April 2018

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Our Fair City

Seattle's mostly white. It's all over the news. Seattle is the fifth whitest city in the nation. Portland is first. That's what the 2010 census shows.

Before bin Laden's death, Seattle's whiteness was the talk about town. Lots of responses to the census figures were defensive. After all, Seattle's progressive and liberal, and we like to think of ourselves above the muck of racism. Besides, we also have the most racially diverse zip code.

I'm not surprised about the finding. When I first moved to Seattle in 1991, I lived near the university and, though I'm white, I felt uncomfortable about all the white people. I'm from the South, and I'm used to seeing more color. I went down to the south part of the city to Helen's Soul Food kitchen to eat beans and rice one day, and to find black people. I live near near Helen's Soul Food Kitchen now, and I have for some time, but now a lot of the black people in my neighborhood are moving further south in the city again.

When I completed my teaching certification program for Washington State, an African-American woman in my program from Alabama told me how uncomfortable she felt in Seattle, seeing white people in her grocery store and all. She preferred the South: "At least you know where you stand there. Here I don't know if people are really nice or not real," she said.

I was born in 1964 in a segregated hospital in Atlanta, and I went to an all-white elementary school for first grade before busing integrated my schools. When I was in second grade and my school was integrated, Michelle, an African-American second-grader with thick, tight braids, came to my birthday party. Apparently, this was a surprise. The generation before me just didn't have people of another race into their homes. Times can change quickly, however, and I was surprised by the surprise.

One of my first surprises in moving to Seattle was how white the north part of the city was. Another surprise was that I heard people talk regularly about the prejudice in the South, as if prejudice were absent in the Pacific Northwest, and all prejudice had pooled in the land of my birth.

When I was first teaching in a town just east of Seattle, I walked into another teacher's classroom, a history class, looking for a student whom I needed to talk with one afternoon in 1994. The teacher, a white man who was blind, didn't see me walk in. He was teaching students about the southern part of the United States. He talked about how it was a place of prejudice and bigotry like that was the only thing that was there. I almost got offended, but when I noticed that none of the students were paying attention, I decided not to worry about it.

I love Seattle. It's my adoptive home. I love its mountains and lakes; I love its fleece-wearning folk; I love its farmer's markets and its progressive politics. I belong here.

I still bristle, though, when I hear about the American South as if it's the pigsty of bigotry. There is bigotry in the South for sure. To me, the South's identity is inexorably tangled with the history of Civil War, with the identify of itself as a defeated nation seeking to maintain its heritage and its traditions in a new world where some of its traditions are clearly bigoted and, now, illegal--unconstituional even.

My birthplace not just a pigsty of bigotry; it is also a place of rolling mountains and long sandy beaches, fried chicken and shredded pork sandwiches, big family meals and churches on every corner. It's a place of syruppy accents and has a concentration of universities and research. At one point, a friend in Ireland told me that Research Triangle Park has the highest per capita of PhDs of any place in the world. Maybe it still does.

The South is bigger than its bigotry, just like Seattle is bigger than its whiteness. The census can't tell you that. For that, you have to go there. So if you're a world traveller and you haven't been to the American South yet, it's time you go discover its complex culture.

I can hook you up with a cousin for sure. Just be sure to mind your manners: say please and thank you and Ma'am and Sir.

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