Think & Drink events on race make white guy think

Humanities Washington's Think & Drink lecture series, held in Seattle at Naked City Brewery, has focused on race in the past few years. (Photo by Mike Hipple for Humanities Washington.)
Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink discussion series, held in Seattle at Naked City Brewery, has had several discussions about race in the past few years. (Photo by Mike Hipple for Humanities Washington.)

How often do Seattleites actually talk about race? At Humanities Washington’s Think & Drink Series, they’ve focused on bringing people together to do just that.

For the last four years, the organization has held get-togethers over drinks in Seattle, Spokane, Yakima and Tacoma to talk about important and timely topics. In the past two years, many of the Think & Drinks panels have centered around race. Panels have included discussions on policing and race and diversity in sports.

At the final Seattle panel of this year, which was at Naked City Brewery in the north end, Think & Drink discussed what it’s like to be black in a mostly-white liberal city. The demographics of the event certainly reflected that — with a panel of prominent black Seattle residents talking about their experiences to a mostly white crowd in Greenwood.

Moderator Phyllis Fletcher asked for a show of hands of those who heard other white people criticize the Black Lives Matter interruption of a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle earlier this year. Many in the audience did. Then she asked for those who stood up to that criticism. Hands dropped.

Those hands included mine. I’d found myself at a loss for words when a friend “agreed” with me that the BLM Protests were disrespectful of Sanders. I never said that … but I didn’t correct him.

The panelists included Megan Ming Francis, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Washington; Eric Davis, sociology faculty at Bellevue College; Eva Abram, a member of Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau; and Charles Mudede, author and editor at alt-weekly The Stranger.

The panelists told the crowd to back up and look at Seattle from a black POV. Many attendees and panelists had moved to Seattle. They said at first, things seemed to be fine.

“A bad day here is a great day anywhere else,” said audience member Frank Miller, comparing Seattle to other places he’s lived.

But some black residents say they are still confused by Seattle’s particular blend of racism: people seem so nice, but a black person still finds it difficult to get the job or the house.

That’s different from other cities, where people seem to express hostilities and prejudices openly, says Eric Davis, a sociology teacher at Bellevue College.

“White folk there, they don’t know how to do the covert version of racism,” Davis said.

Seattle is one of the least diverse major cities in the nation. According to the 2010 Census, about 8 percent of Seattle residents are black, and about 33 percent of residents consider themselves a person of color. With 66 percent of residents who consider themselves white, Seattle is the fifth whitest major city in the United States.

So Seattleites are statistically more likely encounter white people, as we are the majority. Does this mean that white people are more likely to talk about racism only with other white people? It’s likely — if we do talk about racism at all.

Those of us in the audience were eager to improve. So, the panel had some advice for white Seattle on how to be an effective ally:

Listen.

“How many times in Seattle, do you have to listen to black people?” asked panelist Megan Ming Francis.

Really, it’s that simple. If you don’t know who you’re advocating for, how can you support them?

Don’t be a white moderate.

What does this look like? Despite my best intentions, I had found myself acting as a moderate when I wouldn’t stand up for black people.

Not standing up to other people’s inability to change isn’t progress. Inaction is a way that progress stalls.

Some might recognize this as the infamous “Seattle Process” — all talk and no action. We love to talk like we mean it in Seattle. And keep talking about it. But sometimes we delay fixing the problem so we can “talk about it some more.”

This one panel didn’t solve all of Seattle’s problems in one night. Which is good, because the change needs to be ongoing.

“The problem’s bigger than I thought, and I thought it was pretty damn big,” Francis said. “The real conversation still needs to happen.”

Think & Drink has one more event in this year’s series: America Behind Bars: Mass Incarceration and Civil Rights at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 19 at Engine House No. 9 Banquet Room, 611 North Pine St., Tacoma, WA 98406

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