by Renea Harris-Peterson & emily warren
Seattle, celebrated for its progressive positions on many issues, still struggles to push past the façade of “liberalism” into the true realm of equity. Lack of rent control, the police force being under investigation, woefully underfunded education, and the proposal to build a new youth incarceration facility are just a few examples of how the city has fallen short on its promises of progressivism.
Recently, Seattle hosted two Black academics, Angela Davis and Bryan Stevenson, and a White academic, Peggy McIntosh, to inspire audiences around issues of social justice and to quell discontent in the aftermath of Trump’s election. To some extent those two goals were achieved; however, it is useful to consider the ways these goals reinforce Seattle’s so-called progressivism while inhibiting real change. The experiences we had at these three lectures were starkly different and spoke to the characteristics of their audiences. We would like to shed light on some of these dynamics in hopes of disrupting the status quo of activism in this city and moving towards a more collective movement.
Our (Renea and emily) reactions to these events were varied, so we wrote this article to make sense of what we had experienced. Even though Davis, Stevenson, and McIntosh spoke to similar topics, they each addressed the particular issues in their own way. Because what they intended and what we took away sometimes differed, we wanted to dig into the details of their talks for ourselves and for our community.
I (Renea) am a 17-year-old biracial woman, born and raised in Seattle. Being a teenager allows me to bring new perspectives and energy to this article and the movement. I have lived in many local neighborhoods and have a good sense of the different communities and cultural nuances of each. I (emily) am a math teacher of nearly 20 years, who is relatively new to Seattle and am seeing the city with fresh eyes. I am a White woman who has spent many years trying to understand the ways in which my Whiteness and my being a woman affect my experience and my engagement in equity work. We chose to write this article together because our conversations following these events were rich, and we feel our life experiences and the conversations we have had offer some new perspectives on these events.
About the time Davis came to Seattle to speak, I (Renea) chose to write a paper at school about how sexism in the Black Panther Party contributed to its downfall. I finally was able to learn about people who looked like me and were doing all the things I want to do. One figure I researched deeply was Angela Davis—someone I feel a particular connection with since one of the first times my aunt saw my hair picked out into a full fro, she said I looked like a young Angela Davis. I have carried that moment with me ever since, reminding myself that I can use the work and foundation of my elders to push the movement forward and create real change. As a part of this process, I learned how not to view myself as two separate identities: as a woman and as Black. This realization was transformative. As I was planning how to reinvigorate The Black Panther Party, I learned that Angela Davis would be coming to Town Hall, and it seemed like fate.
Angela Davis was welcomed to Seattle as the keynote speaker for the MLK Unity Day, an annual event meant to celebrate and continue Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and vision. It was hosted by the City of Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray, Council President Bruce A. Harrell and members of the Seattle City Council, and other city departments. Davis’ lecture and the program were free and open to the public.
While at the talk, I saw an old classmate, my brother’s friend from high school, my old teacher, and my cousin scattered around the audience. I felt like I was at a family reunion with all the cousins that you do not know but still share a connection. The band was playing the music my mom listens to, the music that makes her close her eyes, shake her head, and feel something in her soul. The audience, estimated at 850, was dressed casually, and the majority seemed middle class.
The event’s rich programming set the perfect stage for Davis. Lucille Hampton, an elder from the Dkhw’Duw’Absh (Duwamish) tribe in Washington, paid tribute to the stolen indigenous land we are occupying. Matt Remle and his two sons from the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe performed, reminding us that we must stand up to injustice everywhere and stand with Standing Rock. Then the Seattle Youth Poet Laureate, Leija Farr, a young Black woman, recited her poem “Black Woman Chronicles,” and, then, Bruce Harrell introduced Davis.
