I hear a lot of my transplanted white colleagues and acquaintances discussing how my city’s culture is ‘too white.’ This conversation is often coded in other terminology, through ascribing WASPy characteristics to the entirety of the city’s population. Seattle, some claim, is ‘passive aggressive’ or ‘cold’ or ‘politically correct.’ It’s ‘hard to meet people’ and the culture lacks ‘color’ or ‘authenticity.’ After a few months or a few years living in the whitest available neighborhoods, new Seattleites are already inadvertently reproducing and reinforcing the historical methods of segregation in our Town.
As a white native of Seattle, let me just tell it to you plain: If you do not see people of color on your block, at your job, or in your schools, it is decidedly NOT because Seattle’s population is too white. It’s because your block, your job, and your school are actively maintaining racial segregation.
The continued maintenance of segregation allows whites who move into the city’s whitest neighborhoods to see only a naturalized version of ‘separate but equal.’ That is, when segregation policies are successful, they themselves become invisible – as do people of color – to whites who stay within their ‘comfort zone.’ And thus it’s possible for someone a few miles away from the country’s most diverse zip code to bemoan the homogeneity of the city.
The policies of racially restrictive property sales contracts/covenants which were legal (all over the country, as per the Supreme Court) between 1926 and 1948 go a long way toward explaining the historical foundations of Seattle’s ‘white neighborhoods.’ You’ll notice that the most legally restricted neighborhoods REMAIN those in which one might get the impression that the city is very white. These boundaries were drawn by racist law, and are enforced by income inequity, imprisonment and disenfranchisement, the property-tax based education system, the drug war, repressive police strategies – and by white peoples’ continued willful blindness to the very existence of people of color in the city.
Good news! There are things you can do to counteract this phenomenon instead of complying with it. You don’t have to integrate a neighborhood all by yourself by moving there- in fact, please don’t. When you bring your non-local money and white privilege into a community of color, you throw off the balance by driving up property values and reducing the self-sufficiency of neighborhood. When locals are forced to cater to the tastes and habits of white people, they stop being relevant to their base and it becomes more difficult to maintain community strength. As we work towards the destruction of racist institutions, we need to recognize that people of color are doing for themselves, as they should. Their communities could use our support and allegiance, NOT our disruptive property-purchasing power or our paternalistic advice or our feelings of guilt or our self-serving demands for attention and recognition.
So go explore some of Seattle’s amazing neighborhoods, appreciate the struggles of their residents, and go back to your own community to work on transforming the institutions that enforce delusions of white supremacy. Go home to your white block and start asking your neighbors why they allow racial restrictive covenants to stay in their deeds. Go back to your white job and start asking why you aren’t hiring people of color or accepting their leadership. Go into your white schools and ask why your children are getting deficient educations because they are segregated from people of color. Look for ways in which you can reduce your own use of white privilege and your own complicity with racism. Trust – this is more constructive, much more difficult, and immeasurably more important than talking with your white friends about how much you wish you lived in a ‘diverse’ city.
Checking out the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is a great way to introduce yourself to the complexities and nuances of your new home.
They have a small sample of racial restrictions in deeds around the city:
If you live on Capitol Hill, take a little field trip: Walk just a few blocks south on 12th, or cut over the hill to 23rd and head south from there, or down the hill under the freeway overpass on Jackson. If you live downtown, walk through Pike Place Market early on a weekday, and ask the growers and vendors what neighborhoods they live in. If you live in Ballard, get yourself on a bus headed south and go to the end of the line. If you live in the University District, head up Lake City Way. If you drive, go to Aurora (Highway 99) and go either north or south. When you’re taking the light rail heading north from the airport, get off anywhere before Pioneer Square and wander around a bit. Go to Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Columbia City, South Park, the Central District, the International District – for starters. Take walks, buy stuff from local businesses, eat food, be friendly.
Big thanks to Larry Neilson for the use of his photograph of the Liberation mural at Seattle Central’s wood shop.