Excerpt: The Stranger On White Privilege In Seattle


White people in Seattle are more likely to own rather than rent. White people are more likely to have health insurance and a job. White people are more likely to live longer. White people are less likely to be homeless. White people are less likely to hit the poverty level. White people are less likely to be in jail. White kids are nine times less likely than African Americans to be suspended from elementary school (in high school, it’s four times higher; in middle school, it’s five times, according to the district’s data). Nonwhite high-school graduation rates in Seattle are significantly below white graduation rates—even if you’re Asian, regardless of income level.

And then there’s the white Seattle police officer beating “the Mexican piss” out of a guy. The white Seattle police officer punching a 17-year-old African American girl in the face. The Seattle Police Guild newspaper editorial that called race-and-social-justice training classes “the enemy,” “socialist,” and anti-American.

Not that racial experience is monolithic. It’s not black and white. But it’s real. And across all measurable strata, white people in Seattle have it better.

Yet nobody is racist.

The 2010 US Census data led to reports of Seattle being the fifth whitest city in the country—reinforcing the perception of this place as a white place. But if you look at the actual numbers, 66 percent of people in Seattle identify as white, which means that one in three people are not white. That’s not a white city. It only seems like a white city when you’re in, say, Ballard or Wallingford or Fremont. If you walk the street expecting every third person you see not to be white, well, then you’ll see how weird it is to be in Ballard or Wallingford or Fremont, where almost everyone is white. If you walk the street in Rainier Valley, the opposite is true.

“In Seattle, there’s really a small amount that you have to do to be labeled a hero of diversity,” says Eddie Moore Jr., the Bush School’s outgoing director of diversity, who describes Seattle as “a segregated pattern of existence.”

He adds, “It’s just that there’s really no real challenge to how the structure in Seattle continues to assist whiteness and white male dominance in particular. When you say ‘white supremacy’ or ‘white privilege’ in Seattle, people still think you’re talking about the Klan. There’s really no skills being developed to shift the conversation. How can we be acknowledged to be so progressive, yet be identified to be so white? I wish that’s the question more Seattleites were asking themselves.”
- From “Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race,” by Jen Graves

  • Caren

    As someone born and raised in southern Texas, living in Seattle for 5 years – I am still constantly surprised at the “progressive” racism. Echoing other posters here, it’s true – at least in the South you *know*.

    For example (and I know this could be an entirely separate conversation), when meeting someone who could be a potential romantic partner, I am constantly barraged with how much they like (insert R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap artist here) as a way of showing how “down” they are and how they could not possibly be racist.

    It’s even worse if you are Black and employed in the tech sector. For a group of people who pride themselves on being nimble and creative, it still brings stares when I walk into a room. No, I’m not here to get your lunch order – I’m here to lead your meeting. Sigh.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

    I read the comments at the article for some reason, it was really frustrating to hear how people talk about racism… so much deflection…I don’t care about if it hurts people’s feelings if they are called racist, or really any of this minor stuff. I’m in NYC and I see a city where depending on race and class people live in vastly different worlds: some worlds those of blacks, latinos, Asians, Native Americans, gay people, trans-gendered people, the disabled and others are filled with more PAIN and SUFFERING.

    I tried reading all the comments it was hard so many of them are so self-absorbed. Who cares if you personally have been identified as racist?  Why is it so important to say that it’s “really class” that causes the problems? It isn’t just “class” –just because class can insulate a tiny fraction of minorities from prejudice (but not completely) dosen’t mean that race isn’t one of the primary factors that prevents people from moving up economically and socially.  Don’t you give a damn aout the way that the construct of race and the privilege that goes with it is hurting people?  Saying it’s just class shuts down a critical conversation.

    • Anonymous

      You are very right.  And I would say that when you are just an anonymous black person moving through life, your socioeconomic status isn’t so obvious to people.   I can say that as an upper middle class black person, I’ve had moments when I’m treated like garbage.  And I shouldn’t have to flash my resume or credentials to get respect.  

      A lot of people just see black…it doesn’t matter how you dress or talk.  You get the full brunt of whatever racist beliefs someone has. I’ve been treated rudely by cops in black neighborhoods.  I’ve been treated rudely by salespeople.  I’ve seen white women grab their purses when I passed by, and I’ve had little kids hide behind their moms or dads.  

      Black is just black in many parts of daily life.  So it does matter what ideas people have about black people. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have so many cases of black men who more or less get killed for nothing other than being black.  It’s that whole shoot first mentality that isn’t applied to other ethnic or racial groups (except for perhaps Latinos).

      And honestly, some of these supposed progressives and liberals will still make gross generalizations and repeat ugly stereotypes about black people.  Or they’ll ask their “black friend”  why is it that black people do…” b/c you know, we all have those secret meetings when we decide how we are going to act.

