When it comes to diversity and tolerance, we Seattleites like to pat ourselves on the back. But what does the view really look like from the rest of the country?
I remember one of the first times I left the city. My family drove up to Canada to visit relatives in Vancouver. On the way, we drove through northern Washington, an area I had never been to before.
I was very excited about going on a road trip, but there was something about this drive that was unsettling.
It wasn’t until we stopped for food at an outlet mall north of Seattle that it really hit me. As we waited for our food and I watched all the people coming in and out of the crowded building, I realized I couldn’t really tell them apart. What some might consider normal – white, American, middle class suburbia – was actually unfamiliar, even a little uncomfortable to me.
I was not used to being the only minority.
Seattle (and surrounding areas like Tukwila, where I grew up) has always been left-leaning, and prides itself on being a city that celebrates diversity of all kinds.
So are we a spoiled city?
How different is our outlook on life from the rest of the country? I didn’t even need to leave Washington state to feel the dissimilarity. Do we look at the world through rose colored glasses when it comes to diversity? And does everybody else view us differently because of it?
I wanted to understand the issue from another perspective, so I decided to get on Facebook and ask three friends from different parts of the country for their perspectives on diversity and their impressions of Seattle. They’ve all had different experiences them me, not just because they’re from other regions, but also because they’re different races and/or sexual orientations.
Their responses were fascinating:
The East Coast View
Kurt Gruneberg was born and raised in Rhode Island. He’s only been to Seattle three times, one of which was for his wedding (his wife Kendra was born here). Before then he’d only thought of Seattle as kind of a hippie city.
“Kendra always talked a lot about how diverse it was and how tolerant of things people in the Pacific Northwest were, so I was basically imagining a big city where everybody is standing around holding hands and singing songs about how it’s good to accept people for who they are.”
This is certainly different from his upbringing in Warwick, the second largest city in Rhode Island.
“I never considered RI a diverse place, but to be fair, diversity wasn’t really a thing when I was growing up. Like there were Asians and Latinos and black people, but you never thought of it in terms of diversity. I actually didn’t have hardly any interaction with other races when I was young; my entire elementary school had two black kids in it.”
From what he’s seen Kurt certainly believes Seattle is one of the most diverse places in the country.
“But Seattle doesn’t just have your blanket blacks, Asians, or Latinos. There are really people from all over the world. Not black people, but Ethiopians and other Africans; not Asians, but Chinese and Laotians; not Latinos but Cubans and Puerto Ricans. It sounds funny to say it, but Rhode Island doesn’t have that kind of diversity that anybody needs to get any more specific than ‘white’ or ‘Asian’. If you’re from a country, I can’t imagine you can’t find somebody else from where you’re from in Seattle.”
The Southerner’s Perspective
What about the view from the South? Ryan Rossner had the same image of Seattle as Kurt but that’s what drew him to this city.
“My perception of Seattle was a healthy, intelligent city full of happy people. I’ve been here five and a half years and it’s not as bright and cheery a place as I initially thought, but I do like it.”
Ryan was born and raised in Metairie, Louisiana. The suburbs didn’t have as many minorities as New Orleans but he went to school with people from different cultures and he grew up thinking his hometown was pretty diverse.
But race wasn’t exactly a friendly topic.
“Race was a big thing…there are many racist people in New Orleans. It’s entrenched. There were also a lot of tolerant, socially liberal teachers at my school so I was exposed to at least two very different viewpoints. Tolerance exists anywhere along a wide spectrum in Metairie.”
Religion was less of an issue until he moved to Texas for college, where he came across a hardcore conservative Evangelical Christianity that he found disturbing.
He played football and some of his experiences with pre-game preachers were not pleasant. “One preacher told us it was God’s will that we accept the rule of all earthly creatures, explicitly stating that even in Hitler’s Germany it was not a Christian’s place to question leaders. Another guy told us to prepare for war because Islam was the fastest growing faith on the planet. He worked this into a pre-game speech by comparing the fight on the field to the fight off the field.”
It was experiences like that which made him so excited to come to Seattle. He wanted to be around well-educated people, access better job opportunities, and experience the healthy living and outdoors that have made Seattle famous.
Some of his “Southern-ness” appears to have stuck around though: after being here a few years some of the more socially liberal views in Seattle are still slightly shocking to him, although as he says “I don’t necessarily disagree with those views.”
The View from East of the Mountains
You don’t have to fly across the country to find different experiences with diversity.
Blaine Stum was born in the same state but finds this city refreshingly different from his upbringing as well. Born and raised in Spokane, he’s traveled to Seattle numerous times.
“My first trips to Seattle were as a young kid…I have some pretty fond memories of the city such as the first trip up the Space Needle as a kid, going to the Seattle Science [Center] and the Experience Music Project, seeing one of my favorite bands Nine Inch Nails in Key Arena… dancing at the gay bars like Neighbors and R Place.”
Whether in Seattle or Spokane, Blaine had a unique take on diversity that not a lot of white families got to experience. His father was born in Spokane but raised in south central Los Angeles, which was…different.
“My dad told me it was one of the biggest shocks of his life. He was only one of two white kids at his school… There were high racial tensions in Watts at the time… He’s told me a story about a PE teacher at his school getting jumped by a gang of white dudes while school was in session because he was dating a white woman. I have never witnessed anything close to that and I cannot imagine what it would have been like for him to see that being so young at the time.”
Then his father moved back to Spokane, which had more white people but not exactly more tolerance. “A Black family wanted to move into the neighborhood, but they had to get signatures of approval from a majority of the residents in order to actually get the house. That’s crazy!… Just hearing that stuff like that happened within your father’s lifetime can teach you a lot.”
Blaine was raised to appreciate diversity of all kinds, which is why he finds Seattle so refreshing, particularly as a gay man. “Seattle has been the main catalyst for LGBT rights in the states since World War 2. This is a City that had a gay rights group in 1967. This is a City that passed an anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation in 1975 and extended that coverage to gender identity in 1999. So I would say Seattle is without question forward-thinking on LGBT rights.”
Don’t get me wrong, Seattle isn’t post-racial paradise; I can tell you that from personal experience. Instead, I think of Seattle as a “snow globe city” — a self-proclaimed haven of enlightenment blocked from the rest of the world by a glass bubble we’ve created by our fiercely stubborn progressiveness. Seattleites want things to move forward and don’t want to wait for the rest of the world to take the first step.
That’s not a bad thing.
As I’ve personally learned, it can be daunting when you first step outside that bubble and find the world isn’t as forward thinking a place as you thought. But if the alternative is waiting for everyone else to catch up with us, then I think moving forward is worth it. As a city, we’re pretty much winning.