When I tell Seattle folk that I'm a recent transplant from the Deep South, one of two general reactions typically occur. The first is an empathetic nod and a pat on the shoulder with "Yeah, man, me too. Don't all these passive-aggressive West Coast pricks drive you mad?" And the second, more common reaction is a disparaging forced smile and a slight eye twitch, carefully concealed immediately thereafter, as if to say "Now that I know I'm speaking with ignorance manifested, I'll try to keep my composure until I can find a way to evade deep conversation."
As I drove across the country a few months ago with nothing but the shit I could fit in my tiny car on my way west, I got to see and study the social climates of some of the USA's most defining cities—New York, D.C., Chicago—but what stands out to me still is the time I spent in Milwaukee.
One toothless laborer I met in a bar there boasted that Milwaukee is "among the top three most segregated cities in America," and indeed, my aimless walks around the city's various neighborhoods revealed abrupt shifts in culture every few blocks. The wealthy (almost entirely white) folks lived in small mansions looking over the city's (almost entirely nonwhite) slums. At the risk of sounding like a liberal arts student, I thought "Christ, this place is an embodiment of our entire nation's social and racial situation."
The northwest, though, is different. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I got here, because if you say "Seattle" in most of the South, folks tend to look at you like you said "Cambodia," so far removed is its progressive culture.
The truth is, what I've found here is hardly any different than hellish Milwaukee. The west coast is no less racist than the rural parts of the Carolinas; it's just better at pretending to not be racist.
That's not a good thing. While I've suffered plenty of piercing glares from older black folks in the South who had likely seen a white man who looked a lot like me spray their loved ones with a fire hose in the streets, I feel a thousand times shittier here, because eye contact between myself and a nonwhite individual seldom, if ever, even occurs. He or she treats me as though I were invisible, and I, failing to make any human connection, reluctantly do the same.
That's not any one person or institution's fault, of course. I cannot pretend to speak from experience, though I imagine that if I'd been the lowest common socioeconomic denominator through no fault of my own, I'd be a bit spiteful toward lily-skinned pussies who, despite sitting pretty atop nearly every undeserved boon, still find something to complain about—my coffee is too cold; my phone sucks—I'd be in a state of almost constant anger; anger which might boil, in time, into resentment, then hatred, and, finally, disillusionment. I would resign myself from the impossible "American Dream" I was taught to believe in, and transform into something resembling a pure self-preservationist, knowing well that my culture is not designed to catch me when I fall unless I were to magically wake up tomorrow as some narrow suburban honky.
In sum, the question is not "Are Seattle schools racist?"—the question is "Is America, even in its most progressive parts, rife with ignorance and separatism?" And at either rate, the answer is a resounding YES.
But where do we go from there? I, for one, am no seer, no strategist, no sage—but I'll offer this: See yourself as a cell, an integral and irreplaceable part of a larger organism called society. Now, what if you were to make a supreme effort to be honest with yourself about what you take for granted? Who knows, you might just mutate—evolve, even—and maybe, just maybe, you'll start to infect other cells with your new brand of compassion until the whole damn organism starts to learn how to heal.