Mix It Up Day

It has been 50 years since the revolutionary Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that all U.S. schools be integrated, a decision that overruled the previous law of separate but equal schools. But things haven't changed as much as possible over a half-century.

mix it up dayI hope they know that nobody's gonna do this. That's what I was thinking when Nia Umoja, a club in my school that advocates cultural diversity and tolerance, planned Mix It Up Day last November. Mix It Up Day is a national project that encourages students to cross social boundaries, and Nia Umoja's plan was to get students to sit with people we wouldn't normally sit with at lunch, particularly people of other races.

"We expected people to start opening their eyes more to other cultures around them. We noticed that the cafeteria was segregated. It's probably the most segregated place in the school," explains Ms. Shervette Miller, one of Nia Umoja's two sponsors.

But, as important as diversity and tolerance are, Mix It Up Day was just another failed attempt to get all students to "step outside the box." No one was really willing to sit with different people. Everyone took it as some sort of joke, and the majority of students understood we wouldn't actually participate.

Though not successful at racial and cultural blending, Mix It Up Day was a good idea. It's just that racial rejection hurts, and most of us don't want to experience it over where we sit at lunch.

Though most students in our school generally embrace other cultures and races, the fact remains that black sits with black, and white sits with white in our cafeteria. Chamblee High School's cafeteria has six rows of rectangular tables, and three round tables. At lunchtime, students at each of the tables in the six rows sit pretty much in the same pattern: white students at one end of the table. After about three empty chairs, black students sit at the other end of the table. Usually, students of other races, such as Hispanic or Asian, choose between either side. The round tables are either full of black people or full of white people, with occasional exceptions of one or two people of other races.

Ruth Westby, a white sophomore at Chamblee, says she sits with white people "because I think it's a tendency to group yourself with people that you're like." There is a silent understanding that although it's OK to be an individual, if you step too far outside of the box of conformity you might not be let back in. This imaginary box is every student's comfort zone. The box is small, quiet and comfortable. It's the one thing that most students trust, and the silent understanding between us is that if we don't shake things up, we'll be accepted and every thing will remain the same, the way we like it: safe.

We're afraid leaving our comfort zones will lead to being exiled from our own social groups. Marissa Lowe, a sophomore at Cedar Grove, says she sits with "black people because I go to an all-black school and because I can relate to them."

Most of us have grown up spending the majority of our time around people of our own race and might not have come in contact with people of other races if weren't for school. This lack of exposure to other races doesn't make us racist, it just reflects the society we live in.

I live in a mostly black neighborhood, and as a result 97 percent of the students at my zone school are black, according to the DeKalb School System website. Not being exposed to other races causes us to be uncomfortable when we encounter people of other races. Larae Phillips, a black sophomore at Southwest DeKalb High School, says "I feel more comfortable around [black people], because they remind me of myself."

"At lunch I sit with mainly white people, but sometimes black and Hispanic people. Because mainly my friends are white, and I guess this is because it is easier to relate to people of your same race or culture," says Anna Geyer, a white sophomore at Chamblee.

Racial differences often make us feel we have to censor ourselves. When I'm around my black friends, we make jokes about how black people act and speak; whereas, if a person of another race were to make the same jokes, they would probably offend us. Just the same, we would refrain from making jokes about people of other races around them to prevent from offending someone, not because they're degrading jokes, but because there is always the possibility that they can be taken offensively.

Since lunchtime is supposed to be my free time, I want to be able to speak freely with my peers without having to censor myself. I also sit with these people because I have a lot in common with them. We all grew up in majority black neighborhoods, and we were raised to speak our minds, yet ironically we usually get in trouble for doing so. Now I know that there are people of other races who were raised to do the same, but all the people who I've encountered who were raised like this are black. So, the people I sit with at lunch are black.

Rejection never feels good, but I imagine it would feel worse if I was rejected by people of my own race because of who I associate with. Black students are often called "oreos" if they associate too often with white people. The term "oreo" implies that although they are black physically, they are "white on the inside," or they have qualities that may characterize them as white. This possibility of being called an "oreo" can discourage black students from interacting as often with other races. Peers viewing you as "not being black enough" has to be hurtful. On the other hand, white students who often associate with black students are sometimes referred to as the "Eminems" of the student body. Eminem is a white rapper, and because of his rapper lifestyle, some people say he is trying to "act black."

After transferring last year from a majority black school to Chamblee, a very diverse school, I began to open my eyes to the fact that there are people of other cultures I'd never been exposed to. With my school transfer I also developed a new attitude and a motivation to learn new things about other races and cultures that aren't acquired by believing all the stupid stereotypes I've heard. And with my newly discovered wisdom came a tolerance, and ultimately respect and acceptance, for the people around me who aren't like me.

I've learned that sometimes it is necessary to step outside of our comfort zones. Sometimes the best experiences in life are outside of our comfort zones, like, for instance, learning how to drive. When I first drove a car, I wasn't necessarily comfortable, but after a little more practice, I began to drive more comfortably. If I would've never stepped out of my comfort zone, I might have never discovered how great driving can be.

If I never practice being comfortable around other people, I may never be able to freely speak around people outside of my own race. My need to be comfortable may hinder me from discovering new and great things about other races, and I may miss an opportunity to get to know someone of another race.

Maybe we can come to think of race as one more difference that attracts us to one another. And, as time goes on, maybe we'll one day be able to comfortably socialize with people of other races. As we honor the 50th anniversary of a decision that was revolutionary in changing America for the better, I encourage all of us to step outside the box and Mix It Up.

LaShana is a black sophomore at Chamblee High School. This article was originally published in VOX, Atlanta's only newspaper by, for and about teenagers.

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