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By Kellie Parkin

I read an eye-opening book a few years ago called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations on Race. Though our schools may be largely integrated now, thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of many during the Civil Rights Movement, segregation – in smaller forms – is alive and well.

A pattern of self-segregation, author Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, can be found beyond the local school cafeteria in lunchrooms across the country. It’s time for straight forward conversations on race, Tatum proposes, and to do that we must openly acknowledge and talk about our racial identities.

I attended the tremendously successful Suwannee River League of Cities Dinner last Thursday night at the Cedar Key Community Center. And now I pose the same question.

Why were all the black people sitting together at the dinner?

In a room full of more than one hundred bright, highly educated, highly informed, highly competent people from across the Suwannee River Basin, why was the room so segregated?

I expect more from the area’s top leaders, public officials and business representatives.

I was troubled by another component of the evening as well. After cocktails, a meeting opened with the pledge to the flag and a prayer to God, followed by the song “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River” where people sang about their “longing for the old plantation.”

At least it was the cleaned-up version. No “darkies” here. I guess that’s progress.

How do you balance a tradition of racism and exploitation with a renewed sense of awareness and tolerance? Keep the song, change a couple words.

So was it a casual choice? Or was is it a deeply ingrained, habitual custom for the five black attendees to assemble together at that table?

Or is true integration overrated and not always necessary? Out of the eight people at that table, three were white, and so on a very small level, they were entirely integrated.

At least they weren’t in the back corner, I told a friend later. Progress. Then again, I thought, they were sitting at the closest table to the kitchen. Perhaps I am reading too much into this.

They sat there so they could be the first ones to the mullet, my friend said.

I was speechless.

And for the record, it was the white people who rushed the food tables when it was time to eat. The supposed “mullet-lovers”? They were some of the last in line. I was there, I took pictures.

It’s time to move beyond the prejudice, beyond the racism, and beyond the stereotyping. It’s time to sit together – time to eat together. We share this beautiful planet. Isn’t it time we get to know each other?