Your Defensiveness Is Our Command: Talking About Racism in Seattle
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Oct 1, 2013 at 11:08 AM
Felicia Loud sang her song "More" at the Northwest African American Museum last Thursday. The seats soon filled up.
Sometimes it can feel hopelessly like Seattle's defensiveness about racism is on the rise. But on the flip side, it also feels like more and more organizers are rising up to do work addressing local structural racism in places like the school system, the police department, and microaggression at the street-and-office level. (Every time the words "that's not about race" are spoken in Seattle, an organizing angel gets her wings?)
Whether real change will happen is the most vital question to keep asking, and maybe it won't. There is a lot of power involved, and, as one black woman said at last week's conversation about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of George Zimmerman at the Northwest African American Museum, "We love having the progressives, we do. But white people aren't going to give up their privilege. Why would they? They just aren't going to." Rubber, meet road.
Still, be assured that nothing happens without direct talk about racial inequity across races and ages and classes—not just "diversity" potlucks and slogans, but attempts to understand how your experience in this city is determined by your skin color. The shift is from talking about race (fun times with ethnicity!) to racism: The darker your skin, the more likely you are to suffer for your skin color in Seattle, as in most other American cities and towns. Reasonable people can probably at least agree to that much, right? (If you feel you are a reasonable person and maybe new to this topic, hello! You might like this video or the recent short piece of writing "For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids.")
A couple notes:
1. Last Thursday's event at the Northwest African American Museum was unusual and raw. The museum created a room where people talked openly about Martin and Zimmerman in a mixed group (which required some seriously graceful leadership from Leilani Lewis and Sharon Williams). Admission was free and they served food. The crowd was mostly black folks of all ages. There were plenty of kids. My white stepkids had a scheduling conflict, but I wish I'd at least suggested we change their plans so they could come. Folks of all ages were eloquent as hell (and yeah, some weren't at all, as at every truly public event). What I kept hearing was testimony about the assumptions that accompany a black man as he walks down the street, assumptions passed down through systems that continue to reinforce hundreds of years of interlocking racist structures at every level of American society—assumptions that literally kill people. The term for it is "respectability politics." One man suggested maybe society could take a brief break at its nonstop habit of discussing "black pathologies," and instead consider "the white pathologies that have arisen from empowered whiteness." Thanks to the museum and to everybody who was at that event.
Included in Under My Skin is Naima Lowe's project Thirty-Nine Questions for White People, letterpress-printed beautifully on cards posted onto the wall in a neat grid.
From Olympia artist Naima Lowe's project Thirty-Nine Questions for White People, on view at Wing Luke.
The final museum exhibition I want to mention opened this past Saturday. It's at Pacific Science Center, of all places. I haven't seen it yet and have no idea about its quality or contents. But given a workshop I attended last week for schoolteachers led by the Race and Social Justice Initiative (I volunteer at a school), thousands upon thousands of schoolkids are going to this thing. For instance: ALL of Washington Middle School.
The exhibition is RACE: Are We So Different?. It was organized by a science museum in Minnesota and has been traveling the country for a few years. (Has it changed at all?) It's in Seattle through January 5.