News Politics

Pushing the racial dialogue in Cincinnati

[February is Black History Month. Over the course of the month UrbanCincy is attempting to share some stories of individuals from Cincinnati’s robust black community. The good, the bad and the ugly. Last week Alex Schutte discussed what it was like to grow up half-black. This week, Tifanei Moyer shares her thoughts about the racial dialogue in the Queen City -Randy.]

When I think about my experiences in Cincinnati in the context of the dark hue of my skin and kinkiness of my hair, a reel of uneasy experiences plays through my mind:

“You should have a better sense of humor,” my boss told me once after making a joke about people that are black.

“I’m glad I’m not black, because I like my good hair.” My roommate once informs me while she watches me struggle in the mirror with my locks.

“My brother has never dated a black girl, but he has dated trailer trash.” A coworker laughs. She only gets uncomfortable and confused when I ask her about equating the two.

“You’re a shoe-in. They need more black people to represent them on the other side of town.”

“The University of Cincinnati doesn’t graduate one out of three of their incoming freshman of African descent.” A counselor urged black freshman to use tutors to even the alleged graduation gap.

“She calls black people nigger all the time, Tifanei. Like it’s nothing! I don’t know what to do.” A friend (not from Cincinnati) told me about a native Cincinnatian that she roomed with.

“Tifanei, the GM is racist, everyone knows it. There is no way he’s going to let them hire you unless you want to be a ‘busboy’ or a bouncer.” A friend whispers to me at the door at a popular establishment downtown. “He wouldn’t even serve the UC football players until I promised him they were athletes.”

“During the riots my friend was just walking downtown and black people beat him up; he was just minding his own business!” A friend tried to explain the stemming of racial tensions to me.

“Why would you date a white man? Are you tired of black men? Did someone do something to you?” A black colleague confronts me after I introduce him to a boyfriend of the time.

I can’t say I’m a native to Cincinnati. I lived there for four years (18-22) and it’s honestly the longest I have lived in any one city. But while I lived there I never met anyone who denied Cincinnati’s pride and just the same, not a single person denied the segregationist structure that many prideful(!) Cincinnati communities embody.

Even with the substantial African-American Cincinnati history, it’s in my humblest opinion that the segregated communities noticeably affect the consciousness of race related issues and identity.

People will tell me that the “racism” I experienced was just ignorance and not in any way a representation of Cincinnati. But that’s just not true. When you grow up in a community where integrating with people who don’t look like you is not valued, then it affects how you identify and interact with others as an adult.

For a long time I felt that Cincinnati didn’t want to be “burdened” by any anecdote of race. But I started to realize, as I engaged more conversation, many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.

As I started to learn more about black history in America, it became my nature to probe people around me for their opinions. I had probing conversations with a lot of Cincinnatians who identified as being white. They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.

I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career. I witnessed many of same people, myself including, silently struggling with their identity, because they were trying to understand the difference between “success and failure” versus “suburbs and urban areas” versus “white and ‘other’”. These are not easy conclusions to come to when homogeneous communities with clear socio-economic distinctions are what’s accepted. Cincinnati is where I began to understand how the notion of beauty is affected by having so much pride in a homogenous community, especially when one community is considered more successful and educated than the other.

I know I’m mostly a nomad at heart, but I fell in love with Cincinnati for many reasons – those reasons had nothing to do with race. The heartbreaking lack of racial-consciousness in Cincinnati will change, it has to, but it will take more than just hope. In my opinion it’s going to need a shift in values towards heterogeneous community building and a collective effort to address an individual responsibility that defies race. All hues of human color have to accept responsibility for the reality that we maintain by just “going about our business”.

It’s very, very hard to sum up a large and somewhat ambiguous topic, like being black. But, if I have to, I want to end by saying two things: 1)These are my very personal experiences, I am not Cincinnati, but my experiences are real. I don’t blame people I met for anyone’s struggle with beauty or success. I don’t think that one neighborhood is right or wrong about their interpretation of race and what it really means for someone’s livelihood. 2) I have lived in a lot of different cities around world. Cincinnati’s segregation is unique in a lot of ways, but it’s not unexpected in the framework of the U.S. There are many cities that claim to be successful, but are disturbingly segregated at the expense of their youth and social growth. I know all of the powerful minds behind UrbanCincy are influencing the changes of that.

News Politics

Growing up half-black in Cincinnati

[February is Black History Month. Over the next few weeks UrbanCincy will share some stories of individuals from Cincinnati’s robust black community. The good, the bad and the ugly. This week, Alex Schutte shares his story about growing up half-black in the Queen City -Randy.]

Cincinnati’s history has long been shaped by the ethnic makeup and cultures of its inhabitants. Some of the biggest contributors to Cincinnati’s history and culture have been African Americans and German Americans. I embody this history, quite literally, as I am half-black and half-white. My African American mother, oldest of ten, grew up in the projects of Cincinnati, while my father grew up in a German Catholic family in Finneytown.

