Seven arms with different skin tones and their fists joined in a circle

‘Younger People See Race Differently’: Teens Reflect on Identity

Seven arms with different skin tones and their fists joined in a circle

(“Youth Hands” by Avondale Pattillo UMC / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

Commentary, Various Authors

Editor’s Note: We asked a group of Kennedy students how they identify themselves, how they see race in themselves and others, and how they think views on race differ between them and adults. Here’s what they had to say. Their responses have been lightly edited. This is part 1 of 2.

The most important way I identify myself is by my personality. I don’t find that my race describes who I am as a person but rather generalizes myself with others. My personality helps me to stand out and let others understand who I am. If I were to say I were Asian (my race), then people would put stereotypes such as being intelligent. If I were to present my traits, then someone could form a better idea and viewpoint of myself. Race is very generalized and an old way to describe things nowadays.

I often work with people of other races. In our school, students and teachers are diverse in their general race. I have friends who are different too. What is different is that we have our own personal cultures and what they consider normal. I find it interesting to learn about others’ “normal.” It shows how we are different.

The first time I had to think about my racial identity was in school. In recess, someone said something about me being “Chinese.” I am not. I don’t regularly talk about race and racism. Younger people see race differently than adults, as we grew up surrounded by people embracing or getting harassed because of their race.

— Janet Madison, 17

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The most important way I identify myself is by how I am, how I feel and such. I’m a person with many qualities that I think define me, like drawing or playing an instrument. My hobbies play a part in telling you about me. I’m also shy, so usually, I pretty indirectly show it; you would understand over time.

I have close friends of other races. I interact with them as a person. Everyone’s a person, so there isn’t any need to treat them differently; that would be unfair. However, everyone has their different customs when it comes to traditions. It’s nice to learn what they do differently compared to my culture.

I don’t really think about it honestly; however, I’m pretty sure young people do see race differently. We’re a new generation, so older generations have it a bit different because their time was different. We live in a time where social norms were intact, and respect is something that’s really important. A lot of adults now (pass) it onto their children, because they were never taught those norms to respect others. We, however, have an opinion of our own and we are all different people, but due to the awareness our generation has made, we understand it more.

— Diana Nguyen, 17

Most, if not all, of my friends are a different race or ethnicity than me. It can be very different to speak to people that don’t speak the same language as you. For example, most of my friends don’t speak Spanish or, at least, not well, so they would not be able to understand me. Therefore, I don’t speak it in the U.S. However, when I am in Mexico, I only speak Spanish.

— Betzy Ruiz Moncada, 17

I engage with people of other races everyday. Most of my friends are from other races. Do I interact with them differently from people of my race? No, I don’t. They are no different from me. Why are we talking about race? Why don’t we talk about real problems of this world?

The first time I thought about my race was when my dad was talking to me about all the dangers that I could possibly face with my skin color. He told me to be respectful to police officers. I don’t regularly face racism from adults, but there is this one person who treats me and my other coworker who is Black differently from all of the other workers. I saw that really early on, and I try to ignore it. I think that younger people see racism differently from adults because they haven’t faced real racism — the type of racism that hurts your soul and you as a person, and they don’t have the same life experience so I think that plays a factor as well so as one gets older they will see more clear then before.

— Stefán Quilter, 17

The most important way I identify myself is through my gender. I am a female who presents as masculine sometimes. I dress a little on the boyish side, so when I go to school or I go out, many people feel confused. Being a female is very important to me because sometimes I feel as if people forget that I am a girl. Some people aren’t as gentle with me and some will outright just treat me like a guy. Even girls sometimes forget that I go through the same things they do every month. I don’t let being a girl take over my personality, just like I don’t let being Black take over, but I do like these facts to be known by people because it is an important part of who I am. I know that there is way more to me than my gender or race.

Going to Kennedy, you will find many different races. My best friend is from Nepal, and she came to California just two years ago. I have many Hispanic friends that are from different parts of South America, and they tell me about their culture. I am mixed with Black and white, so when interacting with fellow African Americans, it naturally comes easier because it is the culture I grew up in. I grew up in what you would call the “hood” or the “ghetto” and being around people who grew up in similar lifestyles, I was bound to connect with some of these kids at my school.

