Last hour, as part of our Project Milwaukee series on race relations, we presented the views of local teenagers who belong to minority groups. Now we visit Cudahy High School to speak with white students. As WUWM’s LaToya Dennis discovered, the conversations produced similar themes. I began the conversation with students at Cudahy High School by asking one question. Sophomore Ben Rejniak was first.
“What race/ethnicity do you identify as?”
“Caucasian,” Ben says.
“You looked at me like I was crazy when I asked you that.”
“I don’t know,” Ben says.
The question seemed to catch Ben off guard, but he quickly recovers. He tells me he can’t recall a time when he was distinctly aware of his race, however, 18 year old Ian Smith can.
“I have a Puerto Rican friend and we met on the swim team and all that and we hang out. We went downtown and it’s not in the big like classy city area, but on the outskirts of it where there’s more of a minority and all that. I didn’t see too many white people and I was like I think I might be one of the few,” Ian says.
“Now when you say downtown, do you mean downtown Cudahy or downtown Milwaukee?”
“Downtown Milwaukee,” Ian says.
“How did that make you feel?”
“I mean it stood out but it wasn’t like I wasn’t deathly afraid of it, so,” Ian says.
“Were you uncomfortable at all?”
“No. It’s just that it stands out,” Ian says.
The next question seemed a bit easier for everyone to answer.
“Now, what role does race and ethnicity play in your life?”
“Doesn’t really matter. I kind of have friends of every ethnicity so it’s not really a big deal to me. I don’t really look to ethnicity or skin type or skin color or anything so I don’t really care,” Ben says.
And the same goes for Ian Smith’s younger sister, Shelby. She’s a 14 year old freshman.
“It doesn’t really play a role in my life I mean I meet people of different color skin, I just try to get along as best as I can,” Shelby says.
Earlier when I asked Shelby what race she identifies with she gave me the most interesting answer.
“I just think I’m me,” Shelby says.
When prodded about what that means, I just think I’m me, Shelby says being white does not make her the person she is. Shelby says she has friends of various ethnic backgrounds because it’s about people, not color.
“My friend Lisette, she’s like Mexican and my friend Pedro, he’s Puerto Rican or Mexican probably and my friend Caroline, she’s black but she’s really cool,” Shelby says.
“Now you say she’s black but she’s really cool. Why do you add that really cool on there?” “
Because she’s like a really good friend and we get a long so easily and we have a lot of fun together when we hang out,” Shelby says.
“I can’t say that I have friends of all races but I do treat everyone with the same respect. I’m not gonna say I’m not gonna be friends with you cause of your race. It’s a waste of time,” Ian says.
“Do you know people who do that or do you think that people even still do that?”
“Yeah, I think people still do it. I mean my grandma. She’s not racist but it’s just that old time how they’re taught, and unfortunately people can’t get over what they’re taught. She’s had some times where she’s annoyed me with things that she’s said. There’s just times where she doesn’t say it exactly, but you can tell that she’s getting annoyed with a certain person. I don’t want to believe that it’s for like a race or anything, but I have to think that yeah there’s probably a little bit,” Ben says.
But Ben Rejniak says it’s not just the older generation with hang-ups. He says racial jokes are common place.
“Almost every day like I’ll just be walking around school or something and I’ll hear something like a joke or something along those lines. It’s just kind of all around,” Ben says.
“And are they usually jokes about one particular race or ethnicity or is everyone fair game?”
“It’s pretty much just spread around,” Ben says.
“Does that bother you?”
“A little bit. It’s just like how would they feel? I don’t understand why you’d have to push around someone else,” Ben says.
While Ben says race is not important to him he realizes that it is for a number of people and doesn’t see that changing.
“There’s always going to be a certain group of people who are going to be against a group or another. I just don’t see that ever happening, where it’s just all, where it’s going to get shut down.
Ian Smith agrees. “I mean yes it will diminish over time hopefully, but I don’t think it will ever disappear,” Ian says.