got to be taughtFrom year to year, It's got to be drummedIn your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a different shade, You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught!
— "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," from the musical South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Jennifer: "I dress any type, as long as it looks good."
The following (somewhat fanciful) definitions were modified from the website urbandictionary.com.
A "wannabe" is a poser, a follower, a charlatan. Someone who "wants to be" something that they're not, usually to fit in with a specific crowd of "peepz."
"White wash" refers to black people who act white.
An "oreo" is someone who is "black on the outside and white on the inside." The word is used, much like "white wash," to refer to black people who act white.
Mark: "I grew up around black people. I guess I got adapted to the lifestyle."
A "coconut" is brown on the outside, white on the inside. Used to refer to Mexican people who act white.
A "twinkie" is yellow outside and white within. For Asians who act white.
A "wigger" is a white person who acts black. A portmanteau word formed from "white" and "nigger."
"Honky" is a derogatory term for a white person.
Jennica: "She doesn't like me because she thinks I try to act white."
A "blackanese" is a cross between an African and an Asian.
"Mulatto" is the Spanish word for "mule." It's used to refer to folks who are half black and half white but due to its origins is now generally regarded as a derogatory term.
Kamellah - "1/2 black, 1/4 white, and 1/4 Mexican."
A "wapanese" is a white person who acts Asian. Another portmanteau word. These people are usually very much into anime and manga.
A "chigger" is a Chinese person who acts black (rapping, dressing "gangsta").
Maricella: "I've always hung out with Asians."
"Gangsta" is an alternate spelling of "gangster." According to urbandictionary: "It refers to one who promotes and participates in destructive and self-serving culture in an effort to project a particular image of toughness or to make oneself intimidating. Willingness to blatantly misuse English is also a necessity."
Abi: "I'm Jewish...I have a close friend who's a practicing Muslim."
"Ebonics" is the language of black culture used by gangstas.
"Ghetto" means low-class, or no class.
John Burrell, 52, the black father of a mixed-race daughter, was on the beach with his wife, Marie, who was white.
Melody: "I used to bring Persian food to school, for lunch, but I was always embarrassed about it."
Said Burrell, "Society isn't really like that anymore, is it? I mean, all racist? It's gotten pretty homogenized, I think. Even hip-hop's not really a black or white thing these days. It's both."
Adrian and Breanna. Adrian: "My mom calls me 'gangsta' more than anyone else, because of the way I dress."
A youth group was having lunch near the rollercoaster in Mission Beach, a racially diverse bunch of youngsters between the ages of 8 and 11, all wearing blue shirts and chomping hot dogs and licking ice cream. I asked the group's supervisors whether there'd been any racially motivated trouble among the kids.
Denzell: "My mom's white and my dad's black. And I always tell people I was raised white."
"Never," said one. "And I've been a counselor for four years."
"Not with kids this young," said another. "They don't know about that kind of stuff. That doesn't usually start until middle school."
Luke, 14, is light-skinned black. He was shirtless, wearing long black shorts and sneakers, and carrying a skateboard.
"Folks see us acting white and they call us 'white wash.' You know, if we're surfing or skating, or if we go shopping in a surf shop or skate shop."
Jordan, 18, is black, and I saw him sporting swim trunks and sunglasses and hanging out on the beach with his white friend Alex, also 18.
"There's pressure on black kids to act white in San Diego. There were only about seven black guys at my high school [USDHS], so I think we acted more black. We made sure to listen to rap music loud and dress all gangster and stuff, like we were making up for the fact that there were only a few of us. There was pressure to be better at sports. But I never really heard many comments or racial stuff said, not to me, not to my face."
Is a white kid acting black when he sports a do-rag and has his boxers pulled higher than the waistband of his super-baggy shorts?
Is an Asian kid acting black when he beat-boxes and break-dances and tries freestyling?
Is a white kid acting Asian when he dresses up as an anime character for Comic-Con?
Is a Mexican kid acting white when he wears preppy shirts and pleated slacks?
Is a black kid acting white when he uses full sentences and speaks clearly, with no "ebonics"?
Are all things at least somewhat racially coded? All fashion statements, entertainment activities, artistic movements, stores, businesses, foods, neighborhoods? Every single cultural foundation and every new trend?