The first time I had to think about my racial identity was actually recently. I am a senior, and that means that now I am applying for colleges, scholarships and financial aid. When applying to college, you have to identify your race, so I have been constantly affirming that I am Black. It is not something I have a problem with; in fact, I use it to my benefit. Applying for scholarships, I have gotten a lot more opportunities than most people because of my race. I think race is looked at differently now and a lot of people focus entirely on that. Too many people I know make every single thing about race, and I don’t like that. I get that it is an important part of someone and it helps contribute to who they are, but I think there are more important aspects to who a person is.

— Aaliyah Hanvey, 16

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I don’t think my identity relies on my ethnicity. What I do know is that I am me. I am a female, I enjoy baking for friends and family. I like to cook for myself. I love talking! And last of all, I enjoy being in the company of others. That’s all there is to it. My identity is just an average person going through the routine of life.

My school is full of people from around the world, which is something I like. I’ve encountered many people proud of their heritage, which is something that encourages me to be proud of mine as well. As for my people, my ethnicity, I don’t really care about it. I’m just glad I have many friends and people to talk to. Nor do I care about an individual’s ethnicity/race. If they’re friendly, they’re friendly. That’s all that matter to me.

I don’t particularly talk about race anywhere nor do I think about my racial identity. However, I will say that the younger adults are more afraid to say certain words out of fear of being labeled as racist.

— Laiba Shahid, 17

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I am Mexican and African American. Being Mexican means that I am Hispanic, which is difficult for me whenever I fill out a form that inquires about your race. Hispanic is not considered a race. This is my frustration whenever I want to include that part of myself.

It surprises many people when they find out that I am Mexican and can understand Spanish, mainly because I don’t look like it. I should be more expressive of the part of me that no one can see. I want people to know exactly who I am. Another huge part of who I am is an athlete. I consider this a big priority because most of my life has been me participating in every sport both inside of my school life and outside. I have played soccer, flag football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and most important, softball. Since I can remember, I have been in love with softball. I make it known that I am a softball player and that it is of great importance. I consider being Hispanic-African American and an athlete my identity whenever I introduce myself.

I often engage with a diverse amount of people in sports, throughout school, and in daily activities. Occasionally, I do not find a significant difference between me and those of a different race. My friends’ races consist of Asian, Pacific Islander and Black. We definitely endure contrasting experiences due to the difference in our races, but we can all definitely agree that there have been circumstances where we have been belittled and stereotyped.

I cannot distinctly remember the first time I ever had to think about my race. It was something that just became what you regularly thought about whenever walking on the street alone or entering a store in a dark-colored hoodie wearing an oversized backpack. Racism isn’t a great conversation starter amongst teenagers. As a teenager myself, I experience conversations joking about racism and can confidently say that we do not take it as a serious problem. Adults have firsthand experience and really understand how dangerous racism can become. I see through the news how bad it can get but have never experienced the heart race of it. I know racism, but I know that even I don’t take as seriously, at times.

— Angela Taylor, 15

My Colorful First Trip to Mexico Felt Like Falling in Love

The most important way I identify myself is by my race. Although I may be born in the United States, I express my traditions and family roots without hesitation: in the way I speak, dress, act, what I eat, and how I behave; as well as my religion — my faith in the one up above who guides me everyday; and especially my passion and love for football. If the sport of football were made into a person, that would be me. I wouldn’t hesitate to drop out for the sport I loved since birth.

I have as many if not more friends that are from other races than what I am. My closest friends come from many different cultures, religions and traditions. The main difference between people from different race is that they don’t share similar life experiences.

There’s something comforting when you meet someone who is also Hispanic, and I’m able to use my first language, Spanish, which gives the conversation a different vibe than speaking in English. I don’t have an answer to which type of friend is better to have because I was taught to treat everyone with respect and love.

When I was about 3 years old, my parents took me to Guatemala. It was the first time I traveled outside of the country (and) a very surreal experience. I learned about where my father grew up and everything. (I also remember) the first time I took a trip to Mexico and visited the neighborhood my mother grew up in. Cancun showed me a lot, though (it was) very different from the time she grew up in. I learned a lot about my relatives and ancestral territories. This overall made me appreciate my culture and my people more, It wasn’t like I was ashamed of my race; I just didn’t connect/truly understand where I was from until then.

— Gilomoises Matias, 17

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

Read Part 2:

See Race Relations Through the Eyes of Young People Coming of Age

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