      Pretending that the act of calling someone out for being a racist is a favored form of derailing honest discussions about race.  As you said, it is quite self-absorbed to make your hurt feelings more important than your racist actions and comments.  

    • Anonymous

      You are very right.  And I would say that when you are just an anonymous black person moving through life, your socioeconomic status isn’t so obvious to people.   I can say that as an upper middle class black person, I’ve had moments when I’m treated like garbage.  And I shouldn’t have to flash my resume or credentials to get respect.  

      A lot of people just see black…it doesn’t matter how you dress or talk.  You get the full brunt of whatever racist beliefs someone has. I’ve been treated rudely by cops in black neighborhoods.  I’ve been treated rudely by salespeople.  I’ve seen white women grab their purses when I passed by, and I’ve had little kids hide behind their moms or dads.  

      Black is just black in many parts of daily life.  So it does matter what ideas people have about black people. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have so many cases of black men who more or less get killed for nothing other than being black.  It’s that whole shoot first mentality that isn’t applied to other ethnic or racial groups (except for perhaps Latinos).

      And honestly, some of these supposed progressives and liberals will still make gross generalizations and repeat ugly stereotypes about black people.  Or they’ll ask their “black friend”  why is it that black people do…” b/c you know, we all have those secret meetings when we decide how we are going to act.

      Pretending that the act of calling someone out for being a racist is a favored form of derailing honest discussions about race.  As you said, it is quite self-absorbed to make your hurt feelings more important than your racist actions and comments.  

    • Anonymous

      You are very right.  And I would say that when you are just an anonymous black person moving through life, your socioeconomic status isn’t so obvious to people.   I can say that as an upper middle class black person, I’ve had moments when I’m treated like garbage.  And I shouldn’t have to flash my resume or credentials to get respect.  

      A lot of people just see black…it doesn’t matter how you dress or talk.  You get the full brunt of whatever racist beliefs someone has. I’ve been treated rudely by cops in black neighborhoods.  I’ve been treated rudely by salespeople.  I’ve seen white women grab their purses when I passed by, and I’ve had little kids hide behind their moms or dads.  

      Black is just black in many parts of daily life.  So it does matter what ideas people have about black people. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have so many cases of black men who more or less get killed for nothing other than being black.  It’s that whole shoot first mentality that isn’t applied to other ethnic or racial groups (except for perhaps Latinos).

      And honestly, some of these supposed progressives and liberals will still make gross generalizations and repeat ugly stereotypes about black people.  Or they’ll ask their “black friend”  why is it that black people do…” b/c you know, we all have those secret meetings when we decide how we are going to act.

      Pretending that the act of calling someone out for being a racist is a favored form of derailing honest discussions about race.  As you said, it is quite self-absorbed to make your hurt feelings more important than your racist actions and comments.  

    • Anonymous

      You are very right.  And I would say that when you are just an anonymous black person moving through life, your socioeconomic status isn’t so obvious to people.   I can say that as an upper middle class black person, I’ve had moments when I’m treated like garbage.  And I shouldn’t have to flash my resume or credentials to get respect.  

      A lot of people just see black…it doesn’t matter how you dress or talk.  You get the full brunt of whatever racist beliefs someone has. I’ve been treated rudely by cops in black neighborhoods.  I’ve been treated rudely by salespeople.  I’ve seen white women grab their purses when I passed by, and I’ve had little kids hide behind their moms or dads.  

      Black is just black in many parts of daily life.  So it does matter what ideas people have about black people. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have so many cases of black men who more or less get killed for nothing other than being black.  It’s that whole shoot first mentality that isn’t applied to other ethnic or racial groups (except for perhaps Latinos).

      And honestly, some of these supposed progressives and liberals will still make gross generalizations and repeat ugly stereotypes about black people.  Or they’ll ask their “black friend”  why is it that black people do…” b/c you know, we all have those secret meetings when we decide how we are going to act.

      Pretending that the act of calling someone out for being a racist is a favored form of derailing honest discussions about race.  As you said, it is quite self-absorbed to make your hurt feelings more important than your racist actions and comments.  

      • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

        Thanks for your response. I have had many of the experiences that you have had too. 

  • Minnie

    I was born and raised in the Deep South, but currently reside in Seattle. I didn’t believe it when people spoke of a hidden more sinister form of racism that in many ways is more lethal than the overt bigotry I witnessed back home. Having been here for a year, I have to say it has been difficult. Listening to co-workers go on and on about the  evil conservatives and in the same breath decry over the top cultural sensitivity and then go on and make fun of foreign names. Or talk about how they’re sure those group of kids in their neighborhood are most surely gang members and talk as if they are martyrs for living in black neighborhoods. Having to stand there with a straight face when you, the only non white person at your organization, are trotted out as proof of how much they value diversity, only to be tossed back into obscurity until the next time funders visit. To be offended everyday when your co-workers say her gurl in an exaggerated accent that you’ve never used. Watch new employees get extra help or trainings that you were never offered, while you on the other hand get brushed off when you ask for the simplest accommodations or clarification. All the while they tell everyone how much they just love you and how glad everyone is to have you. Leaving their progressive pride intact so they can go off feeling like they are just that, progressive.