Or have we finally reached a point in some aspects of our society -- like the Internet, for instance -- where race is no longer an issue?
Jennifer, 15, is "1/2 Vietnamese and 1/2 Mexican." She was wearing a Hollister shirt and looked very stylish as she shopped at the mall with her friends.
"I'll be walking, and people be, like, 'Aren't you Mexican? Why you wearing white people's clothes? And don't you have to be wearing, like, gangster?' And I'll be, like, 'No. I dress any type, as long as it looks good.'
"Sometimes I get mad, because they think that, like, I'm not good enough to wear their clothes, but what can I do, you know?
"Mexican girls usually wear the T-shirts and the pants and the Nike Cortezes.
"Vietnamese people dress decent, with normal pants and normal shirts.
"I dress anything that's in the fashion, like Hollister and Abercrombie.
"One day I could be dressed, like, people will say I look like a Mexican, and the next day I'll be dressed like a white girl, and the next day I'll be dressed like an Asian. Sometimes I think about that when I'm getting ready. Like, it depends. If I'm going to the mall, or if I'm just sitting in my house or whatever.
"But I'm not trying to be racist.
"I used to live in City Heights, where all the ghetto people live. So we had lots of racism all the time. Like the blacks and the whites. And the Mexicans and the Asians. There's lots of fights. They're, like, 'Aren't you Vietnamese and Mexican? Which side are you on? Who are you going to beat up?' And I'd be, like, 'Just do your thing. I'm not going to be in it. Just because my dad's Vietnamese, and my mom's Mexican.'"
Daniela, 15, is Mexican.
"This is America. Everything is multicultural. Everything comes into style. Like, one day you'll go to the mall, like, and white girls'll be wearing the little kimono shirts. But it's not racial. Everything can become the style."
Jane, 15, white, was wearing a baseball cap turned sideways, sneakers with no socks, and lots of necklaces, and watching while her friend got a henna tattoo.
"My dad's a racist," Jane said. "I have black friends, Mexican friends. He hates when I bring them over. My dad says, 'If they're your friends, then I'm not your friend.' But I think he's immature. People are people. I don't see color. My friends are my friends because I like them.
"I'm not being rebellious. Not in my friends. Not in my clothes. Hats just look better sideways. That way I don't look stupid, or like a baseball player or something. And hip-hop is just the best music. It isn't a black thing."
Mark, 16, is Filipino. I found him shopping in a hip-hop clothing store in Mission Valley.
"I grew up around black people. I guess I got adapted to the lifestyle. I like rap music and hip-hop style. My parents think it's pretty weird. But most of the people at my school do the same thing. There's, like, different groups and stuff, and we all dress the same way. I think I dress pretty much like everyone else my age.
"Folks might call you a 'wannabe' or a 'poser.' But I grew up like this. I am who I am. I'm proud I'm Filipino, but how do Filipinos dress? I don't want to wear Gothic stuff, and if I dressed preppy then people might say I want to be white. So what am I supposed to wear?"
Carlos, 19, is dark-skinned Mexican.
"They used to call me 'coconut' sometimes, growing up. They were joking, but I'd take it personally. I'd be, like, 'Yeah, just because I don't play handball and slick my hair back and listen to that stupid Spanish music, you think I'm a 'coconut.' But I'm still Mexican.' "
I witnessed a fight between two girls -- one white and one Mexican -- in the warm summer evening, downtown in the Gaslamp.
The white girl had put on a street-tough accent, saying, "Yo, bitch," and, "Puta," and "What up with that?"
The Mexican girl kept repeating one thing back at her, no matter what the white girl said, one provocative statement, in a low voice, over and over. "You're white," she kept saying. "You're white. You're white."
Tanesha, 16, is dark-skinned black, but she lives with, and was raised by, an all-white foster family.
"I see both sides," she said. "People say I act white, but I just think I am who I am. I guess they mean I act proper, I don't know.
"So I just always crack jokes. I make jokes about being black, about black things. I never let racial stuff get to me.
