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What it means to be African American at Minnehaha

Nearly every morning before the bell rings, the balcony above the empty gym echoes with shrieks and laughter. A group of friends is huddled in the corner sharing jokes, hugs and reruns of “last night’s game.”

Most of them share one other thing: the color of their skin.

While Minnehaha is full of integration, some feelings ofseparation are apparent.

Representing a racial minority in a predominantly Caucasian school, each African American student at Minnehaha must establish their own identity and discover how they relate to the student body as a whole.

For junior Jose Williamson, being black provided him with an immediate identity when he first got to high school.

“When you don’t know where you fit in, you gravitate to people who are similar to you,” Williamson said, remembering the first time he hung out by the gym. “That’s how it all started. We already had something in common with being African American.”

But Williamson said he relates to his friends about more than just skin color. “In most cases, we come from similar backgrounds,” Williamson said.

“We’ve had different experiences than most people at Minnehaha have been exposed to: urban, predominantly black communities.”

In contrast to Williamson’s view, Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris believes that friendships are rooted beneath the commonality of backgrounds; relating to someone comes down to the core of their character.

“At the end of the day, people connect with people who are similar to them, not in the way of ethnicity, but who have the same values,” she said. “Whether they’re white, Hispanic or Asian, deep and abiding relationships are about people who fill your bucket because of their values.”

Whether the friend group by the gym was founded on shared backgrounds or common values or both, senior Jake Richardson refers to it as a “comfort zone.”

Although Caucasian sophomore Terra Rhoades, who has close friendships with her African American teammates on the varsity basketball team, she explained that her natural ‘comfort zone’ is with other friends.

“Everyone has their own little spot, it’s just where [you] feel more comfortable,” Rhoades said.

Senior Christen Majors explains that although she shares the same skin color with the people by the gym, she does not find the same comfort within that friend group.

“They should hang out with who they feel most comfortable with,” Majors said. “That just so happens, for me, to be with other people who don’t happen to be African American. I’m the black girl who hangs out with the white girls, not the black girl who hangs over by the gym.”

Majors continued: “I think it’s mainly because I came here in eighth grade and the group of friends that I have now have been the group of friends I had in eighth grade.”

Attending Minnehaha since preschool, sophomore Isaac Rose has similar reasons for not spending more time with African American classmates.

“I’ve grown up in this predominantly white school and I think that’s part of the reason why I don’t hang out with more African American kids,” he said. “I’ve grown into the whiter culture and that makes a barrier.”

Rose and Majors discover that these cultural barriers affect their social interactions with other students.

Diversity Director Paulita Todhunter emphasizes that these barriers also affect the way students view themselves.

“Developing your cultural identity really determines how successful you can be in a white setting,” Todhunter said. “Because if you’re not anchored in who you are, you start to feel bad about yourself, or let other people define you.”

Junior Maddie Smith encounters these pressures in her racial identity everyday as she splits her time between her African American and Caucasian friends.

“I’m not just one race. My mom’s mixed and she makes sure that my brothers and I know that we are a fourth white and we bring that out, and we know that we are three quarters black and we bring that out as well,” Smith said. “ I feel like when I’m with my African American friends, they’re like ‘she’s not black enough’ and when I’m with my Caucasian friends, I think to myself that I’m not white enough.”

Todhunter explained, “It’s like walking a tightrope; maintaining your cultural identity while also being able to speak the language of the majority.”

Students are only able to gain this understanding of each other by developing relationships with all their classmates through integration.

Smith and Rhoades explain that the majority of integration at Minnehaha occurs in groups, rather than in individual settings.

“I think we’re very good [at integration] in the sense that we might not all be best friends but we all have relationships with each other,” Rhoades said. “We’ll do projects together, we’ll want to study and we’ll be friends in our sports, but we may not necessarily call each other up.”

Smith agrees: “If I’m at a party or at a game, I definitely see [integration]. But when it comes down to having a best friend, I don’t see too many African American and white people that are really close.”

This lack of individual integration may be caused because of racial misconceptions.

Though many African American students say that they’re generally comfortable and accepted at Minnehaha, and explain that they have lasting relationships with classmates of other races, many still feel misunderstood.

Richardson describes being misjudged on his first day of school, when classmates suspected him of being a basketball recruit.

“I told everyone I was from Kansas and they were like ‘Coach J recruited you all the way from Kansas?’” Richardson described, shaking his head. “Then people thought that I wasn’t as educationally gifted as anyone else, just because of my skin color. I had to prove myself.”

Richardson continued, “I feel like if you’re African American, you have to be good at a sport. But then if you’re good at a sport, then ‘Coach J recruited you to come play basketball.’ That’s what everyone seems to come up with in their heads. I wish people would see me more ofa regular student who’s just gifted at a craft that he put his heart and effort into.”

Freshman Neveah Galloway has experienced similar situations.

“People have said some comments like ‘black kids only come here to play basketball,’” Galloway said. “But I can do more than just play basketball. I came here to get a good education too.”

Other African American students observe that their classmates don’t approach them frequently.

“We’re just like everybody else if you get to know us, and it’s not that hard to get to know us,” Galloway explained. “I want to communicate with everyone. I go up to people all the time and say hi to them. If other people did that to us instead of us having to always go up to them, it’d be nice.”

Galloway addresses an essential step in integration. Barriers can only be broken when both forces make efforts.

“I think it’s two sided,” Rhoades stated. “It’s not like they choosingly approach me or my friends all the time either.”

“I feel like I have to branch out to them first,” junior Luke Johnson said. “But if you go up to them, they’re really nice.”

With both sides expressing the desire to be friends, the barrier that may be seen as a line drawn by color, may just be drawn out of social discomfort and miscommunication.

To break any existing barriers, it is essential for each group to step outside their spheres of safe feelings, to reach out and exceed their levels of comfort, to be a little awkward with each other for as long as it takes.

“To get to know someone, you have to push boundaries and get out of your comfort zone,” Smith expressed.

“We still have students who don’t feel comfortable stepping across racial boundaries, into what they think is different,” Majors continued. “But what they see as different is not really different, it’s just another human being.”

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About Sierra Takushi

As a junior, Sierra is a staff writer and photos/graphics editor for The Talon. She has a quirky fascination with slam and spoken word poetry and finds straight angle shapes (like squares) visually pleasing. Sierra enjoys exploring different types of writing and literature and likes to post her photography frequently on Instagram.

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