Growing Up, Growing Apart
Back in eighth grade, Kelly Regan, Aqeelah Mateen and Johanna Perez-Fox spent New Year’s Eve at Johanna’s house, swing-dancing until they fell down laughing, banging pots and pans, watching the midnight fireworks beyond the trees in the park at the center of town.
They had been a tight threesome all through Maplewood Middle School — Kelly, a tall, coltish Irish-Catholic girl; Aqeelah, a small, earnest African-American Muslim girl, and Johanna, a light-coffee-colored girl who is half Jewish and half Puerto Rican and famous for knowing just about everyone.
It had been a great night, they agreed, a whole lot simpler than Johanna’s birthday party three nights before. Johanna had invited all their friends, white and black. But the mixing did not go as she had wished.
”The black kids stayed down in the basement and danced, and the white kids went outside on the stoop and talked,” Johanna said. ”I went out and said, ‘Why don’t you guys come downstairs?’ and they said they didn’t want to, that they just wanted to talk out there. It was just split up, like two parties.”
The same thing happened at Kelly’s back-to-school party a few months earlier.
”It was so stressful,” Kelly said. ”There I was, the hostess, and I couldn’t get everybody together.”
”Oh, man, I was, like, trying to help her,” Aqeelah said. ”I went up and down and up and down. But it was boring outside, so finally I just gave up and went down and danced.”
This year the girls started high school, and what with the difficulty of mixing their black and white friends, none took on the challenge of a birthday party.
It happens everywhere, in the confusions of adolescence and the yearning for identity, when the most important thing in life is choosing a group and fitting in: Black children and white children come apart. They move into separate worlds. Friendships ebb and end.
It happens everywhere, but what is striking is that it happens even here. In a nation of increasingly segregated schools, the South Orange-Maplewood district is extraordinarily mixed. Not only is the student body about half black and half white, but in the last census, blacks had an economic edge. This is the kind of place where people — black and white — talk a lot about the virtues of diversity and worry about white flight, where hundreds will turn out to discuss the book ”Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” People here care about race.
But even here, as if pulled by internal magnets, black and white children begin to separate at sixth grade. These are children who walked to school together, learned to read together, slept over at each other’s houses. But despite all the personal history, all the community good will, race divides them as they grow up. As racial consciousness develops — and the practice of grouping students by perceived ability sends them on diverging academic paths — race becomes as much a fault line in their world as in the one their parents hoped to move beyond.
As they began high school, Kelly, Johanna and Aqeelah had so far managed to be exceptions. While the world around them had increasingly divided along racial lines, they had stuck together. But where their friendship would go was hard to say. And like a Greek chorus, the voices of other young people warned of tricky currents ahead.
Different but Inseparable
On her first day at Columbia High School, Kelly Regan took a seat in homeroom and introduced herself to the black boy at the next desk.
”I was trying to be friendly,” she explained. ”But he answered in like one word, and looked away. I think he just thought I was a normal white person, and that’s all he saw.”
She certainly looks like a normal white person, with her pale skin and straight brown hair. But in middle school, she trooped with Aqeelah and Johanna to Martin Luther King Association meetings; there were only a handful of white girls, but Kelly says she never felt out of place. ”Some people say I’m ghetto,” she said, shrugging. ”I don’t care.”
She had always had a mixed group of friends, and since the middle of eighth grade had been dating a mixed-race classmate, Jared Watts. Even so, she expected that it would be harder to make black friends in the ninth grade. ”It’s not because of the person I am,” she said, ”it’s just how it is.”
Kelly’s mother, Kathy, is fascinated by her daughter’s multiracial world.
”It’s so different from how I grew up,” said Ms. Regan, a nurse who met Kelly’s father, from whom she is divorced, at a virtually all-white Catholic school. ”Sometimes, in front of the high school, I feel a little intimidated when I see all the black kids. But then so many of them know me, from my oldest daughter or now from Kelly, and they say such a nice, ‘Hi, Mrs. Regan,’ that the feeling goes away.”