"Like just now, in the wave pool, I introduced my little brother [who is white] to this kid, and the kid was, like, 'How come your sister's brown?' And I overheard him and I made a joke. I said, 'Too much sun! I'm really tan!' "
Eric, 14, is light-skinned, with unusual features. He'd win a carnival bet to guess his racial makeup. Later, he tells me he's "1/4 Japanese, 1/4 white, and 1/2 black."
"I don't hear any of that racial stuff. I never do. Sorry to disappoint you. Other people might, but I don't hear any of it."
Dante, 19, white, grew up with many black friends.
"They call each other nigger, my black friends do, but I can't get away with that. Except with my best friend James. I call him nigger all the time, and he calls me honky, and we know we're friends, so it's okay."
At the beach, five young girls played together in the waves, laughing and yelling, riding Boogie boards. One was white, one black, and the other three were varying shades in between.
They'd all grown up together in Clairemont, and they'd come to the beach with their parents to enjoy the sunny weather.
Jennica, 12, is "1/2 black, 1/6 white, 1/6 Filipino, 1/6 Lithuanian." Andrea, 12, is "100 percent Filipino." Kamellah, 12, is "1/2 black, 1/4 white, and 1/4 Mexican." Maricella, 14, is "1/4 Mexican, 1/4 Filipino, and 1/2 Italian." Daniella, 13, is "light-skinned white."
Had any of these girls ever had racially motivated problems in school?
"There was this girl, Olivia, who is full black," said Jennica. "And she doesn't like me because she thinks I try to act white. Like, she thinks I'm all preppy and stuff. Like, I'm like, 'Omigod!' And because I have friends who aren't black."
And how does someone act black?
"Um," Jennica said, "I think acting black would be more like, 'Hey, homie, whassup?' Like, it's how you walk, how you dress, and how you talk. All ghetto."
And how do white people dress?
"White people shop at Abercrombie...Billabong...Hollister," the girls sang out, in chorus.
And black people?
"Echo Red...Baby Fat...House of Flava..."
So the second a black person walks into Abercrombie & Fitch, they're acting white?
"Not really," said Kamellah.
"I just like the clothes," added Jennica.
And what about music? What about rap, and rock?
"I like rap, and R&B, and hip-hop," said Daniella, the white girl.
"And I like all kinds of music," Andrea chimed in.
"I don't think it really matters," Maricella said. "Music doesn't matter for race. You like what you like."
Any other racially motivated problems in school?
"My friends used to get mad at me because I used to hang out with the Asian kids," Maricella said. "But I've always hung out with Asians."
"There's nothing wrong with Asians," said Andrea.
"And people always think I'm full Mexican," said Maricella. "So they're, like, 'Why are you always hanging out with Asians?' "
"Asians are cool," said Andrea. "Asians don't care."
Did these girls know that saying things like, "Asians are cool," and "Asians don't care," even though they're good things to say, are statements that still fall under the heading of racism?
"Because we're setting them apart, right?" asked Jennica.
"Oh," said Maricella. "My bad."
Jennica spoke again.
"In fifth grade, this Mexican dude...I don't know what I said to him, but he was, like, 'Shut up, blackie!' "
"That's what my mom calls me," said light-white-skinned Daniella, and everyone laughed.
I wondered whether any of them would ever lie about their race, either to get a job, or to get into school, or to get a boyfriend.
A glee club of "no's."
"You should be proud of your race," said Maricella.
"That's stupid," said Jennica. "If people can't accept you for what you are then forget them."
Abi, 17, is Jewish.
"I'm Jewish, 100 percent Israeli. I lived four years in Israel, but I grew up in La Jolla and went to high school here. No one ever made fun of me growing up. Well, except maybe making fun of my nose. Like, they'd say, 'You're Jewish? Shouldn't your nose be bigger?' But they were kidding. Those were my friends. No one really ever made fun of me for real.
"I did have a boyfriend, in fifth grade, who gave me a cross for a present. I smiled, kind of, and thanked him, but I never wore it. He just didn't know. I think I put it in a drawer somewhere and ended up throwing it away.
"I have a close friend who's a practicing Muslim. And we joke how we're not supposed to like each other because of our religions. But actually, we feel more of a connection because we're both from the Middle East. She's Persian and I'm Israeli."
Melody, 18, is "100 percent Persian."