When Angela Davis spoke, we (Renea and emily) felt like the entire room was keyed into every word, every syllable; it was precious and impossible to reproduce. Unlike at the other events, where people were on their phones, tweeting or posting on Facebook, here everyone was listening to Davis—not because it wouldn’t have been accepted (it definitely would have been), but because no one wanted to take their eyes off her. Often, she spoke directly to the youth and activists in the community, and as she spoke, snaps, clapping and “mmhmms” floated through the air. She was always straight-to-the-point, which is expected of her. I think this made some people, like Harrell, nervous because Davis did not sugarcoat her opinions, especially about the new youth jail. At one point, she said, “NO NEW YOUTH JAIL.”
In contrast, when Stevenson mentioned Seattle’s controversial plan to build a new youth jail, he kept his remarks appropriately mild for the audience. He said, “I hear there’s a narrative around building a new jail . . . I would love to see Seattle to be a leader in this area. We need more counselors and health professionals.” McIntosh did not address the issue.
It was powerful to be surrounded by Black folks, all committed to the cause, and to see future versions of myself (Renea) at different stages of my life. For me (emily), I was one of the few White folks in attendance, but I was inspired by Davis’ vision and connected with her focus on the collective. I simultaneously felt like someone outside and inside the movement. I held this tension gently and appreciated being in the space.
What struck us was that it did not seem as if Davis’ overall message was particular to her audience. We felt she could have given that speech in front of many different audiences. Because Davis seemed to be liberated from her audience, she seemed to present an authentic self and spoke her truth in ways the others could not. From personal narratives, to #nonewyouthjail, to capitalism, and to Palestine, she covered a large range of topics and hit the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic levels of oppression. Her message was how we might imagine real change while focusing on the importance of collective struggle, by elevating different voices from the collective and by connecting bigger issues to local and personal experiences. She explained, “Change happens because we are able to imagine ourselves as much more than we are as individuals.”
Davis also prompted us to draw encouragement and inspiration from past struggles for social justice, saying, “as we observe MLK Unity Day, we celebrate our potential as agents in a collective quest for freedom.” MLK Unity Day is not only about celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as an individual. It is also about recognizing that through him, we pay tribute to all the people who never surrendered to racism and inequality. Acknowledging them, we acknowledge the people who have been rendered invisible by being poor, Black, women, differently-abled, and/or queer. Along these lines, she also explained, “people frequently mistakenly attribute force and power to me that I do not deserve. Because I simply stand here as evidence of the power of masses of people when they come together.” Here, she said what Stevenson and McIntosh did not—it takes more than thinking and tiny actions to create real change. “The only way forward is unending struggle,” said Davis.
While Bryan Stevenson also discussed how one could change things, his speech had a different message and feel. Stevenson’s talk was sponsored by Seattle Arts and Lectures (SAL) and co-presented by the Seattle Times, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University, and The University of Washington. Stevenson’s lecture was a part of a Literary\Arts Series presenting “original talks by six outstanding authors whose works range from multi-award-winning novels and short stories to social commentaries and biographies.” At Stevenson’s talk, nearly everyone in the audience was dressed to a T! While there were a few people of color, the attendees were mostly White and slightly older. The 2500-seat hall was packed. The feel was formal, and the social norming around etiquette and audience behavior was palpable.
After sitting down, the two White women beside us loudly objected that they hoped people would quit texting. As I (emily) had my phone out, I wondered if they were talking about me. Once the program began, the host encouraged the audience to post to Facebook and Twitter using a hashtag. The women sitting next to us persisted with their dirty looks. Posting live via Facebook or Twitter during an experience is a way to share and democratize knowledge, particularly when tickets are $20 each. While the video of Davis’ talk was posted online in several places, Stevenson’s was not. And after we requested a video or transcript of Stevenson’s talk from SAL, we were told that it was because of “the contract with Stevenson/The Speakers Bureau that we do not have or pass on the transcript.” (Similarly, when we contacted the UW Graduate School, they replied, “unfortunately, we do not have video/audio records available, or a transcript of the evening.”)