Johanna Perez-Fox is intensely sociable; her mane of long black curls can often be sighted at the center of a rushed gossip session in the last seconds before class. As she sees it, her mixed background gives her a choice of racial identity and access to everybody. ”I like that I can go both ways,” said Johanna, whose mother is a special-education teacher and whose father owns a car service.
Johanna has a certain otherness among her black friends. ”If they say something about white people, they’ll always say, ‘Oh, sorry, Johanna,’ ” she said. ”I think it’s good. It makes them more aware of their stereotypes.”
Still, she was put off when a new black friend asked what race she was.
”People are always asking, ‘What are you?’ and I don’t really like it,” she said. ”I told him I’m half white and half Puerto Rican, and he said, ‘But you act black.’ I told him you can’t act like a race. I hate that idea. He defended it, though. He said I would have a point if he’d said African-American, because that’s a race, but black is a way of acting. I’ve thought about it, and I think he’s right.”
Aqeelah Mateen’s parents are divorced, and she lives in a mostly black section of Maplewood with her mother, who works for AT&T;. She also sees a lot of her father, a skycap at Newark Airport, and often goes with him to the Newark mosque where he is an imam.
Aqeelah is a girl of multiple enthusiasms, and in middle school, her gutsy good cheer kept her close to black and white friends alike. But in high school, the issue of ”acting black” was starting to become a persistent irritant.
After school one day, Aqeelah and two other black girls were running down the hall when one of them accidentally knocked a corkboard off the wall. Aqeelah told her to pick it up, but the girl kept going.
”What’s the matter with you?” Aqeelah asked. ”You knocked it over, you pick it up.”
Why do you have to be like a white person? her friend retorted. Just leave it there.
But Aqeelah picked it up.
”There’s stuff like that all the time, and it gets on my nerves,” she said later. ”Like at track, in the locker room, there’s people telling a Caucasian girl she has a big butt for a white person, and I’m like, ‘Who cares, shut up.’ ”
On an Even Playground
Johanna and Aqeelah met in kindergarten and have been friends from Day 1; Kelly joined the group in fifth grade.
”Nobody cared about race when we were little,” Johanna said. ”No one thought about it.”
On a winter afternoon at South Mountain Elementary School, that still seemed to be the case. There were white and black pockets, but mostly the playground was a picture postcard of racial harmony, white girls and black girls playing clapping games, black boys and white boys shooting space aliens. And when they were asked about race and friendships, there was no self-consciousness. They just said what they had to say.
”Making friends, it just depends on what you like to do, and who likes to do those things,” said Carolyn Goldstein, a white third grader.
”I’ve known Carolyn G. since kindergarten,” said a black girl named Carolyn Morton. ”She lives on my block. She’s in my class. We even have the same name. We have so many things the same!”
As for how they might be different, Carolyn Goldstein groped for an answer: ”Well, she has a mom at home and my mom works, and she has a sister, and I don’t.”
They know race matters in the world, they said, but not here.
”Some people in some places still feel prejudiced, so I guess it’s still a kind of an issue, because Martin Luther King was trying to save the world from slaves and bad people and there still are bad people in jail,” Carolyn Morton said, finishing up grandly. ”I hope by the year 3000, the world will have peace, and the guys who watch the prisoners can finally go home and spend some time with their families.”
A Shifting Sandbox
All through middle school, Johanna, Kelly and Aqeelah ate lunch together in a corner of the cafeteria where they could see everyone. The main axis of their friendship was changeable: In seventh grade, Johanna and Kelly were the closest. In eighth grade, as Kelly spent more time with Jared, Johanna and Aqeelah were the tightest.
But at the end of middle school, the three were nominated as class ”best friends.” And while they saw their classmates dividing along racial lines, they tried to ignore it. ”In middle school, I didn’t want to be aware of the separation,” Kelly said. ”I didn’t see why it had to happen.”
Most young people here seem to accept the racial split as inevitable. It’s just how it is, they say. Or, it just happens. Or, it’s just easier to be with your own kind.
When Sierre Monk, who is black, graduated from South Mountain, she had friends of all races. But since then, she has moved away from the whites and closer to the blacks. Now, in eighth grade, she referred to the shift, sometimes, as ”my drift,” as in, ”After my drift, I began to notice more how the black kids talk differently from the white kids.”
