© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stirring up the melting pot: Students speak out on race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2009 - Aside from being where kids learn to read and write, schools are, and have been, a melting pot for assimilating children into mainstream America. As schools become more diverse, they've also had to place more emphasis on their social responsibilities: encouraging fair play and respect for all students, whether they come from around the corner or around the world.

The following vignettes about race may or may not be typical; they reflect the individual stories of students who are part of the Cultural Leadership program, which is designed "to teach high school students to recognize and resolve issues of privilege and injustice." They help to explain why teaching tolerance is, and continues to be, an important mission for every school.

Life in the comfort zone

Stephanie Holzbauer still remembers the day a girl from Soldan International Studies in St. Louis showed up at pricy and exclusive Villa Duchesne -- or Villa D -- where Holzbauer, 17, is a senior.

Holzbauer loves the school and her classmates -- and the fact that school officials there stress tolerance on issues ranging from skin color to disabilities. Yet ... she says she's struck by how many students remain blind to the enlightened ideas the school embraces. A quote comes to her mind: "There's no growth in the comfort zone, and there's no comfort in the growth zone."

That much seemed apparent to her the day the Soldan kid showed up and shook up the comfort zone without saying a word. The girl was at Villa as part of a "school swap" program under which a student spends part of the day at a different school.  

"At Soldan, they have metal detectors to get into the school, and they've had lockdowns," Holzbauer says, "and Villa D is not like that at all. It's private, Catholic and white."

Only a "handful" of black girls attend the school. (Several calls to Villa Duchesne to confirm enrollment figures were not returned.) They stick together, she says, and don't mingle much with other girls. Whenever a non-student appears at Villa D, Holzbauer explains that her classmates assume the visitor is thinking of attending the school. But not this time.

"Nobody asked me if she was a prospective student," Holzbauer says.

Instead some of the girls came up to her and whispered, "Who is she (pause), what is she doing here? (another pause) Oh-h-h, I understand. But (she's) just coming for today, right?"

Holzbauer nods her head slowly, lets out a little giggle, telling the story with such indirection that the other kids listening might have missed her point about how this one black kid had inadvertently disrupted a school where uniformity is the rule. It was as if a break dancer had suddenly appeared on a stage of ballerinas. She stresses that she wants to avoid generalizing too much at life at Villa D.

"They've been so socialized to fear anything that's different," Holzbauer explains. "Those girls, I'm going to say (most) of those girls, including myself, have lived in that comfort zone our entire life, and so when we see anything different, that's how we react."

Holzbauer has become sensitized to such issues, partly from the Cultural Leadership program created by Karen Kalish of the Karen S. Kalish Foundation. The program's goal, Kalish says, is to create a "more just and equitable community" by helping high school students learn to ask hard questions and take risks in recognizing and resolving "issues of privilege and injustice."

Through this program, Holzbauer has learned to understand other viewpoints, particularly the experiences of African-American and Jewish students. She seems to appreciate her own biases and those of students across the region when it comes to confronting the problems of race and education.

The color of prejudice

Last spring, DeAnna Tipton decided to try to sensitize classmates at St. Elizabeth's Academy to issues of race by exposing them to experiences from the Jim Crow era. Perhaps, Tipton thought, whites would appreciate their privileges if they had the experience of losing them. St. Elizabeth is a private Catholic girls school with about 200 students, roughly 60 of them African-American.

Tipton took action following a presentation by a guest speaker about genocide in Darfur. One student said she was indifferent to what happened there because she had no frame of reference of living in a village or facing starvation and death while being stalked by machete-wielding enemies.

Tipton sensed that many others felt the same way but didn't admit it. So she tried an experiment. Kids were given tags of varying colors -- pink for privilege; purple for minority; and yellow for disabled. The meaning of the colors didn't dawn on some of them until they discovered that a drinking fountain or a restroom was forbidden to them because of the their tags' color.

Some students were visibly irritated, Tipton says. She thinks the experience opened some eyes, but she's not sure how much will stick with them.

Beyond the Civil Rights Era

On the other hand, some kids think it's time to give the Jim Crow period and the civil rights movement a rest and talk more about what race means now.

"One of the best things we can do is talk about race," says Thomas Bullock, 17, a senior at Ladue High School. He's afraid that people's elation over progressive developments, such as the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, will make them forget how racism continues to hurt many minorities. Ladue has about 3,500 students; roughly 17 percent from African-American families.

Bullock's thinking illustrates the mind-set of younger blacks: They take it as a given that an African-American man could be president of the United States even if it had never happened before. Rather than focusing on such outstanding achievements, Bullock thinks the conversation needs to shift to more fundamental issues about race, such as the diminishing use of affirmative action in college admissions. Moreover, he thinks young people should talk more about whether blacks and whites of this generation are closer to equality than they were during the period when his dad, a physician, grew up.

Bullock, who has friends across racial lines, says he's dismayed that so much of the talk he hears about race focuses on generalities, such as "Obama has been elected and everything is all good now, or Martin Luther King came and we got rid of all the racism."

Straddling the middle of the road

Meanwhile, another Cultural Leadership student, Keilah Johnson, 17, a senior at Fort Zumwalt West High School, is finding how difficult it is to straddle the racial line. The school has 2,400 students, about 5 percent of them black.

In school, Johnson has always tried to walk the middle of the road when confronted with racial issues, trying her best to get along with whites -- even to the point of losing part of her identity, she says.

"In elementary school, I never wore my hair down. I wore ponytails, I had braids, and my (white) friends always asked me: Why don't you wear your hair down? Why don't you wear your hair straight like ours?"

So, in middle school, "the first thing I would do is straighten my hair because I wanted to be like the other girls. I just didn't want them to pick on me anymore."

But the conflict didn't stop.

"In high school, you want to find a group to fit in," says Johnson. "My friends are almost all white. I've been accepted by them, but I'm still different. It would be the smallest thing that (made her understand) I really am different."

At that point, another black girl in the group says, white girls "never call you pretty..."

As if on cue, Johnson picks up that point, "... never call me pretty. They'll search for compliments (from me). But they won't give compliments back to me."

One day Johnson used a class assignment to help her understand how she really felt. Just about everybody chose "The Scarlet Letter" for a book assignment. She chose "Invisible Man," writer Ralph Ellison's prize-winning novel.

"I'm standing in front of my all-white class trying to explain 'Invisible Man.' The words fell out of my mouth. I felt the same way as the character in that I can't describe my frustrations about being invisible. I'm the exception to the world, a good black girl. I go by the rules, don't get into trouble, do what you tell me. It's difficult because you can't explain that (and) no one cares."

She become animated, seeming to search for answers to her own inner conflicts and seeming to understand for the first time why some students seek a balm among themselves against bigotry they might encounter in a white school environment.

"It's very uncomfortable," she tells those who are listening. "I can see why you (black students) would want to have that segregation (in the schools). I'm not saying it's good, but I can see (understand) it."

Still, Johnson feels it's best to try to foster closer black-white relationships inside the schools as a way of breaking down barriers and helping people learn to accept one another.