A few days ago, news broke that Issaquah High School students used social media for ongoing racist attacks against the rival basketball team of Garfield High School. According to a police report, they taunted students on Twitter and Facebook and by text message using derogatory language like “nigger” and “monkey” and saying things like “checkmate was when Abraham Lincoln made the mistake of freeing you.” They also circulated a photo of a female student of color next to an image of Chewbacca. I have to say I’m not surprised. Since moving to Seattle nine months ago, I’ve been called a nigger on the street on Capitol Hill. Just last week, a woman shouted at me from a passing car that I should brush my hair (I have an Afro). Seattle doesn’t want to believe that we have outward bigotry or explicit racism like this happening, but we do, and it happens every day.
I spent a lot of time at Martin Luther King Jr. events in January and Black History Month events in February, and one thing was clear—we could all be better at addressing how we talk about racial inequality. Even at events specifically organized to address racial inequality, I saw black professionals and professors being cut off as they spoke by well-meaning white liberals who thought they had the right answer, and people of color being blatantly ignored while saying what they needed. So what can we do as a culture? Here are some ideas off the top of my head:
1. White people should stop speaking for everyone. This isn’t to say that you should never talk about the social issues you’re interested in, but stop taking up the slack for minority voices and instead recognize that the bigger problem could be the lack of minority voices in that space. And for god’s sake, if there are people of color in the room speaking from experience, don’t speak over them and qualify it with “I think what you mean is…” You need to know when to shut up.
2. On the other hand, go where your voice is needed. Do you feel really strongly about fighting against racism? Don’t just grab the closest brown person and unload your feelings onto them. I was at Trader Joe’s recently, and a woman stopped me in the aisle to tell me how badly she felt about racism in the city and how happy she was to see me shopping there. It was really awkward. You know what would mean more than talking to the black people at Trader Joe’s? Talking to your own friends and family. We appreciate your efforts to let us know you’re passionate about things that affect us, but it’s not productive to be put on the spot as a representative of one’s entire race. Also: Sometimes racism hits closer to home through jokes, pop-cultural references, and slang that slips by without comment. Stop preaching to the choir, and instead talk to that friend of yours—or that high-school student you know—who thinks it’s okay to use the N-word pejoratively because he heard it in a song.
3. Don’t assume what people of color in your community need—ask them. Sometimes we don’t care about the things you think we care about. We’re also not connected through a hive mind, and we don’t always feel the same way about every issue. If you’re ignoring my first bit of advice and speaking out for people of color anyway, at least stop assuming you know what is important to us. If you’re talking about something that is going to directly affect people of color, like a housing initiative in a specific neighborhood or a school-board decision, maybe you should talk to some of the people who will be affected and get their take on it before assuming you know what they feel.
4. Pay attention to how racial inequality works in our schools. Despite having magnet schools and programs like the Rainier Scholars that work to diminish academic segregation, school is still the first and often most important way that people feel the brunt of racial inequality. We know that the kids testing into AP programs are usually white—what is Seattle Public Schools doing to address this? Can you go to one of their regularly scheduled community meetings and ask? Don’t assume that schools have problems with race under control: They’re battling a bunch of bureaucracy that has nothing to do with race, and it’s really easy for people and issues to fall through the cracks. Keep paying attention to where kids feel like they’re being sold short, especially if you want them to feel like they’re just as much a part of this city as you are.
5. And here’s what not to do: Don’t be discouraged if you sometimes get it wrong. Listen a little bit more, get used to being a little uncomfortable sometimes, and keep reminding yourself that this isn’t the kind of race you can actually win.