Sierre said her drift began after a sixth-grade argument.
”They said, ‘You don’t even act like you’re black,’ ” she remembered. ”I hadn’t thought much about it until then, because I was too young. And I guess it was mean what they said, but it helped me. I found I wanted to behave differently after that.”
Sierre (pronounced see-AIR-ah) had come from a mostly white private school in Brooklyn. She is the granddaughter of Thelonius Monk, the great jazz pianist, and more than most families, her parents — Thelonius, a drummer, and Gale, who manages her husband’s career and father-in-law’s estate — have an integrated social life.
For Gale Monk, it has come as something of a surprise to hear Sierre talk about her new distance from her white friends.
What about the bat mitzvah this weekend? Ms. Monk asked.
Well, that’s just because we used to be friends, Sierre said.
”What do you mean? She’s in and out of this house all the time. I can’t remember how many times she’s slept over or been in my kitchen.”
”That was last year, Mom. This year’s different. Things have changed.”
And Sierre’s mother allows that some separation may be healthy.
”I don’t have any problem with the black kids hanging together,” she said. ”I think you need to know your own group to feel proud of yourself.”
There is a consensus that the split is mostly, though hardly exclusively, a matter of blacks’ pulling away.
Marian Flaxman, a white girl in Sierre’s homeroom, puts it this way: ”You know, you come to a new school and you’re all little and scared, and everybody’s looking for a way to fit in, for people to like them. At that point, I think we were just white kids, blah, and they were just black kids, blah, and we were all just kids. And then a few black kids began thinking, ‘Hey, we’re black kids.’ I think the black kids feel like they’re black and the white kids feel like they’re white because the black kids feel like they’re black.”
And Sierre does not really disagree: ”Everybody gets along, but I think the white kids are more friendly toward black or interracial kids, and the black kids aren’t as interested back, just because of stupid stereotypical stuff like music and style.”
What they cannot quite articulate, though, is how much the divide owes to their growing awareness of the larger society, to negative messages about race and about things like violence and academic success. They may not connect the dots, but that sensitivity makes them intensely alert to slights from friends of another race, likely to pull away at even a hint of rejection.
Sometimes it is simply a misread cue, as when a black girl, sitting with other black girls, holds up a hand to greet a white friend, and the white girl thinks her greeting means, ”I see you, but don’t join us.” Sometimes it is an obvious, if oblivious, offense: A black boy drops a white friend after discovering that the friend has told another white boy that the black family’s food is weird.
And occasionally, the breach is startlingly painful: A white seventh grader considers changing schools after her best friend tells her she can no longer afford white friends. Months later, the white girl talked uncomfortably about how unreachable her former friend seemed.
”I’m not going to go sit with her at the ‘homey’ table,” she said, then flushed in intense embarrassment: ”I’m not sure I’m supposed to say ‘homey.’ I’m not sure that’s what they call themselves; maybe it sounds racist.”
And indeed, the black girl believed that some of the things her former friend had said did fall between insensitive and racist.
For their part, both mothers, in identical tones, expressed anger and hurt about how badly their daughters had been treated. Each, again in identical tones, said her daughter had been blameless. But the mothers had never been friends, and like their daughters, never talked about what happened, never heard the other side.
Marian Flaxman went to a mostly black preschool, and several black friends from those days remain classmates. But, she said, it has been years since she visited a black friend’s home.
”Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who remembers that we used to be friends,” she said. ”Now we don’t say hello in the halls, and the most we’d say in class is something like, ‘Can I borrow your eraser?’ ”
Asked if she knew of any close and lasting cross-race friendships, she was stumped, paging through her yearbook and offering up a few tight friendships between white and mixed-race classmates.
Diane Hughes, a New York University psychology professor who lives in South Orange, has studied the changing friendships of children here. In the first year of middle school, she found, black children were only half as likely as they had been two years before to name a white child as a best friend. Whites had fewer black friends to start with, but their friendships changed less. But blacks and whites, on reaching middle school, were only half as likely as third graders to say they had invited a friend of a different race home recently.
By the end of middle school, the separation is profound.
