Meet Chantel Williams. She is 16 years old, reads Edgar Allan Poe and sings in her church choir. She’s in Honor Society and wants to be a pediatrician.
Chantel considers herself shy, but she draws attention at Central Valley High School, where 88 percent of students are white and barely more than 1 percent are black.
And while Chantel said she doesn’t experience much intentional hostility, she lives with stereotyping. Some classmates are surprised she’s not particularly athletic, that she’s bookish and that she’s taking dance.
“Some of the kids at my school feel like if I’m black, then I should talk … all slang-type words,” she said. “Instead of saying ‘hello,’ they’ll say ‘wassup’ or ‘yo, wassup.’ They want me to say it back, but I just say ‘hi’ or ‘hello.’
“I just wish I could say that just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m like all the people you see on TV and the music videos.”
Instead, quiet Chantel has the opposite reaction. “I just try to hold back and … just go on with my day,” she said.
Chantel, a CV junior, sits at the most integrated cafeteria table in third lunch.
“We were just talking about that the other day, how there are two white people, two black people, two Mexicans, and we don’t have a problem with each other,” said Sean O’Donnell, also a junior.
But “some people are just really negative about it,” he said. “Some of my friends, they’re like, ‘Why do you sit with black people?’ ”
Emilie Page, a sophomore, said she sometimes hears other white students make rude comments about minority kids. And one day last year, she saw a white student “drop-kicked” by others who were black – an act she thinks was racially motivated.
Page said she doesn’t dwell on the fact that her friends include some who are black, Hispanic and white. Her mother encourages the friendships, Page said, and recently joked that the only thing missing is friends who are gay.
O’Donnell said that in his American literature class they talked recently about the reasons various immigrant groups arrived in America at different periods in the nation’s history.
“There’s one black kid in our class and we sort of joked around about it,” teasing that their ancestors made the choice to come to America, while his had no choice, O’Donnell said. “He’s fine with it.”
Does the lunch gang joke among themselves about race? They all grin slyly.
“We do make fun of them,” says Xochilt Pena, looking across the table at O’Donnell and Page. Pena – whose first name is pronounced “SO-she” – appears ready to tell a story about one such joke when she stops abruptly. “No,” she says, “We don’t really do that.”
Some of the others snicker.
Pena, a CV junior, was born in California. After moving to Spokane Valley when she was 15, she noticed that clerks would sometimes follow her Spanish-speaking family through stores, watching closely as they shopped.
“My mom would say, ‘Don’t worry about that. You’re too young to worry about that,’ ” she said.
It still makes her angry.
Williams thinks that she and Pena are so close because they’ve had similar experiences.
Although she’s lived most of her life in Spokane Valley, Williams visits relatives in Georgia and Louisiana, and has visited southern high schools attended by cousins. There, she didn’t stand out – neither did Pena in California.
That’s why Williams wants to attend a southern university for the education she hopes will lead to medical school. It’s not that she wants to leave white people behind, but she’d like to be near more black students.
About 21 percent of students in all southern colleges are black, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. That compares to about 3 percent at the University of Washington, which Williams says probably will be her first choice if she can’t afford out-of-state tuition.
Halfway through her high school career, Williams sometimes wonders whether she’d be happier at Lewis and Clark High School. That’s the school attended by so many of her friends at Bethel AME, a predominantly black church where her mother works and where she spends most of her waking non-school hours.
Central Valley has the lowest percentage of black students of the 11 traditional high schools in Spokane Valley or the city of Spokane, according to state figures. LC has the highest percentage, at just over 6 percent.
“I feel like I could be real … connected with the people there,” she said. “I have more friends who go to LC than to CV.”