Being Black in Seattle: Rewards and Challenges


“Seattle Skyline” (© Maureen Evans)






About 4 years ago, I moved from Prince George’s County, Maryland, (65% black) to Seattle, (66% white), the fifth whitest city (among comparably large cities) in the US. I’m white. My transracially adopted children, all adults now, grew up and still live in Prince George’s. My daughter, adopted from Ethiopia, is considering moving to Seattle with her daughter. We’ve given a lot of thought and discussion as to what this move could mean for both of them.

I recently attended a program, held at the Bush School in Seattle’s Central District, called “The Rewards and Challenges of Being Black in Seattle.” The talented Tonya Mosley led the program, which included a wonderful panel: C’Ardiss Gardner Gleser of Rainier Scholars, William Witt of the Seattle Police Department, Jonathan Cunningham of the Experience Music Project Museum, and Daudi Abe of Seattle Community Colleges. The program was part of the Bush School’s Intercultural Speaker Series.

In 2013, Tonya Mosley produced the powerful series “Black in Seattle.” Please take the time to listen to the series here. She used her interviews and statistics as a jumping off point for “Rewards and Challenges,” which proved to be energizing, sobering, and, I’d argue, optimistic.

IMG_7512At the “Rewards” program, Tonya encouraged an “unfiltered discussion of what it means to be black in Seattle.” I’m guessing 80% of the audience was white. While some joined in the discussion, most of the conversation was among the panelists and the black people in the audience.

Here are some of my takeaways. I’ve included some Background notes, including links to more information on topics that were briefly addressed at the program.

Yes, Seattle is filled with liberal, well-educated people. That may backfire sometimes, insofar as white, well-intentioned, bright people might view themselves as non-racist, but have no black friends, no interactions with black people, and thus do not know their stories, their truths, their individual experiences.

Gentrification plus issues of housing and affordability have resulted in many black people moving south of Seattle, to Auburn, Kent, and Federal City.

(Background: The Seattle Times in November reported that “While Seattle’s median household income soared to an all-time high of $70,200 last year, wages for blacks nose-dived to $25,700 — a 13.5 percent drop from 2012. Among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Seattle now has the ninth lowest income for black households.”)

Compared to the racism and racial incidents that have occurred in some other cities, Seattle could be seen as a better place to live. That, the panelists suggested, may be due to inertia. There remains a sense of isolation and alienation for many black people in search of a connection with others who look like them.

Seattle has a culture of not wanting others to feel uncomfortable. (This manifests at intersections where drivers gesture to each other “No, you go.” “No, you.”) The liberalism can be seen in our having a gay mayor, in legalizing marijuana, in “feeding free range chickens food from the organic compost pile,” as one black woman said. How could we then have a problem with race? Because, she said, white people don’t understand the realities of being black. The white people are tolerant and not overt racists, for the most part. But neither do they understand.

Panelist CC Gleser explained the challenge as a parent of a black child, when the Ferguson decision was announced. They’d talked about it in their home. Would white teachers (and most teachers across the US are middle class white women) understand how that child feels the next day in school, and what might be on his mind? And what is it like for the child when no one else looks like him in his classroom, but while significant race-related events are dominating the media?

One comment from the panel: “Who knew pre-schoolers could be expelled?” There was discussion of children suspended for “objective” reasons (drugs, weapons) as opposed to “subjective” reasons, such as attitude and disrespect. Black children are suspended in far greater numbers than white students in Seattle. Being a white ally on these issues, said panelist Daudi Abe, often means more than having “keyboard courage.” It’s white privilege that allows white people to choose to be offended at the daunting statistics. Who has to live with the stats in real life, and what is that like, for both parents and children?

(Background: Here in Seattle, “African-American students are suspended from school more than three times as often as white students from elementary schools to high schools. More than one-fourth of black middle schoolers have received short-term suspensions every year since 1996.” There is currently a federal investigation into this reality. More information from the Seattle Times is available here. Read about preschool suspensions here.)

Many of the black people now in Seattle are African immigrants. There have been challenges, panelists said, in Africans and African-Americans working together in Seattle, and I have heard that in other cities as well. Tonya Mosley said she had done some work on this issue for her “Black in Seattle ” series, and it needed to be a whole separate segment: a lot of complexity. There are discussions currently of creating an “Africa Town” in Seattle’s International District. I had the thought about how often Africa is referred to as if it were a country, rather than a continent of 50+ countries. What would Africa Town look like here?

(Background: According to the Seattle Times, “Seattle’s overall black population has held steady in number, at around 47,000. But the composition of that population changed dramatically with the arrival of a new wave of émigrés from Africa — particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea — who settled mostly in Rainier Valley. In 2000, just 13 percent of blacks in Seattle were born outside the United States. Today, it’s 30 percent.”)


“Rowers at Sunset” (© Maureen Evans)


Beyond any creation of an “Africa Town,” panelists and black audience members talked about the lack in Seattle of a black part of town, with restaurants and churches as there are in many other cities. There was an audible groan at the news that the Kingfish Cafe is closing, the latest of many black-owned, black-run restaurants to close. Having a “home place,” a gathering place with other black people where, as one black woman said, “I don’t have to explain my hair,” provides nurturing and sustenance that helps folks deal with the isolation and alienation.

