Friday, June 12, 2015

Dear Spokane: A Letter To My Hometown About Being Thrust Into the Spotlight of American Race Relations

Today hurts.

Spokane, WA is a small city that prides itself on being a "great place to raise a family." The kind of place that's rarely in the news. So when Twitter and Facebook blew up today with news that Rachel Dolezal, the president of Spokane's NAACP chapter has been presenting herself as black, when she is actually white, a lot of you probably wanted to turn off the internet for a few days. Within hours (minutes, maybe) derisive memes and Twitter hashtags popped up. At least one commentator pulled out the classic "Is Spokane so white that...?"

I've seen a lot of folks in my hometown on social media just pretending the scandal hasn't happened, and others asking that people not rush to judgment, or why the media isn't focusing on some positive news about our city.

If we don't turn away, though, this could be a real moment to open our minds and better understand the real racial crisis happening in our country.

Twelve years ago this month, I moved from Spokane to one of the most diverse cities in America. I was pretty dumb about diversity at that time. Not maliciously so. I was just ignorant, from growing up in a place where all of the faces I saw were white. I was constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing when the topic of race came up. Over time, working in an organization that is dedicated to social justice, I began to build my consciousness of the world beyond the one in which I'd been raised.

I see this same fear in some of my friends on social media today. If we talk about race, will we say something stupid? Will we make things worse? We feel that way because one of the ways that white culture maintains its privileged status is to train white children that even talking about race is racist, thus erasing the existence of our fellow citizens who are not white.

Talking has to begin. 

It can be harmful talk if we don't do it with care, however. But it can also move all of us forward. Below are a few principles that have helped me open myself to conversations about race (these ideas are specifically directed at my white friends; as a white person I don't have any right to speak to other communities about what they should do):

1) Be an active listener. 
White people need to listen to black people in this moment. We need to hear the real pain that Rachel Dolezal's actions have caused. If you want some places to start, you can try Jonathan Capeheart's piece,  or this interview with Mitzi Miller. But sitting back and being quiet doesn't mean ignoring the story. We have to seek out and listen to voices of the black community throughout the country, including in Spokane.

2) Acknowledge white privilege.
Living in a place like Spokane, where the overwhelming number of people are white, it is easy not to feel privileged. Particularly since it's a working class town, the idea of "privilege" seems hard to fathom. However, even (or especially) in a predominantly white area, whiteness confers privilege - privilege like seeing oneself represented in the media in a positive way, seeing your own history in history books, not being singled out by the police time and time again. Rachel Dolezal has white privilege in that at any time, she could have chosen to be perceived as white, functionally erasing the experiences of those who don't have that choice. And as a prominent civic voice for the black community, she stole the opportunity for others to speak their truths. 

3) Learn more about race in this country.
In a town like Spokane (and any town, really) it's easy to go through your entire school career without ever really understanding much about the history of discrimination in our country, or the experiences and stories of people who aren't like us. We think we aren't "racist" because we haven't said or done anything that seems discriminatory. However, racism is deeply rooted in every system in our country, including housing, medical care, education, politics. With the internet, there are plenty of places to learn more. ('s Identities page is just one). There are some great books out there too. It's a classic, but it's a classic for a reason: Beverly Tatum's Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria is a good primer on how racial identity develops.

4) Talk.
It's hard to talk about these things. In fact, as I've been writing this, I've wondered if I should stop typing; I've had a thousand doubts about what friends might think of these words. We're afraid of being judged. As I said before, it's hard to talk about race because the perpetuation of the system of racial privilege depends upon us remaining quiet. It depends upon us saying "race doesn't matter" or "race had nothing to do with it." Confronted with a story like Rachel Dolezal's, in which we absolutely can't say that, the temptation is to say: "Let's just wait until it's out of the spotlight." Find people you feel comfortable with to begin the conversation. Find people who will call you out if you say something that might be a micro-aggression, who will learn with you as you find answers. 

Until we talk about race and racism, our silence equals consent to a system that marginalizes our fellow humans. Ending that consent is worth a little embarrassment or fumbling as we begin to grow our understanding.