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Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Pushing the Racial Dialogue in Cincinnati by Tifanei Moyer

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.

This article originally appeared in UrbanCincy. Reprinted with permission.

12 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati
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12 Responses to “Pushing the Racial Dialogue in Cincinnati by Tifanei Moyer”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Based on my experience as a Cincinnati resident of almost 5 years now, this sense of ‘minding your own business’ is dead on. Within the several local tribes, the freedom of expression and interaction is suprisingly well respected but any attempts to communicate between groups results in a quick closing of the ranks not far short of the balkans or Middle East. ‘Good fences make good neighbors’ might as well be Cincinnati’s official motto. But, ironically, I don’t think this is necessarily a complete hinderance to community development efforts. If interactions between each group are handled as very formally structured diplomatic negociations between ‘sovereign’ groups around specific clearly defined issues, I think Cincinnati has and can continue to make its own model work. It may never be Chicago, but I don’t think it will ever be Detroit, or even Cleveland, either.

  2. Neil Clingerman says:

    A bit off topic, but still related to the problems that Cincinnati faces.

    Today city council is going to vote on a zoning change today that will destroy superb architecture in one of its own neighborhoods replacing it with most likely vinyl sided suburban garbage in the form of Student Housing to support the whims of a developer who just doesn’t get it.

    If you have visited Cincinnati and love what you saw, but wondered why it wasn’t so well known, please write city council as soon as possible and let them know just how unique the city is, and how wrong it is to allow the destruction of some of its fine old buildings:

    roxanne.qualls@cincinnati-oh.gov, laure.quinlivan@cincinnati-oh.gov, jeff.berding@cincinnati-oh.gov, chris.bortz@cincinnati-oh.gov, cecil.thomas@cincinnati-oh.gov, amy.murray@cincinnati-oh.gov, charlie.winburn@cincinnati-oh.gov, wendell.young@cincinnati-oh.gov,
    mayor.mallory@cincinnati-oh.gov, citymanager@cincinnati-oh.gov, leslie.ghiz@cincinnati-oh.gov

  3. George Mattei says:

    I also unfortunately noticed significant racial strain in a city that has many assets, both in my work there and in visiting family in the area (I live in Columbus).

    Interestingly, Tifanei does have two quotes that somewhat surprised me (I’m white) in the fact that they bothered her. I am bringing this up for the sake of dialogue, and because the author seems to value dialogue on the issue. They were:

    -The comment by the guidance counselor-She says the graduation gap at UC is “alleged”. Is this a true statistic? If so, what’s wrong with urging those that might need help in succeeding? Maybe it’s that she was successful and did not want to be lumped in with those that were struggling, and understandably so. However, if there is a distinct trend in minorities not graduating, is there harm in working to help them? I would like to better understand the specific issue with this comment.

    -The comment about a white friend being beaten up. My experience in race relations is that the two (or more) sides are coming at it from totally different viewpoints. This is the root cause of the issues. Having said that, yes, white people are often afraid of black people. That’s a statement of fact, not a justification. When there is a race riot like there was in Cincinnati, the fears are going to go up on both sides. I can’t say that this is fair or right, but factual. Wasn’t the black community fearful and angry after the young unarmed man was shot in the back? I understand that the riot is not a justification for the often poor treatment of minorities, if that’s what the intent of the commenter was, but it does explain some of the continuing tensions and should be taken as an honest sentiment, in my view.

    Disclaimer: I am not passing judgment on what happened in the shooting or the riot afterwards, just pointing out that our views of how the events play out are often shaped by our fears, and these fears need to be discussed and understood to move forward.

    My point in bringing up these two items is to say this: discussions around race are uncomfortable. Everyone is going to have to come to the table, hear things they don’t want to hear and try to understand why people feel the way they do. Both sides are often a bit indignant when the other side brings up certain topics in certain ways, but we need to hear them.

