What's Wrong With This Picture?

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By Justin Britt-Gibson
Sunday, March 18, 2007

"It's no big deal," I tell myself. I'm sitting on the subway in Manhattan with Caroline, a woman I'm seeing. Her head rests on my shoulder, her auburn hair tangled in my scarf. Though it should be the last thing on my mind, I can't help but wonder what inspires the elderly African American woman across from us to shake her head disapprovingly: the Detroit Tigers cap I'm wearing or the company I'm keeping. After all, my beloved Tigers had recently defeated the New York Yankees in the American League playoffs. Then again, I'm also a young black man sharing an affectionate arm with a white woman.

As a 25-year-old member of the post-Gen X generation dubbed the "Millennials," I'm used to displays of warmth between interracial couples being ignored or barely noticed. They're hardly on our minds at all.

A similar carefree attitude toward racial mixing reigned at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, where I shared cafeteria tables and Nintendo controls with friends whose parents hailed from Pakistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Colombia -- and Pittsburgh. To my parents' generation, our devil-may-care attitude toward diversity is striking, a symbol of racial progress. Ninety-five percent of 18-to-29 year olds have friends from different racial backgrounds, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll. Many Millennials take it further: To us, differences in skin color are largely irrelevant. That's not to say that young minorities never experience racial inequality. Prejudices still exist, and serious economic gaps still yawn between racial and cultural groups. But I feel fortunate to live in an era when, in choosing friends or dates, race can be among the least of my concerns. Essentially, it's no big deal.

But it felt like a big deal on that subway -- much as it did two years ago in Rome when Federico, a new Italian acquaintance, casually inquired, "Do you listen to black music?" I was a Temple University senior studying art and film in Italy's eternal city. It was my first night out with fellow students. We ended up at a small, smoke-filled dive where we met five 20-something men who spoke in stilted English and didn't hide their attraction to the women in our pack. Eager to ingratiate ourselves with the locals, we accepted their invitation to join them.

I had been told by a black student previously with the program that many Italians don't take kindly to people of color, so Federico's question set off an alarm. Lowering my beer, I calmly asked what "black music" was. When Federico admiringly cited artists such as Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg, I realized this was his way of describing hip-hop, that his intention was no different from my own clumsy attempts to describe my adoration of Italian cinema. Federico just hoped to make a new hip-hop-appreciating friend -- and he did.

In Rome, I learned that whatever I was told to expect, it was best to assume nothing. My five months there also taught me that the indifference to skin color stretches way beyond American soil. Federico and his crew treated me like a brother -- they even referred to me as "brother." Not once during my stay did anyone ever treat me as unequal; my skin color was never a subject of discussion -- at least not to my face.

Weeks after that first meeting, Federico's posse took us to an underground club in the city's college district. Throngs of dreadlocked Italians were smoking joints, drinking beer, grooving to the rhythms of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and other reggae icons. Most striking was how comfortable these Italians seemed in their appropriated shoes, adopting a foreign culture and somehow making it theirs. The scene reinforced my sense of how far we've come since the days when people dressed, talked and celebrated only that which sprang from their own background. For the first time in my life, I was fully aware of the spiritual concept that we're all simply one.

That sense hasn't left me. Everywhere I look, I see young people -- such as my two younger brothers, a Japanese-anime-obsessed 11-year-old and a pastel-Polo-sporting 21-year-old -- adopting styles, hobbies and attitudes from outside the culture in which they were raised. Last month in a Los Angeles barbershop, I was waiting to get my trademark Afro cut when I noticed a brother in his late teens sitting, eyes closed, as the barber clipped his hair into a " 'frohawk," the punk-inspired African American adaptation of the mohawk. Asked why he chose the look, the guy, without looking up, shrugged, "Something different." Immediately, I understood. Minutes later, his "different" cut became my new look.

Sporting a 'frohawk doesn't mean I'll be pulling kickflips in a pair of Vans at the local skate park anytime soon -- I favor Gap jeans, European-cut shirts, British Wallabees and street-smart hoodies. Increasingly, fashion is a mix of everything. My generation's embrace of various subcultures makes once-autonomous racial groups difficult to categorize. Friends who live in different parts of the country all report seeing blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians adopting facets of one another's cultures without taking flak from members of their own group.

Just a decade ago, Matthew Hencke, a biracial independent filmmaker who grew up in Washington, was called "Uncle Tom" by black students at schools he attended, he said, "because of the music I listened to or the clothes I wore." Hencke, who now lives in Manhattan, was scorned for wearing Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts -- even though he adored the Fugees and Scarface. "My problem was, why couldn't I like everything?" said Hencke, who believes that hip-hop artists such as Kanye West, Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco have made diverse choices acceptable by saying, "Yeah I'm black, but I love rock music, skateboarding and wearing preppy clothes -- and that's okay."

Millennials' cross-cultural tastes don't just affect how we dress or wear our hair; they influence our romantic choices. In my case, it isn't about seeking the most exotic woman. It's about liking whom I like -- black, brown, white or yellow. Dating outside the bounds of our own ethnicity is fairly common among people my age, as indicated by a 2005 Gallup poll finding that about 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say they have dated outside their race. The general consensus among my diverse body of friends is: Who cares?

For the record, I've dated black women and expect to date more of them. My high school sweetheart happened to be Korean; I don't recall ever being criticized for our relationship, perhaps because so many other kids had similar ones. Reactions were equally blasé to cross-cultural relationships I had in college and beyond. In fact, the only disapproval I've noted when I'm with a woman who isn't black has been from black women.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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