"I used to bring Persian food to school, for lunch, but I was always embarrassed about it. Like, I'd have ghormeh sabzi, or zereshk polo, and everybody would be, like, 'Eugh, what's that?' and they'd make fun of it, and they all thought it was weird. At first, I'd try to explain. I'd say, 'I know it doesn't look good, but it really is.' But then I just started throwing it away, so no one would give me any grief."
Dr. Phillip Gay is professor and chairman of the sociology department at San Diego State University.
Could Dr. Gay talk about racism in 2006?
"Different people experience race differently," he said. "Even in 2006. So it's really hard to generalize. In my classes, we get into arguments as to whether racism exists and to what extent it exists. Some would say everywhere, and some would say nowhere, and they're all right. It depends what circles you travel in. There are a lot of different views of racial harmony and racial conflict because we're a diverse society."
Could Dr. Gay address the subject of adolescence?
"Adolescents are caught between two worlds," Dr. Gay said. "One is the world of their teachers and parents, and the other is their world, the world of their peers. And they're trying to make sense of it. Their parents and teachers come from a world that experienced race a lot differently from the way that they experience it. Their parents grew up in a world where there were very few minorities on television, where discrimination was a lot more overt. And kids today are growing up in a world where people of different races are everywhere they look: on television, in ads, and everywhere they go. So it's understandable that adolescents would be a little confused about how to act appropriately and what's expected of them. They're more used to interacting with people of different races than their teachers and their parents."
It seems to me that almost all activities today, all styles, all music, almost everything, is in some way racially coded. Did Dr. Gay see it that way?
"Blacks play more basketball than golf and tennis because of the typical economic status of blacks; because they're discriminated against in country clubs. And then the activity itself becomes identified with members of a different race, when in fact the activities engaged in are determined to a large extent by socioeconomic situations. If you live in a crowded urban area, you're less likely to skateboard. You're less likely to play baseball, because it takes a lot of space to do these things. You need a baseball diamond, for instance. So people from crowded urban areas, who are often black, play more basketball, perhaps, than other sports. And then basketball comes to be viewed as 'a black sport.' And baseball and skateboarding are seen as 'white sports.' "
But isn't all that changing?
"As time goes on," Gay said, "you have more black people moving into coastal or suburban neighborhoods, and they take up the same activities that their peers do, and their peers in these areas tend to be white. So you get more blacks skateboarding or surfing. I see a lot more blacks skateboarding than I've ever seen before. And I certainly see more whites adopting black clothing styles. That's partly because of the media. The media gives a picture of a more racially integrated society than actually exists. If a man from Mars came down and watched TV, he'd think America was pretty harmonious, racially."
So everything is, in fact, racially coded, even in these more enlightened times?
"There are very few things that aren't racially coded," Gay conceded. "Maybe entertainment and sports. Those are pretty well mixed. People accept different races in these industries without question and without raising an eyebrow. Anytime you have an activity where merit and ability are clearly identifiable, it tends not to be racially coded. In sports and entertainment, you can tell how good someone is quite easily, and it doesn't matter what color they are. If someone scores a certain number of points, or catches a certain number of passes, then people accept him in that role. Or if a certain entertainer is funny, it doesn't matter if he's black or white. But most other things are too subjective. It's harder to tell whether you're a better insurance salesman than I am, or whether or not I'm a better construction worker than you."
And getting back to race considerations among adolescents, what about name-calling? What about kids freely using words like "oreo," and "coconut," and "wigger"?
"The other day," Gay said, "I heard a group of black kids in Balboa Park, and one of them called to a white kid and said, 'Hey, that's my nigger. What's up, nigger?' And nobody even blinked. But he was taking back that word and divesting it of its negative connotations, to some extent. Which is one way we have of dealing with racism. But I don't think you'd ever hear a white kid saying that word to a black kid. Then you'd probably have some trouble."
Mark, 19, is "Caucasian." He and his friends had gone to an Asian restaurant for lunch "because we wanted Asian food."
"We were the only three white people there. And after we left, some ghetto Asian guy in an SUV drives by us and says 'white boy' out of the window. Just like that. 'White boy.' Kind of under his breath but so I could hear it. I ignored him. I thought it was kind of funny, actually."