The contradictory nature of the experience was confusing. Stevenson’s host encouraging us to post on social media conflicted with other aspects of our experience, such as the disapproval of our row-mates, high price of the tickets, homogeneity of the audience, extravagance of the location, and the lack of access to video or transcripts. Such mixed messages made it hard to determine who should have access to this event.
Other social norming also appeared throughout Stevenson’s talk. Unlike at Davis’s talk, the audience applauded only at “appropriate” times, and we felt pressured to give a “proper” standing ovation. This “etiquette” reminded us of the situation nearly three years ago when two Black activists—Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford—interrupted Bernie Sanders at a Seattle rally and were booed relentlessly and criticized in the media in the weeks following. White folks want activism, but only on their own terms.
The entire front section at Stevenson’s event and many of the more prominent seats in the balcony were reserved for “special guests.” While we are not able to say for sure who had access to these seats, we can say that the occupants were very well-dressed, older, and mostly White. It did not look like anyone had reserved the seats for marginalized community members. In a similar vein, the front two rows at McIntosh’s speech were reserved for students from two academic classes. While these other arrangements served their own constituencies, neither compared to the inspirational energy emanating from the youth organizers from Block the Bunker, EPIC, and Seattle Block Book Club, who were sitting front and center at Davis’ lecture (seats reserved for the youth).
Interestingly, Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate, Leija Farr, also spoke at Stevenson’s talk; she recited her poem “For Black Boys.” A White woman introduced Stevenson, highlighting his many prestigious degrees and credentials and framing his work through one of his points of action: hope. This frame pulled the audience in and comforted them. As we were soon to find out, Stevenson’s message was crafted to be palatable to a White audience. He skillfully wove together personal stories, statistics, and a larger analysis of the current system of mass incarceration. His speech outlined a vision to confront the injustices of that system: (a) change one’s proximity to suffering, (b) resist and alter narratives based on fear and anger, (c) decide to do uncomfortable things, and (d) maintain hope. Such points clearly spoke to the audience before him and did not take into account how marginalized people live in a constant state of discomfort and so have little need to “do uncomfortable things.” Stevenson’s was a call to a largely White and wealthy audience.
While Stevenson’s message may have some value, it is also carries some risks. For example, his call for staying in proximity to suffering is dangerous because it has a close relationship to gentrifying neighborhoods. Yet, he did not describe in detail how to be in close proximity to suffering successfully, so the audience was left to figure it out for themselves. White people in Seattle do not have a problem with colonizing spaces of people of color, and it is important to examine the relationship between this close proximity and gentrification. In addition, the danger in focusing only on hope centers White comfort in equity work and disconnects White people from the real pain, terror, and horror of White supremacy.
Maintaining a balance between hope and honest examination of the negative side of White supremacy is important, but that balance was off in Stevenson’s talk. Only at the end of his talk did Stevenson discuss reconciling with the past. For instance, he acknowledged how Germany and Rwanda are models for looking at national history and how the US has fallen short in reckoning with its genocidal past, both with Native Americans and with slavery. Stevenson then described his forthcoming project: a Lynching museum. Except for these brief moments near the end, most of the talk focused on hope.
Like Davis, Stevenson worked to lift up voices that have traditionally been silenced, specifically, by relaying personal stories of representing clients in the criminal justice system. One of the most powerful narratives was about a Black man named Avery Jenkins, who suffered from mental illness and had a history of being passed through the foster system since age two. Although Jenkins had committed a serious crime, Stevenson argued that his difficult past and intellectual disabilities (Stevenson’s words) had not been taken into account. Jenkins had not received the support and services he had needed throughout his life. Stevenson’s analysis of how the system not only targets Black and Brown folks but also how it makes those with mental illness particularly vulnerable, was a way Stevenson amplified traditionally silenced voices.
That being said, this narrative was intertwined with a story about a White racist correctional officer, who, in the end, shifted his perspective towards Stevenson. This juxtaposition first made the predominately White audience just uncomfortable enough by relaying the realities of the treatment of a Black, disabled man in this country; then it rescued them with a story of difference and hope. The correctional officer, while real, was the extreme stereotype of a “racist,” complete with pick-up truck and Confederate flags. For a White, liberal, upper-class audience member, this is an easy way to distance oneself from Whiteness; he is clearly NOT ME.
