Teenagers reflect on race in America NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with Zoë Jenkins, Miranda Zanca and Ichtaca Lira, reporters for YR Media, about their series "Teens in America."

Teenagers reflect on race in America

Teenagers reflect on race in America

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NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with Zoë Jenkins, Miranda Zanca and Ichtaca Lira, reporters for YR Media, about their series "Teens in America."


Nearly three-quarters of teenagers today say that they have talked to a parent about race in the past year. That's at least according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, which also found more than half have had a similar conversation with a close friend. So we wanted to know, what have these conversations been like? The youth media organization YR Media teamed up with The Washington Post for the series Teens in America. Teenage YR Media reporters from five parts of the country recorded interviews with family members and peers, each exploring a different question; from navigating being mixed-race to how white privilege plays out in families.

We're joined now by three of those reporters today - Zoe Jenkins in Charlottesville, Va.; Miranda Zanca in Chicago, Ill.; and Ichtaca Lira in Hayward, Calif.

Welcome to all three of you.

ZOE JENKINS: Thank you so much for having us.

ICHTACA LIRA: Yeah, it's so great to be here.

MIRANDA ZANCA: Hi. Thank you.

CHANG: Well, Miranda, I want to turn to you because the story that you reported is called "Am I Asian Enough?" (ph). Can you just talk about why you decided to work on this piece, which was about how you perceived your Chinese background growing up?

ZANCA: So I think it's an experience that a lot of mixed-race people have. Am I enough, you know? Is the experience that I've had as part of this ethnic group enough to make me one of those people that belongs? And I think a lot of the experience that I've had is being perceived as Asian by people who aren't Asian and then being perceived as white or Hispanic by people who are. And it just makes you constantly question, like, am I Asian enough? Am I Asian at all? Am I, you know, anything?

CHANG: You know, when I was listening to your piece, something that really struck me was all these conversations you have had with members of your family about the Chinese part of your identity. And I want to examine sort of this contrast that you saw between how your brother saw the Chinese part of his identity versus how your grandfather did. Can you talk about that?

ZANCA: Yes. So my brother basically said that while he was growing up, especially in high school, he had this experience where he just was always wishing that he seemed less Asian, looked less Asian, you know, was just seen as white. And he went to, like, a Catholic all-boys school. It was majority white, and it just created a lot of challenges for him because people would assume that he was a certain way because he was Asian. I don't even really know what that meant in most contexts, but I know that - and this was so heartbreaking for me. Like, he really wished that he wasn't. And on the flip side, for my grandpa, he has no perception of his own race.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know, that's not the dominant part of my identity in my culture. I think my culture's been shaped far more by a number of the things that I've grown up with here in the United States. I think that what perhaps is more important is a host of questions posed by the great Western philosophers, you know, talking about, what does it mean to be a good person?

ZANCA: My grandpa's 100% Chinese, and my brother is 25% Chinese, but they seem to have these completely different experiences where my brother's perceived racial identity was such an integral part of, like, his self-image and his self-confidence and his growth as a person. And for my grandpa, it was kind of just like, eh.

CHANG: Like a non-issue, right.

ZANCA: Right.

CHANG: Well, Zoe, I want to go to you now because your story - it's about racism in school and your efforts to redefine how race is taught. What do you think is important for teachers and for administrators to know when they're trying to tackle topics like race in the classroom?

JENKINS: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that's important to note is just that we really have to rely on the student experience to start talking about race in schools. Our students know what's going on with race in this country much better than the people who are teaching it, so how can we involve students more in developing the kinds of curriculum and activities that allows them to feel like their histories are being reflected properly?

And I think it's really important for us to have intentional conversations about race because as much as we want to act like race doesn't affect the way that we live in the United States, it does. And I think we have seen how the effects of just not talking about it just in, I think, the awakening that we've had as a country over the last year and a half.

CHANG: Yeah. And you speak very passionately about what you perceive as your responsibility to fight against systemic injustice. Can you talk about how you see that commitment?

JENKINS: I mean, it's the kind of whole, like, with great power comes great responsibility, where if you see a problem and you feel like you have the tools to tackle it or if you know the right people who can help tackle it, then it's on you - right? - to help to address that.

CHANG: I want to talk more about this idea of how we perceive our own racial identities and how other people perceive our racial identities. Like, Ichtaca, you speak about how people often assume that you're white instead of Latinx. What do you think that they are focusing on?

LIRA: I think they're focusing on simply my appearance. And it's definitely uncomfortable because I think growing up, my parents were always sure to make me feel really proud of where I came from and to always stand up for other people of color and to cherish them and then to cherish myself for my identity and my roots. And that was something that I still have, very much so, today. And especially, like, in the wake of, like, what Zoe was saying, our racial awakening, I am so proud of where I come from.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIRA: So it's just very strange and makes me feel like I can't speak up on these issues in the same way that I have before.

CHANG: Well, Ichtaca, when you told your father, who's Mexican, about being seen as white - can you talk about how he responded to that?

LIRA: Yeah. So my dad, he was very righteous in, like, his answer of like, no, there's no way that you, as my kid, should be perceived as white because you come from me. And my dad doesn't like to perceive himself as white.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I still don't accept that a person like you is white passing, and that's maybe because I have a personal bias as well, you know, 'cause you kind of look like me.

LIRA: I think it does, like, hurt him in a little bit of a way because he also - like, his parents were immigrants. He had to experience racism. And so he is very righteous in his identity as a person of color in that, like, he wants me to have - to feel the same way and...

CHANG: Yeah.

LIRA: ...And not lose that part of the way that we see ourselves.

CHANG: Well, Zoe, I want to go to you now. Can you talk about how you want to see conversations about race change?

JENKINS: Yeah. I think the biggest frustration I've run into is that people are very eager to not be racist right now, which, sure, is a great first step, but there are many aspects in which we actually do need to treat people differently because of their race because they have different privileges and access to things. I think that's when we'll be able to talk more realistically about equitable solutions and not just kind of equal solutions that don't necessarily, like, target the kinds of inequalities that need to be targeted.


CHANG: That was Zoe Jenkins, Miranda Zanca and Ichtaca Lira. They are reporters for YR Media. Their series, Teens in America, is a collaboration with The Washington Post.

Thank you to all three of you so much for this incredible conversation.

ZANCA: Thank you.

JENKINS: Thank you. This was fantastic.

LIRA: Thank you so much.


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