    • kayj

      My father (who spent his first 20 years in the South) constantly says how he prefers the South because at least in the South the racism is direct, you always know where you stand.  He and my mother moved back down South earlier this year.

    • kayj

      My father (who spent his first 20 years in the South) constantly says how he prefers the South because at least in the South the racism is direct, you always know where you stand.  He and my mother moved back down South earlier this year.

  • http://geekmundo.net GeekMami

    This post was on point.  I live here and it’s very much like this.  It is very insulated and they think they truly are progressive but they are just as racist, although inconspicuously, as anywhere else if not more so.  I lived in Texas for 6 months, in a small town.  Never had any of the issues I have here.    

    • Tomás Garnett

      I am totally in agreement with Carl and the others. This is definitely a problem in NW cities, especially Portland and Seattle. I have never been called a racist (or homophobic for that matter) epithet until I moved to Portland, and I am from a conservative area of the South like some of the other commenters. It’s hard to know how to react to the sheer ignorance of many White folks in the Northwest and even more difficult to deal with their subversive racism. Is there an answer or solution?

  • http://robobtmcguiver.livejournal.com Carl

    This has been the dirty little “secret” (not a secret unless you happen to live there) about northwest cities.  I grew up in Portland, which is by any measure whiter and more self-congratulatory about its progressivism than Seattle.  I remember when NE Portland was known as the “black” area (meaning literally the only area in the city you might find a person of color, save for what’s now called the Pearl district downtown); then just N Portland (a smaller, farther out subset of NE); then nowhere within city limits.  It is one of the most segregated places I have ever seen, and over the years I lived there (from 3 to 23) I saw entire communities pushed out by increased rents and yoga studios.  This is not to suggest that race and economic status are inherently
    interchangeable, but in Portland’s case, the divide is glaring.  Gentrification is a complicated issue and there’s certainly some good that can come from it.  But the good’s only possible if old neighborhoods are invested in and enriched rather than displaced by the newcomers.  As neglected neighborhoods became “revitalized,” they turned white in equal measure. 

    As cities so proud of their liberal politics, Portland and Seattle need to face up to their failings.  The issue with both Portland and Seattle is not the ratio of whites to nonwhites, but hostile environment created by a clear class divide — a literal, geographic divide — along racial lines.

    • Anonymous

      I think you should throw San Francisco into the list even though it’s further south.  It’s black population has been vanishing since the early 70′s.  And trust me when I say that people down here love to pat themselves on the back for being so diverse, liberal and progressive.  No one ever seems to notice how much on the fringes or just invisible blacks and Latinos are.  They aren’t in the tech industry, they aren’t in the nicer towns, and unless you go to Oakland you won’t see more than 2 in a room at any given time.  

      It is truly nutty.  And yes, people have decided that it is only racist if it involves crosses and white hoods.  But having been raised in the South and having lived in the North East and the Midwest, I can say I like it least out here with all of these supposedly “progressive” types, or as I call them, “closeted” racists.

      • http://jasminllenadegracia.blogspot.com Jasmin

        Nicthommi,

        I always find myself nodding my head to your comments, and now I find out you live in the Bay too? :-)

        I moved to San Francisco from my hometown of Chicago last December, and I just moved to Oakland a month ago for work. The difference is striking, and anyone who says otherwise is on some bull.shit.

        Whenever people try that “progressive pat on the back” crap, I tell them that the most blatantly racist comment I ever had directed at me was on the number 30 bus in SF on my way to work when an old white lady told me she was glad to see me reading a book because she remembered when Blacks weren’t allowed to read.

        • Anonymous

          Too funny…and I got here last year from the Midwest too (but Michigan, not Chicago, although I used to spend a lot of time there)…

        • Lyonside

          ” because she remembered when Blacks weren’t allowed to read.” – Jesus. Did you commend her for being strikingly well preserved for a 110+ year old?

        • Lyonside

          ” because she remembered when Blacks weren’t allowed to read.” – Jesus. Did you commend her for being strikingly well preserved for a 110+ year old?

      • kim

        I lived in San Francisco for 7 years (and hated it for the most part) and everything you said is right on the money. It is the only city I have ever lived in where I regularly heard white people tell me “race doesn’t matter anymore” and if it does it’s only in those backwaters on the east coast (where I’m from) or midwest. I’ve also never seen so much cultural appropriation, hipster racism jokes and fetishization as I did there, all the while constantly patting themselves on the back fro being progressive.