© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Personal perspectives on race, part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2009 - When the Beacon sent out a query through our Public Insight Network asking about people's experiences with race, we got more than 100 responses from old and young, black, white, Hispanic, American Indian and foreign-born.

Here, we share some of those stories, from a black woman who saw a Middle Eastern man refused service, to an Iranian family business who found community support when they least expected it. 


Each week day for about two years, Leslie Wolter stepped into her office in East St. Louis and into another world — one where she, as a white woman, was the minority.

Wolter, of O'Fallon, Ill., worked as an English specialist at the Success Center, which offers tutoring and other services to students.

"It took a little time, I think, for me to gain the trust of the students," she says of her predominantly black classroom.

She did, though, and soon, people forgot her race, or sometimes, she thinks, liked her in spite of it.

Once, in class, her students brainstormed stereotypes associated with different races. They talked about Asian Americans, African-Americans and then Caucasians, specifically, white females.

The words they used were: stuck up, two-faced, rich, snooty.

"And I think someone said, 'You know, we didn't mean you, Leslie.'"

Other times, she'd hear, "You're not like a real white person," or "You're cooler than the average white person."

Eventually, Wolter became hyper-aware of everything she said and did, that she was being judged first by what people thought of her race, only later by who she really was, and that plenty of black Americans must have this same experience as minorities, too.

"It was like a daily 'you're different.'"

Now, Wolter works as an English instructor for the University of Phoenix. Her students are online, but still diverse.

Even after a minority experience of her own, she doesn't want to be color blind. Culture, race and background are important parts of who we are, she knows.

They do make people different, but they shouldn't be used to make people separate.


Afsaneh's Alterations occupies half the space in a small strip mall. Inside, Afsaneh Khazaeli alters clothes for her neighbors in Edwardsville, Ill.

For about 25 years, now, the Iranian family has lived in Edwardsville. Their two sons and daughter graduated from Edwardsville High School. Sadegh Khazaeli is a professor of analytical chemistry at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Afsaneh Khazaeli runs the alteration shop.

And for years, nearly everyone — doctors, lawyers, teachers and neighbors — has come to her with their business.

"My mom is a big part of that community," says Javad Khazaeli, a 34-year-old lawyer living in Washington, D.C.

And eight years ago, after Sept. 11, 2001, the community proved that. After the terrorist attacks, Afsaneh Khazaeli felt the same emotions everyone did, her son says.

"But she also had concerns that people would take it out on her kids."

He was 26 at the time and at law school at Washington University. His brother was 19 and his sister 12.

But Afsaneh Khazaeli wasn't the only one worried about her family.

Almost immediately after the attacks, customers started showing up at her shop. Has anyone bothered you? they wanted to know. Has anyone said anything?

If they do, call us.

Javad Khazaeli was 4 years old during the Iranian hostage crisis, but he remembers the reaction Iranians in America felt back then, and collectively, he says, they braced for what might come after Sept. 11.

In Edwardsville, though, what came was a community rallying around one of their own.

Afsaneh Khazaeli and her shop never did have any problems.

She's into her 21st year there, and business is as good as ever.


She remembers that June morning.

Barbara Martin and two fellow black school teachers grabbed doughnuts, coffee and juice at the creepy Salem, Mo., hotel, with gated-doors on the elevator that had to be pulled open. It made her think of the Hitchcock classic movie, "Psycho."

The rest of the teachers along on the 1990s trip with the University of Missouri's master's program headed across the street to a diner.

With them was a young Middle Eastern man.

Moments later, he walked back through the hotel doors, into the lobby where Martin and her friends sat.

What happened? they asked.

When he got to the restaurant, he said, he was told the breakfast bar was closed. His white colleagues sat down to eat and the young man left.

He sat with Martin and her friends in the lobby, and they talked about what happened, the upcoming schedule and how ready they were to get out of town.

And as she sat there, Martin thought she knew exactly what was going on and exactly what it meant.

"It just verified my belief," she says. "This race thing is still alive and well."

She wasn't sad. She wasn't angry.

But she wasn't surprised, either.


Monique Williams has listened to her great grandmother's stories all her life — of street car rides and her first job in the slaughter house.

The two women share many things, like dimples and spunk.

But over time, Williams has learned that the lives they've lived are quite different, and one very much changed the other.

Williams' great grandmother, Angelene Green, moved to St. Louis in 1956. She'd ride the streetcar down Franklin Avenue on her way to her job as a server at Crown Cafe. She was a "fair-skinned, black woman" and, thanks to her complexion, was usually told she could sit closer to the front.

"She'd still ride in the back," Williams says.

Certainly, it wasn't because the back of the trolley was more convenient or more comfortable.

Green was simply proud of who she was and didn't want to be anything else.

Now, her 26-year-old great granddaughter can sit wherever she wants. Williams has always been able to vote. She was educated in integrated classrooms. And she looks around her and sees prominent black actors, artists, musicians, even a black president.

All of that, she thinks, is thanks to people like her great grandmother, who were only interested in passing as themselves.

Green still works, by the way.

She's 85.

She lives alone.

And now, she drives a pearly white Cadillac.

In anticipation of the exhibit, "RACE: Are We So Different?" that will start in January 2010, the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Beacon and KETC Channel 9 have partnered to create a yearlong series of events, in-depth articles and video pieces that focus on issues of race and discrimination in our region.