Catriona White, BBC, November 1, 2016
In Orangeburg, South Carolina, white kids don’t go to school with black kids.
More than half a century has passed since American schools were officially integrated, but in Orangeburg there are two schools: Orangeburg Prep (OP), which is 95% white, and Orangeburg-Wilkinson (OW), which is 98% African-American.
Among the 2% at OW is Mykenzie Free. She moved last year from OP.
BBC Three followed her move to OW in new documentary, American High School.
For both Mykenzie and her mother, Linda, their unusual decision was about trying to make a difference.
Among the town of 90,000 inhabitants, Linda is a prominent figure. “I’m always doing these speeches about how Orangeburg should be more united,” she says.
Mykenzie started telling her mother they should practice what they were preaching, and became really serious about moving schools about a year before it actually happened.
“It was only when Mykenzie kept badgering me that it dawned on me–maybe I should be part of the solution, rather than the problem.”
The problem is the area’s ongoing racial divide, which goes way beyond the school halls.
One of the students describes the divide: “The town is split in half. On one side, that’s the hood. But if you live on the other side, they come pick your trash up and everything.”
Linda says, “We were raised in a society that had a lot of racism. Even if that was another generation, I feel like that’s still deeply embedded in us.
“It’s 2016 and we still feel that way deep down inside, whether we want to admit it or not.”
Linda backed her daughter’s desire to move schools completely, hoping their example would challenge the town’s status quo.
“I know there are parents in this city that need government assistance just to pay their bills,” she tells me. “All just so they can send their kids to a private, segregated school. That’s so sad.”
But, she says,“When I enrolled Mykenzie in OW, I had friends come up to me and ask, ‘what in the world are you doing–have you lost your mind?’”
Even Mykenzie’s stepfather had his misgivings (her real father had never been in her life).
“My husband wasn’t too keen on the idea at first. But he came around.”
Linda admits, “I did have concerns, too. I really had to face myself, realising I was worried she might be treated differently as a minority, or that she just wouldn’t fit in and be part of the culture.”
Mykenzie settled into OW and made friends easily. But being one of the few white faces in the school meant she stuck out.
In American High School we see her being stared at in the canteen. “It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me,” she says.
At one point, she angrily tells the camera, “It isn’t someone’s skin colour that makes them who they are. It’s about how they act and how they carry themselves and their morals and values.”
It’s an intriguing moment. Is she objecting to the prejudice faced by African-Americans? Or is she angry at being treated differently herself, as part of a white minority? It’s hard to say.
When Mykenzie turns 16 she throws a party, inviting her friends from OW as well as her (white) family members. It makes for excruciating viewing.
“That was a nightmare from start to finish,” says Linda. “I love my family dearly but they are–what you would say here–rednecks. Redneck country boys.”
A phone goes missing and Mykenzie’s aunt accuses the OW kids of stealing it.
Then Mykenzie’s uncle Jodie busts them smoking marijuana and pulls a gun on them.
“He was very upset,” Linda says.
“Jodie and I spoke about this afterwards. He should have allowed me to handle that. It’s my home.”
Linda describes Mykenzie as “mature beyond her years and not afraid to stand up for her beliefs”.
“I wish more people could be like her. She doesn’t beat to the normal rhythm of society. She beats to her own little drum. And her little drum sees the good in every situation. I don’t think a lot of us do that any more”.
Linda blames her own generation for perpetuating racial divisions in their community.
“Kids will always find a way to get on,” she explains.
“Before we started this, I thought it was going to be the kids that were going to be cruel to each other. But you realise it’s not–it’s the parents.”
As one of the OP girls puts it in American High School, “I don’t think my parents would like it if I had a black boyfriend, because they were born in a different time. But I don’t think it should be that way”.
Enrolling Mykenzie for a second year at OW, Linda hoped to see other students from OP that had followed their example. But there were none.
She has no regrets, though.
“As I say to Mykenzie, we can lay our head down on our pillows at night with a good conscience, knowing we did the right thing. And that means everything”.