At 10 p.m. on a Friday in October, 153 revved-up 13-year-olds squealed and hugged their way into the South Orange Middle School cafeteria for the Eighth Grade Sleep over. At 11 they were grouped by birthday month, each group to write what they loved about school.
They loved Skittles at lunch . . . the Eighth Grade Sleepover . . . Ms. Wright, the health teacher/basketball coach/Martin Luther King Club adviser. And at the March table, a white boy wrote ”interracial friendships.”
But the moment the organized activities ended, the black and white eighth graders separated. And at 2 a.m., when the girls’ sleeping bags covered the library floor and the boys’ the gym, they formed a map of racial boundaries. The borders were peaceful, but there was little commerce across territorial lines. After lights out, some black girls stood and started a clapping chant.
”I can’t,” one girl called.
”Why not?” the group called back.
”My back’s hurting and my bra’s too tight.”
It grew louder as other black girls threaded their way through the darkness to join in.
”I shake my booty from left to right.”
Marian, in her green parrot slippers, was in a group of white girls up front, enjoying, listening, but quiet.
”It’s cool, when they start stuff like that, or in the lunchroom when they start rumbling on the table and we all pick it up,” she said. ”It’s just louder. One time in class this year, someone was acting up, and when the teacher said sit down, the boy said, ‘It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?’ I thought, no, it’s not because you’re black; that’s stupid. It’s because you’re being really noisy and obnoxious. And it made me feel really white. And then I began thinking, well, maybe it is because he’s black, because being noisy may be part of that culture, and then I didn’t know what to think.”
Jostling for Position
Aqeelah, Kelly and Johanna refuse to characterize behavior as black or white; they just hate it, they insist, when anyone categorizes them in racial terms.
”I think what makes Kelly and Johanna and me different is that we’re what people don’t expect,” Aqeelah said. ”I’m the only Muslim most people know, and one of two African-Americans on my softball team. There’s Kelly, a white girl playing basketball, and Johanna, when people ask if she’s white or Puerto Rican, saying, ‘Both.’ ”
Most students are acutely aware of the signposts of Columbia High’s coexisting cultures. The popular wisdom has it that the black kids dominate football and basketball, the white kids soccer, softball and lacrosse. Black kids throw big dancing parties in rented spaces; white parties are more often in people’s homes, with a lot of drinking. Everyone wears jeans, but the white kids are more preppy, the black kids more hip-hop. Black kids listen to Hot 97, a hip-hop station, or WBLS, which plays rhythm and blues; white kids favor rock stations like Z100 or K-Rock.
”I know a lot of Caucasians listen to Hot 97, too,” Aqeelah said, ”but even if I had a list of 200 Caucasians who listen to it, everyone still thinks it’s an African-American thing.”
Even though the two cultures are in constant, casual contact — and a few students cross back and forth easily — in the end, they are quite separate.
Jason Coleman, a black graduate who just finished his freshman year at Howard University, remembers how the cultures diverged, separating him from the white boy with whom he once walked to school.
”The summer before high school, we just went different ways,” he said. ”We listened to different music, we played different sports, we got interested in different girls. And we didn’t have much to say to each other anymore. That’s the time you begin to develop your own style, and mine was a different style than his.”
Jason’s style included heavy gold chains, a diamond ear stud, baggy pants and hair in short twists. Asked to define that style, he hesitated, then said, ”I guess what bothers me least is if you say that I follow hip-hop fashion.”
At the start of high school, much of Jason’s energy went toward straddling the divide between hip-hop kid and honors student. He was in frequent physical fights, though never with white students; that doesn’t seem to happen. Although blacks are now a slight majority at the school, he, like many of the black students, felt an underlying jostling about who really owns the school. And he felt dismissed, intellectually and socially, by some teachers and classmates.
”African-Americans may be the majority, but I don’t think they feel like the majority because they don’t feel they get treated fairly,” he said. ”You see who gets suspended, and it’s the African-American kids. I had one friend suspended for eating a bagel in homeroom because his teacher said he had an attitude. That just wouldn’t happen to a Caucasian boy. It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make you feel like it’s not really your school. We can all hold hands and talk about how united we are, but if the next day you run into a girl from your classes at the mall with her mother and she doesn’t say hello, what’s that?”