Breanna, 17, is "1/2 Puerto Rican, 1/4 Panamanian, 1/4 Japanese," and her boyfriend, Adrian, 19, is "3/4 Mexican, 1/4 Italian." When I found them, they were hugging on the wall along the boardwalk in Mission Beach. Breanna's skin was noticeably darker, and her features had a tinge of Asian-ness to them, something in the eyes and cheekbones. Adrian was very light skinned. They'd been dating one month.
Adrian: "I've been called 'beaner' before. Or 'gangsta.' My mom calls me 'gangsta' more than anyone else, because of the way I dress. I like to dress hip-hop. But I'm not all into black culture or anything. I just like the style: the baggy jeans, the boots, the jewelry, the hats."
Breanna: "I've never had any problems with name-calling or anything like that. I'm proud of all my races. I don't identify with any one of them over the others. When somebody asks me, I say everything that I am."
Breanna: "I've seen couples, like, black and white couples, where a lot of people talk crap about that, but it's never been directed towards us."
Adrian: "Like, the old people, like parents, they want their race to be kept. So if you're white and you're dating a black person they'll be, like, 'Are you going to marry her? If not, that's okay.' At least, that's what I hear. My parents are cool no matter who I date."
JoAnn, 19, is Chinese, and her boyfriend, Kip, 19, is Kenyan. They were hanging out near an Asian eatery late one Saturday night. They'd been dating three months.
Kip: "We've never had any problems from anyone except the traditional, older Chinese people. Like her parents. My parents don't care that my girlfriend's Chinese, they just don't want me to have a girlfriend. They want me to concentrate on my studies."
JoAnn: "I think all Chinese parents in general want their kids to stick within their race. Even if I were dating a Korean boy, or a Japanese one; they'd be really unhappy with that. But I've never dated anyone who's Chinese. My parents keep nagging at me and talking about it. And the words hurt. I want to listen to my parents. I want to respect my elders. But in this case, I can't really do what my parents want. You can't just go out and find a boyfriend!"
Kip: "I've lived in San Diego for about six years now. And I attract a lot of attention. Because my skin's a lot darker than anyone else's, I guess. Sometimes it's bad attention and sometimes it's good. People always talk about Africa around me, and they hint about things like hungry children and civil war, and they think my family's poor or whatever. But it doesn't bother me. I don't listen that much. Plus, I just figure those people are kind of ignorant."
B., 19, is Vietnamese. He wore a baseball cap on backwards, baggy jeans, a baggy shirt, necklaces, and big unlaced boots.
"My friends say I dress black. And I do. I like the style. I like the hip-hop trend. No one ever calls me any names, my parents don't care, and I've never had any racial trouble at all. I'm Vietnamese, and I'm proud of it. I like my race. But I don't really think about it any more deeply than that. I was born that way, and that's it. And I dress hip-hop, because I like to do that. There's really nothing more to it than that.
"I get along with pretty much everyone. I don't have any beef with anybody."
I'd been trolling the beaches, malls, and local hangouts, looking for teenagers wearing racially coded fashions, involved in racially coded situations, acting in certain ways, using the words, and by the time I reached my last interviews, I'd chatted with at least 30 San Diego youngsters over the course of a summer month.
"Hey. You're a teenager, right?" I'd start. If the answer was no, I'd introduce myself and my purpose and be on my way. I had my digital tape recorder, notebook and pen, digital camera, business cards, and a printed list of questions.
"Have you ever experienced racism?"
"Are you proud of your race?"
"Do you think, on some subconscious level, maybe, that you're being rebellious when you go against your parents' racial ideas?"
Not one of these kids blinked or raised an eyebrow at my potentially inflammatory line of questioning.
And I got bolder as the process went on.
The first few days, I'd approach and then start up conversations about something else, about basketball, perhaps. I'd mention that I was a journalist, and then I'd chat with the kids about what it's like to be a teenager today, gradually steering into racial matters.
I was walking up to white kids with black parental figures and vice versa, black kids on skateboards, white and black kids chilling together, interracial couples, any non-black kid dressed "gangster," any kid I heard saying something racial.
