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The chocolate milk incident: On being young, black and confused in America

Tyree Boyd-Pates at Take Two's Millenial Matters event.
Tyree Boyd-Pates at Take Two's Millenial Matters event.

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Tyree Boyd-Pates was just a child when he learned the truth: he was black.

An avid chocolate milk drinker, one day a group of youth posed a question that would spark a lifetime of racial contemplation. 

"Tyree, Tyree, why do you drink so much chocolate milk? Is it because you want to be darker?"

All this week, Take Two has been exploring the American identity through the eyes of people living right here in Southern California. 

Tyree-Boyd-Pates, is a regular on Take Two — especially in conversations about race. Long before that, however, he was a boy growing up in mid-city Los Angeles who often grappled with his identity as an African-American.  

After the awkward childhood exchange over his proclivity for chocolate milk, Boyd-Pates says things changed for him. 

"It was that very moment that I was confronted with what it means to be a black person, a black boy in the U.S.," Boyd-Pates says. 

Early years

I was raised in a single-parent home, Section 8 housing, to a grandmother, after my mother — who abused substances throughout the beginning of her pregnancy — was given over to the state. You hear the stories of the 'crack mother' and the 'crack baby' and 'welfare mother' and  'welfare children,' and I was those things. We were on Section 8 housing; we were on food stamps, and we saw how the media portrayed us. 

An American Identity

My identity is one that is becoming more and more fixed. If you're an African-American in this country, you have to look at yourself through two lenses: you see yourself through your eyes, but you also see yourself through another set of eyes, which is typically those of the dominant group.

Every single day, I have to wear this double consciousness of how I carry myself, the ways that I respond to certain inquiries. Through those lenses, I can see very, very, very concisely how America aspires to depict me and also the dissonance that I have with that particular perception. 

A Turning Point

The United States of America is at a crossroads. It is completely rife with stagnation, complacency, and apathy. And the only way to alleviate those three things is if they choose to deal with the things that they've never decided to. 

Boyd-Pates would go on to receive a master's degree in African American studies. He's currently on sabbatical from Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he teaches on the subject.

Press the blue play button above to hear Tyree Boyd-Pates' full story. 
(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Series: A Nation Engaged

America is changing. The crosscurrents of demographic and cultural change are upending traditional voting patterns and altering the face of the American political parties in significant ways. As part of our collaborative project with NPR called "A Nation Engaged," this week we're asking: What does it mean to you to be an American?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.