(Background: I don’t know if the speaker was referring to this, but there is a children’s book called “Home Place,” by Crescent Dragonwagon. A white family hiking in the woods (Seattle!) comes across an abandoned home. The book imagines the black family that might have once lived there, planting daffodils and sitting by the chimney. If it was not the intended reference, now you know about a beautifully illustrated children’s book that does have some connection with this complicated subject.)

All of this gives you, I hope, a sense of the discussion. I haven’t yet mentioned everything that was discussed, such as policing and racial profiling, as well as the National Brotherhood of Skiers. This was a 2 hour program, and it was wonderful. It was real, as Jabali Stewart, the Bush School’s Director of Intercultural Affairs, said. “We heard things we liked, and things we didn’t like. And it was just a start. What are we going to do now?”






11 thoughts on “Being Black in Seattle: Rewards and Challenges

  1. This is really interesting, I love this post. I’m entering my senior year of high school, and I’m really considering applying to the University of Washington, Seattle. I think it’s a great choice for me because I want to go into Engineering, and the student life (from what I’ve heard) is great. The only trouble is I live in Maryland, and there’s no way I can make it out to Seattle to see the school for myself. As a first-generation African American student, being a part of a community that not only values, but celebrates diversity in terms of culture is really important to me. Is Seattle like that? And, I don’t know if anyone knows much about UW, but if you do, what have you seen at UW that might pertain to this subject? It can be positive or negative, I honestly just want to know before I make my decision. Thanks

    • I’m 25, student at Seattle U, I live here with my boyfriend and friend from the military. Seattle is gorgeous, it’s exciting & different, the weather is amazing & though it does rain quite a bit it isn’t every day. But Seattle is super expensive, overcrowded with a large homeless & tourist/student population, people are really nice but not in public, gentrification is pushing working citizens towards the outskirts, and yeah its not the dream I thought it would be. Now on top of all of that I am black (from all the U.S.) and it isn’t what you would think it would be; the cops are super chill and everyone is civil & stuff, but there is so much bs going on here. I feel like they changed what it was before I got a chance to experience the one I always heard about. It isn’t that bad but just think about it financially and how important having a family/feeling apart of a group is to you..

  2. My pieces of advice are to stay positive and open-minded! There are unpleasant people everywhere on the planet so that might not scare you! Wish you all the best when moving to another place!

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  5. Interesting about the program. I graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle in 1970. At the time, the school was 85% Black, the rest mostly devided between White and Asian (Motly Japanese Americans, or sensei–3rd generation). I was one of 4 American Indians out of 400 students at the school. I started high school in Tacoma at an almost all white school that had 2000 students. What a change when I moved to Seattle for my last 2 years! I have always had friends of all races, religions and politics so I hear a lot of differing beliefs/opinions. ANd many of my white friends think racism is over, I know it is not. Sadly. Most of those who think racism is over, are good, well intentioned people who would never ever think of themselves as racist or bigoted. And mostly they are not. But then some let things slip out that they believe about other races and I am shocked. And not shocked.

  6. This is very interesting, and I look forward to the next installment. I’m one of those well-educated, middle-class white people who hates racism. Forty-one years ago my then-husband and I adopted a black/Vietnamese baby with the best intentions in the world and not a clue about what our son would face, especially after we moved from a multi-racial city in Canada to the southern U.S. when he was five. I came of age during the Civil Rights era, when race relations were stark and volatile. It feels today as if we’ve entered a new era of working out the race question, one that is, I believe, despite Ferguson and recent police actions, of a different order. White people like me need to admit that good intentions don’t necessarily make for deep understanding. I really have no clue what my son’s life is like. Oh, I know the facts about his incarcerations and relationship difficulties and inadequate employment, but I don’t really understand the way a black mother would. I believe white people need to allow themselves to be instructed. We need to be in the audience, not on the panel. We need to listen, not pontificate. We need to recognize that we still have a long way to go toward being a society of racial equals. My oldest son, who is white, is married to a black woman. I am delighted to have that connection to African-American culture. When a white American marries, say, a Finn or a Swede or an Irishman or an Italian, everyone says, Oh, how interesting. Tell me about Sweden or Ireland or Italy. It should be that way when a white American marries an African-American. We should honor each other’s culture, be open to learning about it, celebrate and embrace it. As I say, we have a long way to go.

    • Really important perspective here, Pam. You’ve had a lot of valuable experiences, and I appreciate your sharing them. I love the fact that you are open to learning and evolving, an ongoing goal for me. And yes, listening can make a huge difference. We have to talk with each other, not over. Thanks.

    • What a fascinating comparison….’when a white American marries a Finn (?) or Swede (?)…tell me about Finland and Sweden’ so when a white American marries a black American what country do they discuss?? Is there such a thing as white american culture and black american culture? So you want to be ‘instructed’ by your daughter in law? Suppose she just wants to just love your son and not have to lecture on ‘African American cultural studies’ every time she sees her mother in law…you want to be in the ‘audience’ she must be on a ‘panel’ each time she sees you?..that is basically what it boils down to. Instead of looking at black people for answers about their lives, why not look at yourself and your fellow white person and try to figure out why you guys are so damn racist. What is the white man’s problem? Why are white people racist? Where does it come from? What is the psychology behind it?

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