And, yet, there is still a lingering wondering . . . is there a part of that officer that is me? Luckily, Stevenson ended the story with the officer shaking his hand, thanking him for his work. The officer, as it turns out, has had his own run-in with the foster care system and has a change of heart towards Jenkins and Stevenson. This display of redemption allows for a collective sigh from the White audience: there can be salvation after blatant displays of racism. So, while Stevenson was able to lead White folks to the discomforts of Black and Brown realities, he also supplied them with the safety net of seeing White folks humanized as well. The way Stevenson lifted up “voices rendered invisible” was different than Davis, who tended to be more abstract. Stevenson’s story telling about individual people brought folks into the struggle. His strong academic background and credentials helped make him a legitimate voice, one that can be heard by While folks and subsequently celebrated.
Another voice able to be heard by White folks was the third speaker: Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh was hosted by the University of Washington’s Graduate School and UW Alumni Association, as part of a series called Equity & Difference: Privilege, hosted by the UW Graduate School and funded by the Walker-Ames Fund, the Jessie and John Danz Fund, and the Mary Ann and John D. Mangels Fund. Seeing Peggy McIntosh provided a final important piece to how we thought about speakers on activism. The whole experience made us feet like we were at university! The audience was fairly racially diverse, though it was still primarily White.
There was also more age diversity, and most in the crowd were casually dressed. A White man introduced McIntosh, citing her many accomplishments and prestigious degrees. McIntosh opened by discussing her road to equity work. She talked about her move from wanting to be popular (fear-based) to wanting to be useful (riskier, but more gratifying): “The one thing I hope you take away from this is that this kind of work is transformative.” This message reminded us to keep equity work rooted in the self; too often White folks do equity work for people of color, which perpetuates power imbalances and White Saviorism. The key, though, is to focus on the transformation of the self without it becoming only navel-gazing.
McIntosh then helped the audience move from a binary understanding of people in power to a more nuanced one: instead of being caught in a trap of seeing a person (or oneself) as nice OR oppressive, one can see that person (or oneself) as nice AND oppressive. Recognizing this complexity allows us to see the wholeness of a person while also allowing us to pull ourselves into the problem. Next, McIntosh discussed her seminal piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a list of 26 examples of how White privilege operates in McIntosh’s life on a daily basis. She then talked about ways she tries to use her White Privilege, citing examples from another piece of hers, “White Privilege: An Account to Spend.”
Many of her points were focused on the individual, such as reexamining hiring practices and using your voice in hiring committees or choosing to live on less money so you can donate to social justice organizations. Only once did she speak of a true collective action—when she described visiting a police station to protest—yet, even then McIntosh talked about using one’s own voice when she advised, “Say more than you think you have in you.” While McIntosh’s storytelling brought people in (as did Stevenson’s), her stories were mostly about her own individual experiences, while Stevenson’s stories were about his work and the stories of those folks not typically told. Davis’ stories also spoke to her own experience, which, in this case, is important because stories such as hers are not always lifted up, heard, or celebrated.
Even though McIntosh’s speech was primarily encouraging individual reflection, we also know that her professional work balances individual and community work. In “White Privilege: An Account to Spend,” McIntosh writes: “I organize projects, invest time and money, read, write letters and emails, intervene, spread the word, campaign, work with others against injustice and try to influence policy. It is a mixture of raising my own awareness and trying to change the social fabric as well.” In truth, McIntosh has moved to the institutional through her work in Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED). The program trains teachers to lead sessions in their own schools; much of this work is in the collective.
