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.
At 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.”)
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?”