    I am glad Tifanei had the courage to write this article. People need to hear it. I hope she can try to step into the shoes on a few of these comments that to me don’t seem quite so egregious, while I will try to see her point of view. Maybe I’m right and maybe not, but that’s not as important as discussing them.
    .

  4. Neil says:

    I felt that the problem in Cincinnati went both ways. While Chicago (my current home) is known as the most racially segragated city in the country, I always feel that the environment in regards to race relations is far less hostile here than it was there.

    I lived in a neighborhood that was a mix of college students, hospital workers, and black working class people. The racial tension was very high in the neighborhood, and I always felt uneasy.

  5. Neil says:

    Also this is a bit off topic, but still of interest to those who feel that Cincinnati should be and can be far more than it is.

    To give some background, Corryville has been torn apart by developers for a long time, where student housing has been built in place of the very elegant architecture that Aaron has talked about before on this blog. For more details take a look at this story from urbancincy:

    http://www.urbancincy.com/2011/03/potential-corryville-demolition-up-for-livable-communities-hearing/#comment-18866

    And write city council voicing why you think Cincinnati is a unique city. Extra props if you are an out of towner who writes them and think Cincinnati is special and the city doesn’t get it. Email addresses to write are in the link attached in the comment section.

  6. Tifanei says:

    George – You make wonderful points. I want to explain that my quotes are just to point out the different experiences that illustrate my point of view – there is a lack of race related dialogue that exposes a truth. It wasn’t my intention to communicate that all of the examples are bad or that people weren’t justified in their sentiments (although sometimes it it could be both).

    I think it’s very important for people to know the graduation rates for minorities and even more important to find affective ways to change it for the better. But its fact reflects the city it’s in and our larger society that supports it.

    The riot comment that stuck with me – I could probably write a book about my thoughts on it from different perspectives. I hope one already exists.

  7. scott says:

    I grew up in Cincy and lived there until age 20. Unfortunately, what Tifanei says is all too true. My relatives drop the “n” word in casual conversation without batting an eye. There is palpable hatred across the spectrum. The deeply embedded racial grievances are incredibly corrosive to the spirit of the city; I could never imagine living there again, which is too bad.

  8. John Morris says:

    “While Chicago (my current home) is known as the most racially segragated city in the country.”

    This may be true, but it’s also deceptive. Segregation today, overwelmingly isn’t just about divides within a city but between cities and their suburbs. Take the white black divide between Philly and it’s suburbs or at the most extreme between Detroit and it’s.

    At least in Chicago, one still does have people living in the same city, with the chance for grass roots neighborhood interaction and revival.

  9. I am very glad Aaron asked to share this post on Urbanophile. But I think it is important for everyone to realize that this is much, much more than a Cincinnati issue. It is often easy for people to put the fault or blame on one community or society, but there are problems all over America and the world when dealing with race.

    I can’t speak for Tifanei, but I would hope this conversation helps us push the racial dialogue further as a people instead of simply saying that one place or another has work to do. The reality is much work needs to be done everywhere.

  10. George Mattei says:

    Tifanei:

    Thanks for the feedback. Since I found most of the comments offensive myself, I assumed they were all meant to show offenseive comments. Looking at it through the lense of discussing race relations in general, I definitely see where you are coming from.

    Again, thanks for not being afraid to delve into a very sensitive subject! I remember being pretty indignant at what some of my relatives in the area were saying after the shootings and riots. We need a lot more of this dialogue to truly begin to move forward on race relations.

  11. George Mattei says:

    Tifanei:

    One more thought: I remember a comment from a black co-worker about 15 years ago that always stuck with me, which might be akin to the riot comments. He said that he sometimes was very nervous driving in what I would have seen as safe, affluent neighborhoods. I would not think twice about driving in Indian Hill, for example, an very affluent area that to me doesn’t seem to have many minorities in it. When I asked why, he said because he felt like his skin color made him stick out as a target. It hadn’t ever occured to me that someone might feel that way, and it really made me think about how our point of view shapes how we approach things. I still keep that in mind to this day,and it has helped me see things from a different perspective.

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