What was missing from this particular talk, however, was McIntosh encouraging White folks to join the struggle not only on a personal and interpersonal level, but on an institutional and collective level as well. Academics can get stuck in their heads, and while her talk provided good context and framing, it failed to connect to the collective struggle. Academia is largely White and elite, so it often leaves out the lived experiences of people of color. It is important for academics and intellectuals to push out of the internal and into action.
Seeing Peggy McIntosh was important for me (emily) to connect with an elder who reflected who I could be, but it was also a reminder for me not to get stuck in my head. For me (Renea), I felt a disconnect related to race. While the talk was interesting and I learned a lot, I still felt a compartmentalization among my White identity, my being a woman, and my being Black; they were not operating together. Seeing Davis, I could show up with all three. While both of us connected to Stevenson’s message, it was hard for us to connect to him personally as a change-maker.
Ultimately, Davis’ message was the importance of unending struggle in the collective, Stevenson’s was that you can make a difference so do not lose hope, and McIntosh’s was to invest in personal transformation for the larger good. From our vantage point, Davis seemed to attract the activist, Stevenson, the financial elite, and McIntosh, the academic. While all three have a place in social justice, the latter two groups are most often White and have a great deal of privilege (as our experiences at these events bore out), and the danger is that talks like these serve to reinforce the disconnected and fragmented spheres that these groups operate in, which undermines a collective movement toward change.
So, what can be done? It starts with shifting the audiences at these kinds of events. How can organizers be intentional about getting a diverse audience to their events? Could SAL organizers have put aside the front section for more people of color and activists, like organizers for Angela Davis did? Can we get more White folks to see Davis without it being at the expense of the youth or the risk of gentrifying the space? Such moves could be a part of seeing other perspectives and not just catering to a certain audience. If the audiences were more diverse maybe we could shift more to the collective.
Changing audiences is a step, but how can we further re-envision change to the collective? How can we move from the individual, which both Stevenson and McIntosh emphasized, to a more collective vision? How can White folks responsibly do the work, balancing self-examination with movement in the streets towards the collective? How do people of color exercise patience to meet people where they are in their understanding, allowing them to address others’ humanity and engage with them? How can people of color maintain a balance of connection while not doing the work of White people? Where is the growth of White folks around the collective? Where is the growth for people of color around the collective? How can we see Stevenson and Davis not as a fracturing of the Black community, but as part of the wholeness of the collective, while still providing important critiques?
One way we can see change in this area is to make our collective as intersectional as possible, including the many different identities of each person. It is important to reflect on the learning of folks of color, as well as White folks, because such reflection helps us with the personal and societal change we can create. Hearing multiple perspectives is important—whether they be the voices of speakers, those engaged in broad political action, or those in one’s organizations, or among one’s friends, groups, or communities.
We are in a ripe moment, historically. Now that White people are getting used to being in the streets for the women’s march and the science march, it is time to call them into the streets for issues they SAY they care about, such as racial inequality and mass incarceration. In fact, as we sit in this cafe writing this article, a White woman at the next table is talking about how moving it was to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.
We need to help White folks see the link between these issues in the abstract and how they manifest practically: #nonewyouthjail, #Blacklivesmatter, unfair policing practices, rent control, and affordable housing. This may mean a financial sacrifice for those who own and control property. In addition to people taking the streets, we need to reflect on our spheres of power and how we can effect change in a real way, from supporting and voting for candidates who support these issues, to using what political capital we have to influence those who make the decisions, and working to transform our organizations to make real change. Such actions are all part of the collective struggle.
We see this article as a part of this collective struggle as well, as we, Renea and emily, continue to engage around issues of social justice and equity. We have marched together, we have worked in the math classroom together, we have attended events together, we have struggled through this article and its analysis together, we have stumbled in our own areas of growth together, we have and do laugh together, and we continue to learn with one another. This is all part of the struggle.
“Let us remember that so much of what is important, so much of what has acquired significance, historical significance, has been achieved through mass struggle . . . We have come to realize that the only way forward is unending struggle.” — Angela Davis
Featured image courtesy of Renea Harris-Peterson and emily warren