To avoid these issues, Jason chose a predominantly black college, Howard, and he seemed relaxed there this year. The gold chains and diamond were gone, and he was studying hard to go to medical school, as his father and brother had.
White students at Columbia High have their own issues. Many feel intimidated by the awareness that they are becoming a minority at the school, that they tend not to share academic classes, or culturally much else, with a lot of the black students. It is striking that while there are usually a few black or multiracial children in the school’s white groups, whites rarely enter the black groups. Many white students are reluctant to be quoted about the racial climate, lest they seem racist. But some recent graduates are more forthcoming.
”A lot of the black kids, it was like they had a really big chip on their shoulder, and they were mad at the world and mad at whites for running the world,” said Jenn Caviness, a white graduate who attends Columbia University. ”One time, in 10th grade, in the hall, this black kid shoved me and said, ‘Get out of the way, white crack bitch.’ I moved, because he was big, but I was thinking how if I said something racial back, I would have been attacked. It was very polarized sometimes.”
She and others, however, say the cultural jockeying has an upside — a freedom from the rigid social hierarchy that plagues many affluent suburban high schools.
”If you’re different here, it doesn’t matter, because there’s so many kinds of differences already,” Johanna explained when asked to identify the cool kids, the in crowd. ”There’s no one best way to be.”
In Johanna’s commercial art class one day, there was a table of black boys, a table of white girls and a mixed table, where two black girls were humming as they worked. A white girl asked what the song was.
They told her, and she said, ”It’s really wack.”
Yeah, one answered, ”You don’t know music like we know music.”
”Yeah, and you don’t know music like I know music.”
”I know,” the black girl said, smiling. ”It’s like two completely different tastes.”
Acting Black, Acting White
Aqeelah, Kelly and Johanna did not have many classes together this year, but they had grown up in a shared academic world. While they are not superstars, they do their work and are mostly in honors classes. But if that common ground has so far helped keep them together, the system of academic tracking more often helps pull black and white children apart.
Whenever people talk about race and school, the elephant in the room — rarely mentioned, impossible to ignore — is the racial imbalance that appears when so-called ability grouping begins. Almost all American school districts begin tracking sometime before high school. And when they do, white students are far more likely than blacks to be placed in higher-level classes, based on test scores and teacher recommendations.
Nationwide, by any measure of academic performance, be it grades, tests or graduation rates, whites on average do better than blacks. To some extent, it is a matter of differences in parents’ income and education. But the gap remains even when such things are factored out, even in places like this. Experts have no simple explanation, citing a tangle of parents’ attitudes, low expectations of mostly white teaching staffs and some white classmates, and negative pressure from black students who believe that doing well isn’t cool, that smart is white and street is black.
It can be a vicious circle — and a powerful influence on friendships.
Inevitably, as students notice that honors classes are mostly white and lower-level ones mostly black, they develop a corrosive sense that behaving like honors students is ”acting white,” while ”acting black” demands they emulate lower-level students. Little wonder that sixth grade, when ability grouping starts here, is also when many interracial friendships begin to come apart.
”It sometimes bothers me to see how many of my African-American friends aren’t in the higher-level classes, and how they try to be cool around their friends by acting up and trying to be silly and getting in fights,” said Sierre, who this year moved up to honors in everything but math. ”A lot of them just aren’t trying. They’re my friends, but I look at them and think, ‘Why can’t you just be cool and do your work?’ ”
The district does not release racial breakdowns of its classes. But at Columbia High, which is 45 percent white, ninth-grade honors classes usually seem to be about two-thirds white, middle-level classes more than two-thirds black, and the lowest level — ”basic skills” — almost entirely black. The imbalance is at least as great at Marian and Sierre’s middle school.
Honors is where students mix most.
”You really see the difference when you’re not in honors,” said Kelly, who was in middle-level English this year. ”In middle level, there aren’t so many white kids, and whenever you break into groups, people stick with their own race.”
The contrasts are stark. In Aqeelah’s mostly white honors history class, the students argued passionately about the nature of man as they compared Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau. But the next period, when the all-black basic-skills class arrived, the students headed to the library to learn how to look up facts for a report on a foreign country.