Navigating the world as a biracial child can be tricky. While I grew up within a very loving family, sometimes it was difficult to figure out where I fit in to the traditional American racial dichotomy. I could never be white but I was never black enough. Most white people assumed I was 100 percent black until they saw my father. American society has always followed a “one drop” rule for classifying individuals as black if they had any ounce of African ancestry. On the other hand, many black people thought I must be mixed with something because I had that “good hair.” I eventually began to self identify as black, although I never denied my father’s blood.

Over the years I became more and more proud to be black, seeking out more information about black history and the story of blacks in America. It turned out that I was living in a city that has been highly influential in shaping the history of African Americans – a city whose history is intertwined with the lives of many African Americans who have struggled for equality and freedom.

Youth and School
In grade school we learned of Cincinnati’s role as a border town between a free state and a slave state. Our river town played a key role in The Underground Railroad, serving as headquarters to abolitionists, white and black, helping slaves escape across the Ohio River to freedom. I learned the names of important historical Cincinnatians such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Levi Coffin, and John Rankin. Years later, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center would be built along the banks of the Ohio River to recognize and celebrate Cincinnati’s vital role during this period of time.

Growing up within the Cincinnati Public School district allowed me to meet and befriend others from all walks of life. At a young age I began to see a pattern in the neighborhoods kids said they were from. Kids that were from Hyde Park, Anderson and Madiera were white and had money. Kids that were from Bond Hill, Avondale and Walnut Hills were black and had no money. I grew up in Kennedy Heights, so I was really middle-of-the-road. There was a sizeable black population, but I didn’t live in the middle of the hood either. I felt like I could tell my black friends I lived in Kennedy Heights, aka “K-Heights!”, and get their approval, but still be able to tell my white friends where I lived without them being scared to come over.

When it came time to choosing a high school, there was only one clear choice – Walnut Hills High School. This was by far the best traditional high school (I’m excluding School for Creative & Performing Arts on this one) at the time within the Cincinnati Public School District. I was either going there or my parents would pay to put me into Seven Hills or a similar school. Fortunately I passed the entrance exam and was accepted into Walnut; however several of my grade school friends did not pass. Instead of Walnut, my black friends went to Taft, Woodward, or Withrow. While my white friends’ parents paid to get them into private schools.

Even the mighty Walnut Hills was not safe from racial tension though. Looking out into the lunch room you still saw segregated social groups. Once I got into honors classes I became separated from several of my black friends from grade school. I observed shades of what I refer to as segregation, although I never saw any explicit racial conflicts or anything close to the law-mandated school segregation of decades earlier.

A History of Tension
I’m a mid 80’s baby, so I didn’t get to experience Over-the-Rhine’s Main Street in its heyday. However I can vividly remember my cousins on both sides telling tales of going out and having a blast on Main Street. Main Street used to be THE place to go out, no matter if you were white or black. There was a spot for everyone. And then there was the summer of 2001.

Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. At the time, Cincinnati had a largely white police force and had already experienced several clashes between police and the blacks in the community that year. The Timothy Thomas shooting was the proverbial straw that broke the black community’s back.

Over-the-Rhine and the center of Cincinnati erupted in riots, and a city-wide curfew was issued by then Mayor Charlie Luken. I was in high school when all of this was going on and I can remember how crazy I thought it was for an entire city to be under curfew. I mean my parents always had a curfew for me during the week, but now even they had a curfew! This was not Cincinnati’s first race riot. Cincinnati’s first was in 1829 when anti-abolitionists attacked blacks in the city. Riots occurred again in 1836, 1841 and later in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After 2001’s riot the city was in need of healing and dialog.

A Sober Hope for the Future
Our city is still recovering from the wounds of 2001 with some suburbanites still afraid to go all the way downtown. We are a city that never forgets and is slow to move on. We love clinging to the past whether that past is good or bad.

However, Cincinnati has come a long way since then despite all this. A new generation of Cincinnatians has embraced our city and its once forgotten central heart. This new generation has forgiven the city of its past and is willing to put the rest of this town on its back, dragging us toward our true potential. While I embrace the new development in our city center, and within its historic neighborhoods, I am sometimes torn as often times these new developments require the removal of lower income (mostly black) people.

In the second half of the 20th century, predominately white working-class families that had filled the urban core during the European immigration boom in the 19th century moved out to the suburbs. Blacks filled these older city neighborhoods. Putting myself in the shoes of these inner city inhabitants I’d say “Where the hell have you guys been? You moved out, I moved in, and now because you decide to all of a sudden care about this neighborhood again, you’re kicking me out and telling me I’m not good enough to live here?”

I hope the new generation of Cincinnatians will care about not only our city’s rich historical, cultural and architectural treasures, but also care about the people that have helped shape them and who have called them home over the years. Cincinnati can become the city that we want it to be but only if we all work together to improve the lives of everyone that calls our city home.