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Straight Talk for Teens Racism alive and (un)well, to dismay of shocked teen

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Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013 7:13 am

Dear Straight Talk: I’m 16. My cousins, adopted from Kenya, ages 14 and 15, are visiting. I never figured my friends were prejudiced, but my best friend says she isn’t “comfortable” staying the night “right now” (they are staying in my room). We often have sleepovers with several girls in this room, so this makes no sense. Some other friends say it’s because my cousins are black. I am in shock! How do I deal with this? — Anaheim

Justin, 25, Redding: What? I thought we’d figured out that the melanin content of one’s skin doesn’t matter. Ask her what bothers her about darker skin. Don't be emotional or she will feel attacked and fight back. Instead, be kind, calm and logical. Use the opportunity to help her grow. If you cut her out, she will just continue this illogical behavior.

Jessie, 20, Eugene, Ore.: I encountered a similar situation over Thanksgiving. One of my cousins, a high school student in North Carolina, went Christmas shopping with me, whereupon he “entertained” me with stories of what he and his friends do for fun. Some were incredibly racist, including throwing spoons at black people and yelling the N–word at them. When I expressed shock, he tried to justify himself, claiming that the victims of their pastimes knew that it was a joke and weren’t offended or hurt because “nobody takes racism seriously, it's just part of the culture.”

I dropped him at his hotel and unfriended him on Facebook. Yes, he’s family, but I choose to distance myself from this mindset. Standing up for what you believe or for those you love is hard, but you end up surrounded by people you respect and enjoy.

Alex, 16, Newton, Mass.: Prejudice is a difficulty adjusting to others' differences, whether race, odd habits or beliefs. From my experience, self-love plays a role: if I’m having a hard time loving myself, it is harder to love and accept others.

I don’t like racism either, but getting angry at her for being “racist” will just make her feel labeled and unsafe, which will put her on the defensive. Avoid the racist label and speak as you would to a friend with loving energy. First, mention how uncomfortable you felt when she didn’t want to stay the night. Then ask if it’s true that it was because your cousins are black. Don’t interrupt her answer. When she has finished, you could respond by saying your friendship is important and you want to resolve this so you can go back to enjoying your friendship.

If she says something offensive, it’s her journey. If she needs space from you, you probably need space, too. If this happens, maintain a respectful distance at school. It may be uncomfortable, but discomfort is always an opportunity for personal growth. To come to peace (not that I’ve mastered this), stay in self-love and project warmth toward her, regardless of her behavior.

Kira, 20, Moraga: I’m really sorry. Best friends are usually more respectful. Talk to her without judgment — knowing that if there’s no resolution, it’s OK to take a break from the friendship. In this situation, I would choose my family over my friend any day.

Dear Anaheim: We indeed still live in a racist world. Any non-violent action against racism is fine in my book, and the panel gives some examples. That said, if you want your friend to quit being racist, the best way is by speaking warmly of all peoples while reaching out (warmly) to her. Alex and Justin offer examples that have the best chance of transforming racism into peaceful coexistence and ultimately, brotherhood. Good luck with your friend. Please let us know what happens. — Lauren

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