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What is you? Look at race through different lenses and you'll see very different pictures, Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2009 - Seth Hairston stands on stage in a black T-shirt, black pants and a black vest. He's halfway through the scene he's written about his life as a biracial teen, and he's already been asked, "What is you?"

It's a question he gets all the time.

"I started to notice that people took a look at me and they knew all that they thought they needed to know," he says.

Hairston's 17, a recent grad of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School. He's fair, with thick black hair that falls across his forehead.

"My question is -- why?"

Ashley Guinn walks on stage. "Because we just want to know," says the white 17-year-old senior at Rosati-Kain High School.

"OK," says Hairston. "Why?"

"Because. The way you dress, the way you talk, you can't just ... be."

"I don't understand what you mean," he says.

"It's just that, some people are some ways, and other people are other ways, and everyone's just the way they are, you know. That's just how it is."


Hairston and the other kids in the Teens Make History program are from the city and the county. They're biracial, white and black.

Genetically, the differences between them are so small that scientists such as Alan Templeton, a professor of evolutionary and population biology at Washington University, say that while there are genetic differences among humans, they don't amount to the classification of races.

The lives the young actors live, however, differ greatly.

Reena Hajat, executive director with the Diversity Awareness Partnership, thinks most people probably don't know how similar we really are.

"I guess the question is, what good does it do us to know that?"

Other than for some medical conditions, so far, not much.

"The racism that's inborn in our society probably is still gonna be there, regardless of that fact," she thinks.

In other words, who we are might be essentially the same, but how we are is pretty different.

Nurture beats nature.

"It's a social pattern," says Teresa Guess, a professor of sociology at the University of Missouri St. Louis. "It's a habit."

Most people don't even think about it now, Guess says.

"When people define or perceive situations as real, then the situations become real in their consequences," she says. It's racialization, she adds. People are just acting out what they've been programed to accept.

And both Guess, a native of St. Louis, and Hajat, a transplant from Chicago, see that acceptance widely across the area.

"Just look at our neighborhoods," Guess says.

Or restaurants. When Hajat is out in other big cities, restaurants are filled with a variety of people. In St. Louis, the diners tend to be homogeneous.

"St. Louis yearns to have status as a world-class city," says John Baugh, Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences and the director of the African and African American Studies program at Washington University. "I think that there's a lot of positive things happening here that might lend support to that. But the racial composition of the city is really different than that of the other global destinations in the United States."

And here, if people are facing race issues, the discussion never gets too far past black and white, says Hajat, an Indian.

For the first few years after moving here, people often approached her at the grocery store and asked what she was.

"I'm not black and I'm not white," she says. "They're not expecting to see anything that's not black and not white."

St. Louis is more than that, of course. Take the Hispanic population here, for instance, which is categorized by a shared language rather than skin color. In Missouri, the total Hispanic population is 170,000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics make up 3 percent of the state's population. In St. Louis, Hispanics also make up close to 3 percent of the population, according to Pew, which based their numbers on the 2007 American Community Survey. That was a 34 percent change from 2000. In St. Louis County, Hispanics make up 2 percent of the population. That number was a 47 percent change from 2000.

From 2001 to 2005, 27 percent of population growth in St. Louis was due to immigration, according to a 2006 report from East West Gateway Council of Governments. Still, the majority of people living in St. Louis and St. Louis County are mostly black and white. In the city, 2.1 percent were Asian, and 1.6 percent were two or more races, according to a 2005-2007 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the county, 3 percent were Asian, and 1.2 percent were two or more races. In both places, no other group broke above 1 percent.

And so, if people are talking about race in terms of black and white, it tends to reflect St. Louis.

"I think it's very hard for St. Louis to get beyond black and white," says Nikki Weinstein, policy and community engagement director with Focus St. Louis. "And I think we need to work through our issues."

One problem, she says, is when other races are brought into the conversation, people tend to focus on them instead. Like with discussions about class, it's an easier topic than getting to the real issues in St. Louis, which do remain to be between black and white.

"If you really want to talk about race," she says, "I think you have to it hit head on."

"Some people are some ways, and other people are other ways, and everyone's just the way they are, you know," Guinn says. "That's just how it is."

She freezes, and the stage is Hairston's again.

"When presented in the wrong time and place, this question is enough to pigeonhole a person into a lifestyle they might not even want," he says. "I don't want that for me. I don't want that for anyone.

"I mean, why is this question still even relevant? It's so easy to say that a certain person is a certain thing and shelve them into a corner. But why isn't that same energy being put into understanding each other? To bring everyone together through their differences?"

He's quiet for a moment.

"I don't know. Maybe I'm thinking about this stupid question too much. Maybe people truly are just curious.

"What do you think?

"What is I?"

He sits at the edge of the stage, head down. And the audience watches, silent.


St. Louis gets dogged a lot because of racial issues.

But, c'mon, every city has issues, says Baugh. In his hometown, L.A., they're now between the black population and the Latino one.

"When people talk to me about how bad race relations are in St. Louis, I will say to them, 'where are race relations better?'" Baugh says. "A lot of these things are relative, and nobody has the magic bullet just yet."

Instead, here, there are many, many people working for change the old fashioned way -- one person at a time.

Take Bridges Across Racial Polarization, for one. The group, through Focus St. Louis, began 10 years ago and brings together small groups made up of people from different ethnicities. They meet four to six times a year, and some groups even meet monthly. Currently 450 people are involved.

There's the Community for Understanding and Hope, which first began after the 2008 Kirkwood shootings. Currently, the group has redefined their goals, and among them is cross racial interactions.

There's the Diversity Awareness Partnership, which promotes diversity through media campaigns, school programs and community presentations.

There's the YWCA's Racial Justice program, which offers a lecture series, films and local activities.

And there are many, many more.

In all of them, people get to know each other. Relationships can develop. People can change. And people, Weinstein points out, make up institutions.

In one major institution, UMSL, Guess has seen change in her classroom over time. Each year when she teaches a class on race relations, the students resist less, respond more and refuse to put up with racism when they see it.

"I feel hopeful about people, say, 30 and under," she says. "They're not buying it."

The kids in the Missouri History Museum's Teens Make History program sure aren't.

"Race relations here are, if I'm really honest, they're horrible," says Guinn, the senior at Rosati-Kain.

And while many have experienced or seen racism, they're checking themselves and their family members, too, from black grandparents intolerant of whites, to parents intolerant of gays.

"You can't hold grudges," says Michael Bates, 16, and a junior Cardinal Ritter High School.

"The first step is getting people to know what they're doing," says DeAnthony Farmer (whose photo, by Kristen Hare, is in the box at right), 18, a recent graduate of Soldan International Studies High School.

For these kids and others like them, Hajat would like to see some change from the top down, too, including more people of color in top corporate and leadership positions.

And since January, at least one man has done that nationally. The recent presidential election, Baugh says, changes things.

But maybe the biggest changes will come, not through the top or the bottom, but in redefining the argument entirely -- looking at things more the way those biologists do, as place, not race.

"I hate the word race," Guess says. "And every time we use it, we give it value and meaning. I am from the point of view that there is only one race. That is human."

Instead of classifying people by their skin color, she thinks, we should be looking at ancestry. So, she says, not white, but European. Not black, but African.

We look at where people came from, and then we try and understand how that makes them who they are now. It accounts for culture, food, religion, and all the other things that begin to help define people.

And, Baugh hopes, people won't just tolerate diversity.

"They actually start to become accepting of diversity."

In that world, people will probably still ask Hairston what he is. But the intent might be different.

And maybe, if they were trying to understand him instead of simply classifying him, he wouldn't mind answering now and then.