In response to the happenings in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri this week, it is important that we have a discussion as to why Ferguson, a small, predominately Black community on the edge of St. Louis City, is the epicenter of racially charged protests, which were triggered when Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer in broad daylight. Ferguson, like so many little pockets around the US, is now a symbol of the long-standing struggle between Black and White America.
Where Did You Go to High School?
When you first meet a fellow St. Louisian they will ask you this one question: Where did you go to high school? This seemingly innocuous question serves the purpose of finding out any surface-level related facts about your religion, financial status, political stance, and family legacy. This is just one example of how St. Louis is divided on so many levels.
Ferguson is one more example that White Privilege exists. It is real. It is rampant. It is evidenced by our racially divided neighborhoods and our schools. It perpetuates White Flight. It is the crux of White Apathy. It is the cause of generational racism.
I know because I was the white girl at Michael Brown’s school, and I was protected because I was white.
I was Protected Because I was a White Girl in an All Black School
In 1985 my parents moved from University City, where the prestigious Washington University is located, to Bel-Ridge, a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood just 3.4 miles from Ferguson, MO — the area where the world’s attention was focused this week when Michael Brown, the young man who recently graduated from Normandy High School, was murdered by police in Ferguson in broad daylight and whose killing ignited a long-overdue racially charged protest that turned violent for nights on end.
St. Louis is above the Mason-Dixon line but you wouldn’t know it. The KKK is still prevalent there and although people won’t say it to your face, there are a good many who don’t like Black people or Jewish people and will tell you so over the comfort of a beer at the local bar. Normandy, my old school district, struggled with violence, the result of systematic oppression, and the fallout of White Flight. My parents moved into the district naive of its struggles because they had struggles of their own. My family was part of the working poor class and getting a house on an FHA loan was our ticket to normalcy and our version of The American Dream. So we made the 10 minute trek across town to the other side of the “tracks” also known as Highway 70.
I spent first grade through eighth grade at the Normandy School District– the same district that Michael Brown graduated from in May of 2014. I was the white girl, and I was the minority.
Play Mamas & Double-Dutch
My elementary years at Bel-Nor and Bel-Ridge Schools were the positive culmination of the Civil Rights Movement– the practicals of Brown v Board in real life. We were happy Black children and white children learning together. I was protected from the gang-related incidents in and around school due to the fact that I, along with most of my white friends, were placed in an isolated, gifted tracking program. I was protected by my Black friends who showed their affection by assigning themselves as my “Play Mamas” and “Play Brothers and Sisters”, a title which meant that my older Black friends had taken me under their wing and “had my back” if anything were to happen. Not that I feared that anything would happen. I was cute, little, naive, and knew how to double-dutch like a champion.
When I graduated from Elementary to Junior High, life felt more on edge, especially during the Rodney King Trial and the LA Riots that followed after the white police officer’s acquittal. I stopped walking to school after I saw a kid get chased home by a group of known gang members. But I was still separated from the majority of my fellow classmates as all of my core classes were part of the gifted program. This meant that all of my main classes were small and racially mixed as evenly as possible, considering there were about 400 students and of those 30 were white. My school was filled with wonderful teachers who truly cared about their students but who spent most of their time breaking up fights in the hallway and in the lunchroom.
After visiting Normandy High School and seeing that they were installing metal detectors in response to increased gang violence, I decided that it was time to leave.
The White School Across Town was Better
The summer before 9th Grade I asked one of my former Normandy classmates and friends if I could live with her family. They had moved across town to Parkway School District, a predominately white and Asian part of town. I remember the phone call where I asked if I could stay with her family for the year in order to attend a better high school. It sounded more like I was asking if she wanted to go to the mall:
“Hi, Lydia. I don’t know what to do about High School. Do you think it would be okay if I live with you just so I can go to school?”
“Hold on. I’ll ask my dad.”
Her dad said yes and signed a Power of Attorney for me to attend the school across town. And so, at the age of 13, I packed up my Cover Girl magazines and Aquanet hairspray and moved to my friend’s house. Parkway North was just another 20 minutes west of Bel-Ridge, but it was a different world. Things were nicer. Suburbs were cleaner. And the schools were harder. Where I had once been part of a handful of white kids in Normandy, I was now the majority. Although I was deemed gifted and a straight A student in Normandy, I struggled to maintain a C average in Parkway. It was only years later when Normandy lost its accreditation that I realized my 4.0 Normandy GPA did not hold the same weight at the white school across town.
Ferguson is about the Deep Black v. White Divide in Our Nation
As I watch the footage of the riots and angst in my old neighborhood, I cannot help but think about my Normandy days and why I, like so many of my white and Black friends, moved across town to a better school. Yes, I along with most of my friends took part in what is known as White Flight, whereby a white family continues to move further away from a Black community and in the process takes their tax dollars with them to a whiter school district. I took advantage of my White Privilege.
Ferguson begs the question: Why are we, as a nation, looking the other way when it comes to White Privilege? Ferguson stands as a symbol for all the little neighborhoods across America where white privilege takes precedence over Black protection, safety, and justice for its people.
There is a divide that goes deeper than Ferguson. It is filled with pain and loss for our children who are senselessly killed because of the color of their skin. It is filled with tears for our families who can’t afford to move to a better part of town to receive a better education. It is filled with frustration because the neighborhood school is not doing its job of educating its students nor its community. It is filled with angst and fear that things will never change.
Being the White Minority Allowed Me to Feel Empathy for Other Minorities
I have since left St. Louis and made my home in Los Angeles, another racially divided city but one whose openness to breaking free from the confines of defining another by the color of their skin is far more progressive than my birth place.
But living in a neighborhood and being educated at a school where I was the minority for a change serves as my foundational empathy for the plight of others who are struggling. When I look back at my volunteer work as a FEMA Appeals Coordinator for Hurricane Katrina, my two years spent at the local Latino Health Clinic for migrant workers, or my chosen career path as a Special Education Advocate, it’s no wonder that I gravitated towards helping those who others turn away from because I, too, know what it feels like to be a minority. The only difference is that I am white and because so, I have a privilege that no other minorities will receive.
Let’s change that.
Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She dedicates this week’s blog to her fellow St. Louisians in hopes that we all begin to take a look at our part in the struggle that is Ferguson, Missouri.