Seattle Skin: Being Black in a Liberal City
“Seattleites — white Seattleites — have long fancied themselves as being above and beyond racial prejudice,” wrote Crosscut’s Knute Berger about Humanities Washington’s event, “Seattle Skin: Being Black in a Liberal City.” And this belief, among other factors, may contribute to a “Seattle freeze” of a different sort: a reluctance to discuss race.
Seattle Skin, a Think and Drink event at Naked City Brewery and Taphouse, aimed to shed light on what it’s like to be black in an overwhelmingly white city—one that prides itself on its liberal attitude, but whose idealism may bury the turmoil under its “false veneer of progress,” as UW sociology professor Megan Ming Francis put it during the event.
The panel included Francis, author of the award-winning book Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State; Eric Davis, sociology faculty at Bellevue College and Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau member; Eva Abram, public speaker and Speakers Bureau member; and Charles Mudede, screenwriter, author, and editor at The Stranger. The event was moderated by Phyllis Fletcher, managing editor of Northwest News Network.
These excerpts are part of an hour-long conversation, and have been edited for length and clarity.
Eva Abram on the difference between prejudice and racism:
“Racism is prejudice plus power. That’s the enduring definition of racism. Somebody can be very prejudiced against you, but only if they have the power to keep you from getting a job or a house or something, that’s when it transitions into racism. Somebody can be very prejudiced and say hurtful things and tell you that you don’t have the right to do such-and-such, which they’re totally off-base on, but it doesn’t transition to racism. That’s the difference for me.”
Megan Ming Francis on the problem with being a “white moderate:”
“I think [the problem with Seattle’s approach to race] is that it’s passive aggressive. There is a veneer of racism that masks much deeper problems. Martin Luther King said that white moderates were the most dangerous. He says this explicitly. It’s not the white conservative racists that are dangerous, in part because [white moderates believe in] this false veneer of progress when it’s actually not progress. It is this pretense of listening when it’s not really listening. At some level, I know what to do when somebody is explicitly racist. I know where I stand. The problem that a number of civil rights leaders would talk about after Martin Luther King was that you didn’t know where [a lot of white people] stood.
“White moderates always wanted civil rights on their terms. It was always, ‘Wait.’ ‘Wait for these court victories.’ But we’ve been waiting a long time for progress. We’ve been waiting a long time for our humanity. A little bit of that touches on white moderates’ reaction to the Bernie Sanders protest, not just here in Seattle, but across the nation, where white people were like, ‘We are okay with a certain type of black agency, but we are not okay with this type of black agency.’ But if your support of black lives is dependent on a type of politics of respectability—that we should act in a particular way—then I am questioning your commitment to a racial justice struggle around black lives.”
Eric Davis on Seattle:
“Seattle has been doing the covert version [of racism] the entire time. Folks in the South, they just like you or they don’t. And they’ll tell you. […] Where I was born in Chicago, you knew where you could go in the city [to avoid discrimination]. We just need to own who we are here in the Northwest.”
Charles Mudede on his family’s strategy for dealing with racism:
“I was raised in a house where I was told that racist white people were stupid, and you should consider them stupid and just get on with your life, because they’re the lowest sort of people you can consider. I was taught to be a snob towards racism in my household. We didn’t really discuss it except as an unfortunate way that people think. I don’t think that’s a useful approach to the situation, but my parents were trying to figure out ways to survive under that condition. People have various ways of finding those solutions. […] I’m not saying that this is a kind of refrain for all solutions. It is just sad that people have to create these strategies to get through life to begin with.”
Eric Davis on being an ally against racism:
“If we are all part of the same body of society, if we are all going to be true allies to each other, you all have to see yourselves as part of me. You have to see yourselves as part of my children. You have to see yourselves as contributing to the greater good of all of us. If not, then you are just basically talking to soothe your own emotions and your own feelings.
“It becomes a challenge to say, ‘I could evoke my privilege, but I’m choosing not to.’ Yes, all lives matter, but in the situation that we have in today’s society, I’m begging you to look at the situation that’s going on and understand that black lives are being killed. […] Be an activist, be present, know thyself, and do what you can do. Own who we are in Seattle, work with who we are, what we have been, and where we want to go, and I think that will take of itself.”
Charles Mudede on how oppression is a broader human problem:
“One of the good things about Mugabe when he came to power was that he brought African history into the curriculum. And to our shock, we had to study and read about what had happened in the region before Europeans came, before white people were even known. And we found out it was not so good. There was a lot of oppression and a lot of struggle going on. I’m not saying that any [ethnicity] is better or worse; I’m just saying that a lot of people in this country aren’t taught that when you look at white supremacy, you are not looking at something that is canalized through history—meaning that it is not something you see as starting somewhere else and having these results here. You are seeing it almost religiously, and almost in a bizarre way, as if white people were special, which they’re not. They are not the first oppressors. In Zimbabwe you were not the first oppressors. You actually came in second—and you may have actually been better!
I’m just saying that when we hear these discussions about white supremacy, when we hear them said in front of Bernie Sanders, that we are actually talking about a deeper human problem. About how we oppress each other, no matter what the situation is. No matter what color the person is or what sex they are. This is a deadly problem, and I’ll tell you why. I came back to a country, in 1980, where we were told we fought the white oppressors, and that was really good enough. And it turned out not to be. Whoever is black here, it isn’t enough. Beating white people, it’s not enough. Because you’ll get black oppressors just as quick. I want all black people here to be cognizant of that. Because when you talk about white supremacy, you are really not tapping into the true potential revolutionary power that you, as a black person being oppressed, could access, you as a woman could access, you as a gay person could access. Because you’ll end up exactly where your oppressors are. I just say this: don’t give white people too much credit. You will end up exactly where they are.”
Eva Abrams on the importance of perspective:
“Some of you are here more to learn and understand—the majority of you—so you may not necessarily be an ally at this point. But you are here to learn, and part of that learning is to look within yourselves and to try to understand something about the racism deep within yourself. Then you will be able to capably explain situations to someone else and share your opinions. So it takes a bit of reflection on your own, some work on your own. This ally thing is not always fun. […] [But] you won’t have the feeling that I get when somebody looks at me strange, or as a loan officer looks at me because I am black. I don’t expect you to get that. You cannot have the same experience. But we here are intellectual people. You can understand the history. You can understand the visceral part of it in a way that you understand your visceral experiences. It’s not necessarily going to be the same as mine and it doesn’t have to be. But that is how we get to understand each other and all of our humanity. […] We are operating within a system that was developed throughout history. We are dealing with history in the present now. But we are also making history. We have the power to change the path from that racist system that we are operating in. We are in the process of doing that this evening. We have the power.”
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