”I’m still taken aback, shocked, each time I walk into a class and see the complexion,” said LuElla Peniston, a black guidance counselor at the school. ”It should be more balanced.”
The issue has become especially delicate as the district has become progressively blacker, as more students have moved in from poorer neighboring towns with troubled schools, and as the ranking on state tests has slipped. Five years ago, a quarter of the district’s children were black; now, with blacks a slight majority, many people worry that the district could tip too far. (Of course, black and white parents tend to have different ideas about how far is too far.)
The schools are still impressive. Columbia High always sends dozens of graduates, black and white, to top colleges. It produced Carla Peterman, a black Rhodes scholar, and Lauryn Hill, the hip-hop star, who still lives in town. This year Columbia had more National Achievement Scholarship semifinalists — an honor for top-scoring black seniors in the National Merit Scholarship Program — than any school in the state. And last year it had an 88 percent passing rate on the state high school proficiency test, three points above average.
Still, in a society that often associates racial minorities with stereotypes of poverty, the district has an image problem. Many parents — whites, but also some blacks — talk nervously about ”those kids with the boomboxes out in front of school,” and wonder if they should start checking out private schools or another district.
The district’s administrators have been grappling with questions of racial balance and ability grouping for years. In middle school, for example, students can temporarily move up a level, to try more challenging work. But the program is used mostly by white families — to push a child or remove him or her from a mostly black classroom — so it has only increased the skew.
Many white parents, Ms. Peniston says, are adamant about not letting their children be anywhere below honors. ”They either push very hard to get their children into the level where they want them, or they leave,” she said.
It is not an issue only for whites. Many black parents worry that the schools somehow associate darker-skinned children with lower-level classes.
When Kelly’s boyfriend, Jared Watts, transferred from South Orange Middle School to Maplewood Middle, he was placed in lower-level classes, something his parents discovered only on parents’ night.
”There were all these African-American families, asking all these basic questions,” said Jared’s mother, Debby Watts. ”I looked around and realized they’d put him in the wrong group. I was so upset I made my husband do the calling the next day. They moved him up right away. But you can’t help but wonder if it would have happened if he’d been white.”
Sierre Monk’s parents are watching her grades, and thinking that unless she is put in honors classes in high school next year, they will move her to private school.
Sierre says she is comfortable with her white honors classmates, even if her best friends now are black.
”I feel friendly to a lot of the white kids, and still e-mail some of them,” she said. As she sees it, she can be a good student without compromising her African-American credentials. Not everyone, she observes, has been so culturally dextrous.
”A lot of people think of the black kids in the top classes, the ones who don’t hang out with a lot of African-Americans, as the ‘white’ black kids,” she said. ”I’d never say it to them, but in my head I call them the white black kids, too.”
Still, she said, she was happiest in her middle-level math class, where every student but one was black.
”It’s my favorite, because I can do well there without struggling,” she said. ”And I feel closest to that class, because I have so many friends there. Once I was waiting outside, alone, when I heard a group of white kids talking about, ‘Oh, those kids in Level 3, they must be stupid.’ I don’t want to associate with people who think like that.”
Fissures, Chasms, Islands
It was hard for Aqeelah, Kelly and Johanna to get together this year. They had different lunch periods, different study halls. Only Johanna and Kelly had any classes together. Johanna was on the varsity swim team, Kelly was on the ninth-grade basketball team and Aqeelah ran indoor track. The three could go weeks without getting together.
But they were still close. In the fall, when Johanna had big news to share about a boy she liked, she was on two phone lines simultaneously, telling Kelly and Aqeelah the latest.
When they finally met for dinner at Arturo’s Pizza in November, their pleasure in being together was visible.
Aqeelah was a little late, so Kelly chose an orange soda for her. When she arrived, they were their usual frisky selves, waving to everyone who walked by and talking about the old friends they didn’t see anymore and the new people they felt friendly with but would not yet ask to the movies.
They were still in giggle mode when Aqeelah said, ”I get made fun of by everybody,” and Johanna broke in, ”Why, because you’re short?” and they collapsed into laughter.