By the end, I was finding the teens and launching straight into provocative material.
I strolled up to one young boy and immediately said, "You're Asian, right? What are you doing shopping in a black clothing store?"
And to a black girl I said, "You dress kind of white, don't you?"
And one night I found the only white adolescent in a crowded Asian hangout and walked over to him said, "So how come you're the only white person here?"
But there was never any anger in their responses or demeanors. Never the least irritation. These kids were ready for anything. They were cool.
Darren, 19, looks Caucasian, but he's "not white." He's 1/4 Filipino, 1/4 Vietnamese, 1/4 Native American, and 1/4 Dutch.
"I don't look at race or color. I look at who people are. I'm a person. And whether or not I'm in a place where the majority of people are Asian, whether or not people stare, I don't care. I work in an Asian area, and I grew up in a Filipino family, so I don't know what it is to say 'I'm white' or 'I'm Asian.'
"I grew up Filipino, which basically means: family cookouts and family parties. We look for any pathetic reason to have a party. Whether it be Groundhog Day, or a birthday, or any occasion possible, just to have a bunch of aunties come together and cook.
"If someone throws race in my face, it's an issue. But no one usually does, so... But I experienced a lot of racism as a kid. I grew up looking like a Japanese baby with red hair. And then I grew older and my hair turned brown. So I've gone through changes all my life and always been asked, 'What kind of kid are you?' I've heard all sorts of derogatory things, like 'Chink,' and 'Brown kid,' and 'You're really light; you're just a white kid; what are you doing here, white boy?' Whether in anger, or whether it's a joke. Mostly, it's just my friends, like a form of camaraderie between us, because they know I'm, like, eight thousand million different things.
"I accept all my ethnicities. I don't carry a flag and wave it or anything. But I know my heritage. I know where I came from. I try to pick up the languages a little bit, like Filipino, and Vietnamese. And I'd never lie about my race. Never. I have ethics, and I have morals. Why deny who I am?"
Denzell, 14, is 1/2 black, 1/2 white, though his skin is relatively dark. He was wearing board shorts and carrying a surfboard, spending a day on the beach with his mother, who is white, and his cousin, who is a darker-skinned black boy about the same age.
"My girlfriend's white, and her dad doesn't like me because I'm dark-skinned," Denzell said. "He thinks I'm what kids like to call 'gangster.' And her friends don't like me because I'm dark-skinned, and they think dark-skinned kids are always mean to everyone. But I'm not like that at all.
"It's really sad to me. It's like, 'Come on.' I wish people would get to know me instead of judging me by my skin color.
"My mom's white and my dad's black. And I always tell people I was raised white. I was raised around motorcycles and rock music.
"I think to be white is to use surfer terms and motorcycle terms and to be into rock music. And the black part is being in gangs and always going to jail, stealing stuff, and doing stuff that's not appropriate."
"Wait a minute!" Denzell's cousin interjected. And his mother said, "Your uncle's black, and he's a cardiologist."
"All right. All right," Denzell gave in. "I said that wrong. I mean 'gangster-black.' I was talking about being gangster-black."
Then he went on:
"I have lied about my race before. At summer school, I said I was Hawaiian and white. But people treated me the same. They still picked on me. They still called me names.
"They call me names from both races. They call me 'whitey,' because I'm into rock music and all that. And there's another name, but I don't think it's really appropriate. They call me 'white-ass nigger.' Sometimes I don't hear them, but other kids'll come and tell me what they said, and I'm just, like, 'Whatever.'
"Although I do get into fights. I do fight. I fight whenever someone makes me mad to a point where I can't take it. Like, once this one kid kept calling me 'white-ass nigger.' So I fought him. It wasn't the right thing to do. I should have just ignored him. But I couldn't take it anymore.
"I probably eventually will learn to be proud of both my races. I hope so. I don't know if it'll hurt or help my chances of getting a job or getting into college. I don't think I'd lie about my race to get ahead. Although I might. I don't know. If it's for something important, then I might. I haven't really thought about that.
"I wish I was full white. That's how I define myself. I don't think I'm supposed to be this color.
"If I had a wish, one wish, I'd wish I had white skin. Then people wouldn't judge me before they even know me."