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Separate tables: Why black and white high schoolers sit apart in the cafeteria

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 7, 2009 - In "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," author ZZ Packer tells of students visiting a civil rights exhibit so they could appreciate the progress the nation has made since the Jim Crow era. On the way from the exhibit, the students stopped by a restaurant where the black girls congregated at one table and the whites sat at another.

While there are plenty of exceptions, that kind of segregation is common in school cafeterias across the St. Louis area. Seemingly by instinct, some youngsters carve out spaces or choose tables where they chat, laugh and eat with people who look like themselves.

Does this separation tell us anything about race relations and education? Many kids say it does not, stressing that where they sit at lunch matters less than how they feel about one another. Others say the sight of blacks sitting together at a table sends a message that others are not invited to pull up a chair.

Other youngsters say the table issue is overblown. "There are all-African American tables, there are all-white tables, there are Asian tables," says Shayna Rosen, 17, a senior at Parkway North. "But a lot of tables have students of all races and cultures."

'Little Africa'

At Fort Zumwalt West High School in St. Charles County, the cafeteria consists of long lines of tables shaped in the form of an "X," surrounded by smaller round tables. One of the smaller sections in the "X" is known as "Little Africa," the area where many black kids congregate. It's their space, and there apparently is an unwritten rule that others are not welcome. Some black kids refuse to sit in that section, saying the site perpetuates a stereotype.

"I personally do not sit there," says Keilah Johnson, 17, a senior at the school. "Most of my friends are white, so I sit with them. As to why blacks sit there, I would say it has to be comfort. It's human nature to (want to) feel comfortable."

Still, even Johnson has found the urge to flee to "Little Africa" a few times when friction overheats and kids are forced to take sides. She doesn't recall exactly what prompted the occasional unease but says it usually stems from "little racist arguments."

She says, "I found myself being pulled closer to 'Little Africa' because when I looked at my (white) friends, they would go directly to the white side. It doesn't even matter what happened. It was white and black, and I would end up with 'Little Africa.' "

Johnson is recounting this incident before an interracial group of students discussing race and education. The last incident, she says, carried over into the next day when nearly all the black kids reportedly came to school dressed in black. But not Johnson.

"I wore orange," she says, and all the kids burst out in laughter.

A Matter of Comfort

Others students say Johnson made a good point in explaining that students sit together because it's more comfortable. Most who heard her story saw nothing wrong with kids sitting together based on race or school interests.

But that doesn't mean outsiders feel welcome, says Carlton Wilcoxson, 17, a senior at Ladue High.

"You have the rich, preppie kids, the sports kids, the Asian kids -- everybody sits with their own group," he says. "Honestly, I feel that I could sit at one of those tables, but I wouldn't feel comfortable. That's not to say I'm not cool with them. I really am. We can hold decent conversations."

Still, many students, like Julia Moskowitz, another Ladue senior, feel unasy about such seating arrangements.

"You go into the cafeteria, and the tables are pretty segregated," says Moskowitz, 17. "I feel that if I were to go sit at an African-American table, I would be (stared) at. I really want to. That's a problem with my friends. We're so judgmental about where we sit."

Matt Kincaid, a junior at Tufts University, says the group probably wouldn't be having a conversation about separate tables if the phenomenon didn't involve African-Americans.

"It's interesting that we (blacks) get asked about it all the time," he says. "Why is this question asked about black kids? When white people are all together, people look at it, they see it, they don't question it, and it's not a problem."

A Psychologist's View

Still, the question of why blacks tend to sit together is far from a trivial one. Beverly Tatum, a psychologist and president of Spelman College, made the question the title of a book on race about a decade ago and got plenty of royalty checks for her effort.

Tatum says black students don't start out sitting at the same table.

In racially mixed elementary schools, children from diverse racial backgrounds mingle freely, she points out.

Among other things, she suggests, things change when children reach puberty and begin to focus on identity. For many black children, that identity includes racial identity. Black youngsters tend to see themselves in the context of race, Tatum argues, because society generally thinks of these children in terms of race.

Like Fort Zumwalt's Johnson and most other students, Kincaid says blacks in a white environment find comfort in sitting together.

"I go to all-white classes; I'm taught by white professors. I feel like 'the other.' When I go to the cafeteria and sees someone who looks like me, let me have the opportunity to connect with the culture that I don't see everywhere. I'm going to sit with a group of people who don't treat me like 'the other.' "

Many Kids Get Along

On the other hand, many youngsters like Johnson at Fort Zumwalt West High say they have developed so many friends across racial lines that where people sit in the cafeteria isn't a big deal.

"I interact with a lot of people and have friendly relations with all of them," says Ariel Shifter, 16, a junior at Parkway Central. "I learn about people from different backgrounds, and I share my experiences with them. People from different racial groups tend to stick with people in their own group. If that's what people feel comfortable with, fine. But I'd like to see a little more mixing."

Nalini Daniel, 15, a junior at Parkway North, says students "kind of mix together, but you definitely can see some of the cliques, and sometimes stereotypes come up a little bit. That's a little bit annoying, but it's not that everyone thinks like that, just a few people."

Parkway Central gets a pat on the back from Matt Schwartz, 15, a junior, who says, "I can think of no better place to see a real melting pot. People tend to get along. But one thing we need to work on is to integrate the tables and maybe there should be more programs (to help students) learn about and accept others from different cultures."

Schwartz says being a bass player in the orchestra and in a jazz combo has led him to make many new friends. Music, he says, "helps us have a common interest and connection."

Another Parkway North student, Martin Zenk, 16, a junior, isn't sure that race dictates where kids sit and how they choose friends. Instead, he argues that people get together not so much as a matter of race but as a matter of who they grew up with. He suggests that many students bused to Parkway from St. Louis stick together because they enjoy being with people with whom they grew up.

"They feel more comfortable with them than with a bunch of kids from Maryland Heights," Zenk says.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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