At a high school assembly in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the HYPE step crew prepares to perform. They’ve performed for packed crowds before — on America’s Got Talent, at Walt Disney World, and in dozens of competitions. But today’s performance is especially nerve-wracking for one member.
The student body settles in to watch. They are 96% non-white and all eyes seem to be glued to the only white team member. Performing is always a rush, but today, in front of his peers, my nephew Emmaus doesn’t want to miss a single beat.
The dance begins. The boys stomp and clap and tumble and flip through the air in an intense and relentless rhythm. Within seconds, the students are on their feet, cheering. They focus on Emmaus and at the end of the performance — when the team points him out and calls him their nickname, “White Chocolate” — the students go nuts shouting and clapping for their classmate.
Race relations and tensions dominate the headlines lately, with the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge weighing heavy on American minds. Before that, there was the church shooting in Charleston, North Carolina. Then Ferguson. Then Eric Garner.
It could seem, if we were to believe the media, that there can be no healthy cross-racial relationships.
I have lived in eastern Africa for the past 13 years and, to be honest, feel largely out of touch with America these days — both the America I read about in the headlines and the America behind those stories; especially when it comes to race. When I heard about my nephew’s nickname and his friendship with the boys on the HYPE team back in the U.S., I knew he would have a good perspective to offer me. A few weeks ago, we sat down for an interview over Skype.
HYPE, which stands for Helping Yourself with Pride through Education, is an organization founded by William Joyner in 1995 in order to provide students with an incentive for good behavior and passing grades in the classroom. Performance was that incentive. After weeks of hard step training, if boys didn’t keep their grades up or acted out at school, they weren’t allowed to compete. Joyner also provided tutors as needed and planned community service projects for the team, like visits to the local food banks. Several kids who might have dropped out of school their sophomore or junior years have gone on to graduate from college.
Emmaus started stepping in a smaller group and a friend there invited him to try out for HYPE. He did, and made the team. I asked if he was nervous.
“I was already friends with one of the kids and felt comfortable around the others,” he told me. “They welcomed me and it wasn’t like they were scared of my skin color or anything! It wasn’t much of a barrier.”
The barrier, or pressure, would come later, at performances — when Emmaus’ team showed up with the only white performer in the entire competition. Sometimes, Emmaus said, it felt like the judges and audience members were watching him and his group more closely than others. It didn’t happen a lot, but there sometimes seemed to be a kind of shocked response when Emmaus started to step; a surprise when he kept up with his teammates. But that initial shock would soon lead to joyful laughter and then wild cheers, just like the ones heard back at their high school performances.
And then his team would win — almost every time.
They soon became the team to beat, and according to Emmaus, people started watching them more closely — not because of “White Chocolate,” but because of the team’s incredible talent. Just this past February, they won one of the biggest step competitions in the nation.
As we discussed the racial dynamic within his team and school, I asked Emmaus about privilege.
“Yes, I believe that I have privilege. My mom has a good job, we have a nice house,” he told me. “People view us in a way that makes me uncomfortable, people who don’t know us. They look at what we have and not how we act.” He emphasized the importance of forming relationships so that these kinds of assumptions and attitudes can be addressed openly.
And when it came to building these kinds of authentic cross-cultural relationships, Emmaus had some wise words for me:
“When you meet someone of another race or culture, you kind of fit into their culture while keeping part of yours. You don’t change yourself, but you use what you have to find similarities.”
For Emmaus, this has been the love of stepping. “So a lot of my friends at school who are black love music,” he continued, “and that is one thing I find in common and that’s a way I can make friends. You fit in and work to adapt, but you don’t give up who you are, either.”
This experience has opened his eyes to the world in more ways than one. Emmaus also told me about a school report he recently wrote, which focused on what he sees as a major racial issue today in America:
“The government has recently weakened the 15th amendment; the Voting Rights Act,” he explained, referring to the effects of the 2013 Supreme Court case that invalidated the VRA. “So now several states have taken advantage of that and are using extra requirements. For example, North Carolina has taken away same day registration and you need a photo ID. For people who don’t have the access or time to reach these resources, they can’t vote.”
I asked him what teens can do about this particular issue, or racial tensions in general, that they feel passionate about.
“Several teens are leading protests against the voter suppression and other real issues,” he told me. “We can write blogs, stories. We can publicize things on social media. And we can be who we are in the community, like just be part of a diverse community and live our life.”
When it comes to developing healthy and natural cross-racial relationships, my nephew’s own lessons — learned in less than two decades of life — were clear and simple. But they spoke volumes.
- Do what you love with whoever else is doing it.
- Embrace who you are.
- Engage with other people as they are.
- Educate yourself and your community.
- Don’t be afraid or intimidated by what is unfamiliar to you.
- Be willing to have honest and challenging conversations about race and privilege.
If only we could all live by these rules.