Up for Debate
There I was, once again, sending shockwaves through the city I call home. I was sitting in a packed house on stage at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District of Seattle. I, along with my debate partner, was discussing how the city’s homelessness crisis impacted our housed and unhoused citizens, drug addiction, culture, economy, and overall quality of life in the region. The crowd was in an uproar, all because of a comment I made regarding structural racism. The moderator asked me a question. The question was raised to me as if this idea was no longer up for discussion. It was an undisputed fact that everyone in the theater agreed on. I was asked my opinion about how structural racism impacted Seattle’s homelessness crisis. I countered, asking if structural racism actually existed in Seattle in the first place. We have a history of indigenous displacement and redlining that most definitely has had lasting impacts on our neighborhood demographics. But to make a blanket statement about structural racism in a city that was the first major school system in the country to initiate a desegregation plan and no history of African slavery should at least be questioned. I am always up for a spirited debate.
My challenge sent the crowd into an angry outburst. A crowd, that I might add, was majority white liberals. I sat there, the female, gay, POC, welcoming the wrath of my mostly white and privileged audience. One older white man was so angry with me that he went on to scream the definition of systematic racism from his seat. It was difficult to share my opinion on stage in front of hundreds of strangers, but it needed to be said. As a person who grew up in Florida, a state built upon slavery, a state with a storied history of racial segregation and one that had zero LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections in 2020, I think it is appropriate to at least debate where Washington State stands in comparison with the rest of the U.S., and to what degree race issues could be considered structural.
Being the contrarian at the table, or on a debate stage for that matter, is nothing new to me. Living in the very progressive city of Seattle means that I am often at odds with my neighbors about solutions to our modern-day problems. That’s because I am a right-of-center libertarian—a political identity that I did not arrive at lightly. Couple my politics with being a mixed- race queer woman and you can imagine how I confuse and sometimes anger others in my community.
It’s never bothered me to be politically unusual because, well, I am unusual in every other way. I am also, at my core, a very curious person. Being different has allowed me to fuel my curiosity and engage in inquisitive conversations with all kinds of people, helping me grow my ever-evolving perspective about life. But sadly, I started to see a shift in people’s openness to civil debate some years ago, no doubt leading up to that explosive moment on stage in 2019.
There is no doubt in my mind that former President Trump’s destructive and divisive rhetoric lead to unprecedented political polarization nationwide. But what is more frightening to me is the lasting division I have seen creep into everyday life, even in a place like Seattle. Everything is political. Many people subscribe to the “You vs. us” attitude, pushing out any opportunity for thoughtful and challenging dialogue. This attitude traps us in an echo chamber, stifling social evolution, economic innovation, and the ability to simply be better as a community.
I began to see the first signs of dangerous groupthink not long after Trump was elected as President. In June of 2017, City Councilmember Kshama Sawant spoke up at a meeting to state that she didn’t have any Republican friends. This was a statement that garnered cheers from the crowd. Sadly, it was in response to the fact that both Republican and Democratic citizens in Washington state were speaking up publicly to support a different approach to incarcerating juveniles in King County. An opportunity for dialogue, debate, and finding common ground was instead turned into a moment for welcomed cheap shots. Fast forward to 2021, and this would be considered a mild incident if any.
When a person is labeled as the enemy simply because they want to propose different methods to the same problems, we are doomed to failure.
The growing societal schism pushed me to start writing publicly about my political views, getting published everywhere from The Evergrey to NPR-affiliate KUOW. The response has varied. Some people feel it’s their duty to tell me I am so naive I don’t even know I am being oppressed by society. Some have accused me of carrying internalized racism and homophobia. Others, though, have been so fascinated by my unorthodox views they have invited me out for cocktails to discuss further. That is where the magic happens. That is where true progress begins.
You see, if I could leave you with one single idea from this essay, it’s this: I truly believe that most humans share the same values. We all want a healthy society. We want our friends, family and neighbors to be safe. We want people to have access to housing, food, education and healthcare. Conservative or progressive, we all want this. I often use healthcare as an example. When I tell people I am not a fan of the Affordable Care Act or universal healthcare in general, they assume I don’t care about people who struggle to access affordable healthcare. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe that a different, more competitive and free-market approach to healthcare will both increase access and drive down costs. More importantly, I think the ACA misses the mark on what should be our ultimate healthcare goal: a country with fewer people suffering from preventable health conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure. But make no mistake, I believe all Americans should have access to affordable health care. Where things begin to fall apart is in agreeing on the execution. That is, how we create solutions. If we were all willing to come to the table with an open mind and in agreement that we want the same outcomes, the opportunity for collaboration and solutions would be endless.
I have many good friends who are progressive, as well as coworkers I respect and with whom I collaborate daily. My ex-partner is very progressive. Our hours of pillow talk debating the benefits of equality versus equity or the best healthcare system were some of the best conversations I had ever engaged in. But none of this magic will ever happen if people are unwilling to come to the table and engage in conversation. When a person is labeled as the enemy simply because they want to propose different methods to the same problems, we are doomed to failure. If the past four years are not evidence of this, I don’t what is.
Let’s all use the events of this past sixteen months as a catalyst for true self-reflection and an opportunity to hear the other side out. Let our goal always be to carry out the best solutions and not just for our side to win. Let’s make space for all in the discussion. Everyone deserves a seat at the table: women, minorities, queer folk. Even libertarians.
Mellina White is the founder of The Seattle Conservative and a writer on politics and culture whose work has appeared on KUOW and DapperQ, the popular queer style community.