But a second later, Aqeelah was not laughing. She had her head down and her eyes covered, and when she looked up, a tear was leaking down her cheek.
”No, it’s really confusing this year,” she said. ”I’m too white to be black, and I’m too black to be white. If I’m talking to a white boy, a black kid walks by and says, ‘Oh, there’s Aqeelah, she likes white boys.’ And in class, these Caucasian boys I’ve been friends with for years say hi, and then the next thing they say is, ‘Yo, Aqeelah, what up?’ as if I won’t understand them unless they use that kind of slang. Or they’ll tell me they really like ‘Back That Thing Up’ by Juvenile. I don’t care if they like a rapper, but it seems like they think that’s the only connection they have with me.
”Last year this stuff didn’t bother me, but now it does bother me, because some of the African-American kids, joking around, say I’m an Oreo.”
Johanna and Kelly were surprised by her pain; they had not heard this before. But they did sense her increasing distance from them.
”It’s like she got lost or something,” Kelly said. ”I never see her.”
Aqeelah had always been the strongest student of the three, the only one in a special math class, one rung above honors. But by winter, she was getting disappointing grades, especially in history, and beginning to worry about being moved down a level. Math was not going so well either, and so she dropped track to focus on homework. She was hoping to make the softball team, and disappointed that neither of her friends was trying out. ”I’ll never see you,” she complained.
All three, of course, have always had other friends, and they still did.
Much of Kelly’s social life was with her racially mixed lunch group. She felt herself moving further from some of her white friends, the ones who hang out only with whites. ”It seems like they have their whole clique,” she said, and she was not terribly interested in them. Against the grain, she was still working to make friends with blacks, particularly with a basketball teammate.
Johanna found herself hanging out more with blacks, much as her older sister had — though not her brother, a college freshman whose high school friends were mostly white.
”In middle school, there were black and white tables in the cafeteria and everything, but people talked together in the hallways,” Johanna said. ”Now there’s so many people, you don’t even say hi to everybody, and sometimes it seems like the black and white people live in such different worlds that they wouldn’t know how to have fun together anymore.”
The three girls celebrated separately this New Year’s Eve — Kelly with Jared, Johanna at a party with her family, Aqeelah at her father’s mosque for Ramadan.
Kelly still tried to bring them together. One Friday night, she called Johanna and Aqeelah on the spur of the moment, and they came over in their pajamas. And at Kelly’s last basketball game, in late February, Johanna and Aqeelah sat and joked with Jared, Kelly’s mother, her grandmother and little brother.
The next day Kelly and Jared broke up. Kelly said she was sad and working hard to keep up her friendship with Jared, but that’s about all she was saying.
And as spring arrived, Kelly, Johanna and Aqeelah acknowledged that, at least for now, their threesome had pretty much become a twosome.
Johanna and Kelly were still very tight, and did something together almost every weekend. But these days Aqeelah talked most to a black girl, a longtime family friend. It was partly logistics: Aqeelah would run into her daily at sixth period and after school, at her locker.
”I don’t know why I don’t call Johanna or Kelly,” she said. ”They’ll always have the place in my heart, but not so much physically in my life these days. It seems like I have no real friends this year. You know how you can have a lot of friends, but you have no one? Everyone seems to be settled in their cliques and I’m just searching. And the more I get to know some people, the more I want to withdraw. I’m spending a lot more time with my family this year.”
It’s not that Aqeelah was falling apart. She was still her solid self, with all her enthusiasms — for ”Dawson’s Creek,” movies, and the Friday noon service at the mosque. But increasingly, the gibes about being too white were getting to her. One day, walking to class with a black boy who is an old friend, she blew up when he told her she had ”white people’s hair.”
”I just began screaming, ‘What’s wrong with these people in this school?’ and everyone stared at me like I was crazy,” she said. ”Everyone, every single person, gets on my nerves.”
Lessons and Legacies
The story of Aqeelah, Kelly and Johanna is still unfolding. But those who have gone before know something about where they may be headed.
