This paper was prepared for a graduate school course on race and difference. In addition to learning to conduct ethnographical studies, I was invited to author an auto-ethnography exploring my own cultural upbringing. This paper has been modified for publication here.
A Story of a Farming Community Rooted in Soils of Racial Inequality
For four agonizing years in elementary school, I played the violin. Tedious practices were made easier by the companionship of my friend Alisha. Every off-key performance and music day-camp recital my parents sat through, Alisha’s mom attended too. Alisha practiced more than I did and was better at violin than I was. When my mother signed me up for Girl Scouts, our boisterous band of Brownies included Alisha in every friendship circle, singalong, and campout. We earned merit badges for crafts, horsemanship, and outdoor leadership; when it was time to sell girl scout cookies, Alisha always sold more cookies than I did. In high school, Alisha excelled in speech and debate, and when I joined the class my junior year Alisha and I cheered each other on through competitions and debates, state championships and her trip to win a national title in debate. Alisha was better at public speaking and thinking on her feet than I was.
Never close but always friends, in the odd way a small town can blur lines between familiarity and friendship, Alisha and I learned to apply makeup together, watched our first horror movies together, fought over a boy on one memorable occasion, and generally grew up together in a small town on the Great Plains.
Three years after our high school graduation, I was finishing college on scholarship when Alisha’s lifeless body was discovered naked and wrapped in a carpet on a river bank in Oklahoma.
I’ve grieved Alisha’s death and the loss of the poise and potential she possessed, but until graduate school stirred up deep conversations on systemic racism and my own internalized views on race, I’d never really considered the role that race might have played in the fact that I am alive and Alisha is not.
I am white and Alisha was African-American.
My ethnography project with an African American Baptist Church, a long conversation with my brother, and these tenderly remembered memories of my childhood friendship with Alisha made me realize in a new way how the family, community, and culture I was raised in was one of homogeneity, and the implications that had on the circumstances of Alisha’s death. My family culture is one of claiming to accept and embrace diversity but never inviting relationship with people who were different; of never acknowledging differences, in favor of hiding behind claims of colorblindness. I am from a family with no cultural memory apart from locatedness on the plains. No one in our family memory spoke fondly of a homeland or a mother country. I am from farmers who begat farmers who begat farmers until all we knew was dirt and harvest, labor and scarcity; no convictions, no religion, no politics, no passion- just survival. Occasionally a grandparent would speak of vague, sometimes second or third-hand memories of sharecropping and the Oklahoma land rush, of sons and daughters lost one after another to curable disease, farming accidents, and life in the American west. My people are careful, miserly with their money, time, and especially their hearts. My family tree is branch after branch of mothers scarred by mothers who were scarred by loss and by the betrayal of the violent and unfaithful men they too often found themselves bound to. My own parents wouldn’t dream of naming differences between our family and a family of color. My 95 year old grandmother wouldn’t hesitate to say that we were different and still finds it difficult to remember to refer to African American men as anything other than Negroes. This is the culture I came of age in.
The community my family has been located in for generations includes people who are racially different, which made me think for a very long time I had been raised very progressively considering my geography, but I now realize as a predominantly white american farming community, it must have been a difficult place for Alisha and her family, and the other 6-8% of our 10,000 person population that was not white. My neighborhood elementary school was diverse enough to have one or two kids from each major racial group and was also small enough that there was no choosing friends for any reason other than sharing recess with the same few kids for six years straight. That all changed in junior high when my neighborhood elementary school merged with the other neighborhood schools for a city wide junior high school. As most of the African American kids stayed with their friends from the primarily African American neighborhood elementary school, and began to speak and act very differently from my friends, I remember the discomfort of realizing that group was different. These issues escalated into High School. Under what I would now call out as a racist school administration, it often appeared that the African American students self-segregated into the classes taught by the single African American teacher on staff.
I remember vividly my outrage when, my Junior year of highschool, I- a student with about 12 college credits completed at the local community college by then- was told I’d need to take a remedial reading class taught by the African American teacher at the high school in order to acquire the extra English credit I would need to graduate a semester early as I was planning. I want to believe my outrage was purely the insult of being asked to take a remedial high school class when I’d already passed several college level English courses, but in retrospect the possibility of taking a class almost entirely comprised of “others”, both academically and racially, was likely nearly as troubling to me.
Alisha, having had the experience of attending a primarily white elementary school, seemed to me to move between worlds in junior high and high school. As I think about her now, I realize it must have been incredibly difficult for her to navigate race, identity, and belonging, but her enrollment in honors classes (sadly, made up of mostly white students) helped continue our friendship. My ethnography project involved visiting an African American Baptist Church. In finding myself welcomed into this community in a cultural and political season where my own awareness of my privilege as a white person has caused me to reevaluate the standpoint I view myself with. The combination of these experiences combined with tenderly remembered memories of Alisha have made me begin to consider her death very differently.
There was no media blitz or search parties formed when Alisha was reported missing. There was no public outrage when, 9 days later, a citizen discovered her mutilated body. And no one but her mother hounded police for answers when her murder went unsolved for eight years. Alisha’s killer was finally identified accidentally when police matched the DNA of a suspect killed in an unrelated police shootout to the DNA of Alisha’s killer.
Far from raging at the injustice of this story, most people in my community would view Alisha’s death at least partially as her own fault. She did make poor choices. For reasons I will never understand, after high school my gifted and eloquent friend found herself lost. She had a child and then became a single mother; she began using drugs. In desperation to provide for her child and her drug habit, she had moved to the city and began to work as an exotic dancer. It’s easy to assume that someone who makes those choices to put themselves in unsafe environments might bear some responsibility for the consequences- at least, that’s how my community seemed to digest the news. Eight years earlier when a pretty, white co-ed from my hometown was murdered the grief was palpable- and the almost immediate arrest, conviction, and resulting death sentence dominated local news for a year after.
Why didn’t the death of my friend prompt outrage and a cry for justice in my community? What community and culture based circumstances, pain, and challenges influenced the choices my friend made that put her in the path of her killer? Recent introspection makes me wonder if my community, 100 miles away at the moment Alisha lost her life, itself doesn’t bear more responsibility for her death than Alisha did. Maybe the community that didn’t give this brilliant young woman the same advantages that it would if her skin had borne a different color was more than Alisha could bear without the drugs that led, at least partially, to her death. I’m angry that my community wasn’t angry for Alisha. I’m angry that her death barely made a blip on the news. I am angry no one spoke for her. I’m angry I was too absorbed in my own life to bear the grief and outrage her murder warranted and ask these questions about my community and myself sooner. I’m angry that it seems so likely that if my friend had been white her story would be different. I’m angry that her mother is raising Alisha’s now 12 year old daughter in a community that really hasn’t changed much at all from the community that whose actions were complicit in the death of her mother.
Writing this paper in 2015 was the beginning of work within myself, that is still very much in process, to name racism and systemic oppression. I blog thoughts on this process occasionally at hopefromashes.com