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St. Louis' Coded Conversation On Race And Class

From bottom left: St. Louis area residents Bala Anant, Will Johnson, Derrick Hopgood and his daughter Skylyn. Anne Cody, Lisa Heimberger and Brandy Bold.
Photo of Gateway Arch from Francisco Diez, Flickr; Additional photos from Joseph Leahy and Kae Petrin
From bottom left: St. Louis area residents Bala Anant, Will Johnson, Derrick Hopgood and his daughter Skylyn. Anne Cody, Lisa Heimberger and Brandy Bold. (Photo of Gateway Arch from Francisco Diez | Flickr; Additional photos from Joseph Leahy and Kae Petrin

Let’s be honest, talking about race can be tough — even nerve-racking for some.

Often the conversation comes with trap doors leading to potentially awkward moments. It’s that fear of a misstep, perhaps, that nudges people into sidestepping clear language about race.

There are the boilerplate words like “they,” “them” and “those people.” But there are also more localized varieties like "Hoosier," “north county” and even historical oddities such as “scrubby Dutch.” In St. Louis, coded conversations about race and class often start with a single question that permeates a divided region: "Where did you go to school?"

This episode of We Live Here is all about talking about race without actually talking about race.

“In St. Louis there’s a dynamic of place. Meaning that people try to understand your race and your social class background according to where you grew up or where you went to school,” said Odis Johnson, an associate professor of education and sociology at Washington University.

Code on the street

So, what does it sound like when people try to decode the shrouded language used to describe race and class? We Live Here asked a couple of our friends in the newsroom, afternoon newscaster Joseph Leahy and intern Katelyn Petrin, to help us find out.

Hoosier, and we’re not talking about the residents of Indiana, is a word that prompted a pretty open dialog. Take a listen below.

But once Joseph and Katelyn got into exploring the codes behind geographic phrases like “north county,” people got a little uncomfortable. That's because those codes often come with thinly veiled racial connotations. And many of the folks interviewed said it was what they saw on the evening news that informed how they thought about different parts of town.

Code Warrior

Amy Hunter, director of racial justice at the YWCA of St. Louis, has been breaking down code words for race and class throughout her career. Before her current job she worked in the corporate world, helping big companies hire and retain more minority employees.

She said even when people think they’re talking about the same thing, they're often not. Take something as simple as the concept for what time means. Listen below to the story she told us about an African American employee who was about to be fired for being seven minutes late to work on a regular basis.

Hunter went on to say that even words and ideas that seem to have commonly understood meanings, like "good," "safe" and "community" can in reality mean something very different between white people and minorities.

“We often talk about the black community as if it’s a neighborhood,” Hunter said. “Sometimes when we say community people are really talking about their neighborhood or the city that they live in. But I’d offer that in black space it has a broader concept. So, I belong to the black community whether I live in black space or not.”

Classes for decoding race

These days, Hunter teaches a class at the YWCA called “Witnessing Whiteness.” We figured these these classes were racially mixed. Turns out we were wrong. Hunter said she made the classes either all white or all persons of color on purpose.

“Race scholars would say when we have cross racial dialog, people of color are doing a lot of the work and educating,” Hunter said. “White people can learn about racism without people of color being in the room.”

“It’s a very loving environment, there’s no shaming or blaming. It’s education and practice. And they can go out in the world and be facilitators for the next set of groups.”

Codes in the real world

A class at the YWCA about racial understanding is one thing, but obviously coded conversations are happening all the time and in all kinds of places: schools, the break room at work, in the playground with your kids on the weekend. So, how does Hunter handle it when someone uses a racially charged code word in everyday conversation?

“My first thinking is 'I’m sorry that happened to you,'” Hunter said. “Because we’re all born wonderful and something happens ... Then, in a loving way, I reach for them.”

“The other day I got a really good question: ‘The Japanese were interned in this country and they got over it, why can’t black people get over it?’ I gently said, ‘So, I’m not sure that 300 years of slavery, then 80 more years of Jim Crow, it’s only been about 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement, is the same as three years of internment. Although that was horrific and they did receive reparations, I don’t think those are maybe the same kind of comparison.’ And then he said OK.”

“I get that people really don’t want to fail at race and race dialog, but a lot of time people just don’t know what to say or where to go. Quite honestly, what keeps people from having race dialog freely is the fear that they’re going to say something wrong or be labeled a racist.”

We Live Here's theme music is composed and performed by Cassie Morgan.

Emanuele Berry is a 2012 graduate of Michigan State University. Prior to coming to St. Louis she worked as a talk show producer at WKAR Public Radio in Michigan. Emanuele also interned at National Public Radio, where she worked at the Arts and Information Desk. Her work has been recognized by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Hearst Journalism Awards Program. Berry worked with St. Louis Public Radio from 2014 to 2015.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.