Aqeelah’s struggle is deeply familiar to Malika Oglesby, who arrived from a mostly white school in Virginia in fifth grade and quickly found white friends. Several black boys began to follow her around, taunting her. Lowering her eyes, she recited the chant that plagued her middle-school years: ”Cotton candy, sweet as gold, Malika is an Oreo.”
”I don’t think I knew what it meant the first time, but I figured it out pretty fast,” she said.
Jenn Caviness, one of her white friends from that time, clearly remembers Malika’s pain.
”Malika was in tears every other day, they just tormented her,” she said. ”We all felt very protective, but we didn’t know how to stop it.”
Malika felt powerless, too.
”I didn’t tell my parents about it, I didn’t tell my sister, but it was a hard time,” she said. ”If you’d asked me about it at the time, I would have said that there was absolutely no issue at all about my having chosen all those white friends. But that’s not true. By the end of seventh grade, I was starting to be uncomfortable. Everybody was having little crushes on everybody among my friends, but of course nobody was having a crush on me. I began to feel like I was falling behind, I was just the standby.”
The summer before high school, she eased into a black social group.
”I found a black boyfriend, and I kind of lost contact with everyone else,” said Malika, who now attends Howard.
And yet, when Malika finished talking about her Oreo problem, when Jason recalled his fighting days, when others finished describing difficult racial experiences, a strange thing happened. They looked up, unprompted, and said how much they loved the racial mix here and the window it opened onto a different culture.
”Columbia High School was so important and useful to me,” said Jenn, immediately after recounting how she had been pushed in the hall by a black boy. ”It shaped a lot of parts of my personality.”
She and the others remembered a newfound ease as high school was ending, when the racial divide began to fade.
”Senior year was wonderful, when the black kids and the white kids got to be friends again, and the graduation parties where everyone mixed,” said Malika. ”It was so much better.”
Many parents say that is a common pattern.
”It is an ebb and flow,” said Carol Barry-Austin, the biracial mother of three African-American children. ”Middle-school kids need time to separate and feel comfortable in their racial identity, and then they can come back together. I remember when I wanted to give my oldest daughter a sweet-16 party, she said no, because she couldn’t mix her black and white friends. But by the time she got to a graduation party, she could.”
This year, among the seniors, there was a striking friendship between Jordan BarAm, the white student council president, and Ari Onugha, the black homecoming king.
They met in ninth grade when Jordan was running for class president and knew he needed the black vote. Ari, he had heard, was the coolest kid in school, and he went to him in such a low-key and humorous way that Ari was happy to help out. From that unlikely start, a genuine friendship began when both were in Advanced Placement physics the next year.
This year they had several Advanced Placement classes together, and they talked on the phone most nights, Jordan said, ”about everything” — homework, girls, college. Ari was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Jordan to Harvard.
”No one looking at me would ever think I’m in Advanced Placement,” said Ari, who wears baggy Gibaud pants, a pyramid ring and a big metal watch. ”Most of the black kids in the honors classes identify with white culture. I’m more comfortable in black culture, with kids who dress like me and talk like me and listen to the same music I do.”
Ari and Jordan have a real friendship, but one with limits. On weekends, Ari mostly hangs out with black friends from lower-level classes, Jordan with a mostly white group of top students. When Ari and his friends performed a wildly successful hip-hop dance routine at the Martin Luther King Association fashion show, Jordan, like most white students, did not go. And when Jordan and his friends put together a fund-raising dance for a classmate with multiple sclerosis, Ari did not show up.
”We’ve tried to get him to white parties, everyone wants him there, but he either doesn’t come or doesn’t stay long,” Jordan said.
Jordan thinks a lot about race and has been active in school groups to promote better racial understanding — something he has tried unsuccessfully to draw Ari into.
And while Ari often visits Jordan’s home, Jordan has only rarely, and briefly, been to Ari’s.
Ari laughed. ”Hey, dude, you could come.”
About the Series
Two generations after the end of legal discrimination, the wider public discussion of race relations seems muted. Race relations are being defined less by political action than by daily experience, in schools, in sports arenas, in pop culture and at worship, and especially in the workplace. These encounters — race relations in the most literal, everyday sense — make up this series of reports, the outcome of a yearlong examination by Times reporters.