Personal perspectives on race, part 1
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2009 - Ever move seats in a classroom, in church or a coffee shop? Moving away from that usual spot seems simple enough, but it can a little disorienting.
It takes a while to settle in again.
From that side of the room, everything looks different than it does from this. But that's the benefit of moving seats, right? To see what other people see.
When the Beacon sent out a query on 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.
And with the stories they told, we got to move into seats all over the room.
Here, we share some of those stories, from a black woman who saw a Middle Eastern man refused service, to a white woman who refused to inherit her family's prejudices. It's worth noting that a few people we talked to later had second thoughts and didn't want their stories to be included. And they're not. Talking about race isn't easy, especially when what's said is personal, and we understand that.
For the people who did talk, they all have their own perspective, and we hope after reading their stories, you'll understand those perspectives a little better and see how things look from there.
Emilee Murphree and Chris Spencer posed for the cover photo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Go section, touting the best places in the city to kiss.
Then, the newspaper came out, people freaked out and anonymous comments lit up the paper's website.
"Haven't read the story but dont (sic) like to see blacks and whites kissing," one reader wrote.
"There will be people calling to cancell (sic) their subscriptions to the Post when they see this picture," another reader wrote. "Not everyone accepts these relationships, not everyone approves of these relationships..."
Murphree and Spencer (she's white, he's black) met in college and moved here a year and a half ago. They didn't expect the reaction the picture got, and they certainly didn't expect the message they were getting.
Then, the couple got another surprise.
Like the P-D comments, these came from strangers.
"I don't know you, but after reading about the reactions to the photo taken of you and your boyfriend kissing I wanted to reach out," one woman wrote on Murphree's Facebook page. "I am a 20 something living in Chicago, and when my parents were married it was still illegal in several states. My mother is black and cherokee and my father is white. When I was younger I was desperate to see families like mine portrayed in the media, so even though I don't think this was the original intent, thank you both for posing for the photos and being so open."
"I read the article in the Post today and I just wanted to say the important thing is that you two are happy and it doesn't matter what some bigot thinks. I wish you both the best," a man wrote.
In St. Louis and the vast, faceless world online, Murphree and Spencer have learned there are people who can't get past the differences in the couple's skin color.
But they've also learned that those strangers aren't the only ones out there, and their message isn't the only message out there, either.
"I think I saw a story about you in the paper," a man wrote on Murphree's Facebook page. "If you were in the paper, I think you and your boyfriend make a nice looking couple. I just wanted to send you this to let you know that you have friends in St. Louis."
THE ROOTS OF RAGE
The irony is, Perez Maxwell is the peacemaker, the kid who, in 6th grade, pushed back against his classmates for giving the new girl from Haiti a hard time.
How would they feel, he asked them, if they were in her country?
But Maxwell grew up, and every morning for a while during the '80s, the black St. Louis man found himself watching "Shaka Zulu" for half an hour as he got ready for work.
He was building up his rage.
For three years, Maxwell worked as an intake officer in St. Louis County. He was up for a promotion to become a social worker with two other white colleagues. Those two were promoted, and when a third spot came up, Maxwell figured he was next.
Upset, he approached his manager, who laid it out.
"He felt that I was too black and radical."
But why? Maxwell had decorated the office for black history month with photos of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. He was told to remove the photos. His ears were pierced. He was told to remove the earrings.
Then, the promotion passed by.
Maxwell's bitterness started to bubble. The peacemaker in him fell silent.
And so every morning, as he brushed his teeth and washed his face, he watched clips from a movie that made him feel black and radical, just like they thought he was.
ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN
Since she moved to St. Louis almost seven years ago, Kaori Mitchell's been treated pretty well.
Maybe, during college in Florida, the Japanese woman met with prejudice and assumptions because of who she was. But in West County, she and her husband, Aaron, who is white, have mostly fit in.
In fact, the worst assumptions she's found here have come from herself.
A year and a half ago, Mitchell took her smart, sensitive little girl to day care. Hannah was 1 and a half. Really, nothing new happened that day. They'd been to the day care before. They knew the teachers and the staff.
But for some reason, Mitchell felt like she needed to explain herself.
"I think I have been always over conscious of my race," she says.
So, when she took Hannah to school that day, she said to one of the teachers: My little girl is half-Asian. She may look a little different.
The teacher surprised Mitchell with her response.
"It doesn't matter," she remembers the teacher saying. "Race doesn't matter."
Mitchell was so concerned about how people would perceive her family, she realized, that she assumed other people would be concerned about them, too.
But the teacher wasn't. And, she added, all little kids are the same.
Now, Hannah's 3. She has a baby brother, Kai, who's 1.
And instead of explaining who they are to the rest of the world, now, Mitchell puts her time into helping her children figure that out for themselves.
PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE
On a summer day 50 years ago, Patricia Peeples sent her sons fishing in Forest Park with their great grandfather.
When she went to pick them up, he was roaring mad and ready for her to have a little talk with those boys.
What's wrong? she asked him.
"They don't watch their lures," she remembers him saying.
What do you mean? she asked.
"Well, there were some little n----- kids and I tried to tell them that they would steal their equipment."
Why do you believe that? she asked.
"Because they've done it to me before."
How do you know? she asked.
He'd seen it, he said.
"Do you think every little child that's black will steal your equipment?"
"I don't want to take any chances," he told her.
Peeples' father and grandfather were prejudiced, she knew that. She'd grown up with it, and she'd grown up thinking it didn't make any sense. People were people.
In her family, though, the men were always right.
But not this time.
Peeples wasn't letting her grandfather teach her children to hate like he did.
From now on, she didn't want him telling them things like that, she told him, she didn't want them to grow up thinking that way.
"I don't think it's right."
Her two aunts were in the room, and they were pleased that she was fighting back. Her grandmother kept silent, afraid to tell her husband how she really felt.
Her grandfather was aggravated. Still, as far as Peeples knows, he never said anything racist to the boys again.
And, she says, she doesn't remember if he ever took them fishing again, either.
THE FAMILY PICTURE
Frederick Tuttle has a portrait of his family -- his wife, their two daughters, their son, their children's spouses, their six grandchildren and one great grandchild.
It was taken in 2001, just in time for the Tuttles' 50th wedding anniversary.
It hangs in the living room and shows a picture he never quite expected.
Tuttle, who is white and 79, grew up in Arlington, Va.
He remembers Ethel, the family's black maid, who'd sometimes babysit Tuttle, his sister and brothers. When she did, her boyfriend would come along, and he'd play hide and seek with the kids.
Tuttle can't remember much about the man now, but he knew he was fun; and even at 5 or 6, he knew his experience with that man made it difficult to believe other things that were said about black people.
"It was hard to imagine his waiting in the weeds to hurt us," he says.
Tuttle grew up and married Brucie Miller. They moved to St. Louis in 1955 with his job at McDonnell Douglas and had a boy and two girls.
Then, their two daughters went on to marry two brothers. Those men are black. This was before and just during the beginning of the civil rights movement, but Tuttle wasn't concerned about his sons-in-law's race.
Mostly, he wanted them to be happy.
His children had children of their own, and now the Tuttles have great-grandchildren.
The different colors of the faces in his family photo aren't something Tuttle thinks or talks much about.
That's his family.
To him, how they look is not as important as who they are, and, like with Ethel's boyfriend long ago, the only way to discover that is to get to know them.