White People Can’t Save Seattle

by Bri Little

I moved to the “progressive” city of Seattle in August of last year with a commitment to justice. I work in the advocacy and organizing department of a well-established non-profit that provides homeless people with low-barrier employment. As I immersed myself into the world of homelessness advocacy, I was hopeful that the white people here would somehow be different.  And they are. But different doesn’t necessarily mean better. White people in Seattle are often more self-righteous because they believe they’re more leftist than any place else in the U.S. This insidious misconception hinders advancement in movements that should center the experiences of people of color.

I tend to tell people I didn’t meet a single white person until I went to college. While that’s not technically true, I had a very rose-colored view of white people and how whiteness operates in this country. I grew up in DC and went to public school where. I was surrounded by Black people and people of color of all kinds: immigrants, well-established DC natives like my parents and their friends. The fantasy ended when I went to college in a small town in Southeast Virginia.

My four years of undergrad were the most trying, isolating times of my life to date. My college is very old and traditional and had homages to slave-owning historical figures generously sprinkled across the campus. I was forced to confront this country’s violent colonial history daily in a way my white peers never questioned. I experienced anti-black racism firsthand. My neighbor accused me of attacking her because she thought I posted about racism too much on social media. My roommate was the target of racist jokes when she ran for hall council because she was from a small country town and she “sounded ghetto.” It made no sense that once I graduated, I decided to move to one of the whitest places in the US to have a fresh start and perhaps to see this country with new eyes. 

Unsurprisingly, most of the organizers and non-profits in Seattle are white. One could argue that this demographic is a reflection of Seattle’s population, but the problem lies here: the people most impacted by homelessness and other social issues are people of color. White organizing, especially in the Trump era, effortlessly becomes a White Savior narrative.

The white people who attempt to do social justice work in Seattle rarely do any kind of training to learn their place in organizing, and when they do, they don’t realize that unlearning racism is an iterative process. There are conversations here and there about white privilege to demonstrate that they went to an anti-racism training at one point, but it’s clear to me that most white people in Seattle have no clue how racism functions in their daily experiences with people of color. White supremacy rears its head when people of color are expected to follow along and validate the ideas of white people who think it is their place to fight for us but haven’t listened to communities of color and homeless people’s needs and considered what their role should be in achieving these needs. I have sat in rooms where I was tokenized by white organizers, where my function was to be the Black person who both represents homeless people of color (even though I have never been homeless) and agrees with all of their strategies without critique or pushback.

 In my experience, even the most well-intentioned white people show up and take over movements with their overwhelming presence, effectively silencing the voices of people most impacted. Often, the people most impacted—those who are formerly and currently displaced by the influx of tech workers and other gentrifiers—aren’t even in the room because no one thought to invite them. It has not occurred to white people that no one asked them to speak for us.

Interestingly, white women do the bulk of silencing. Perhaps because of some misplaced sense of knowing “the struggle,” they are the ones who are controlling conversations. On the occasions when I or other people of color have brought this to their attention, they point to their own vulnerability as women. Usually, I give up on explaining how they uphold white supremacy once their fragility becomes obvious. The truth is that white women display patterns of racial dominance just as their male counterparts do, and they aren’t exempt because they’re women or femme.

During my time in Seattle, I’ve witnessed communities of color become further marginalized and forgotten in the wake of the prioritization of poor and middle-class whites by white organizers. This reality is achieved by cooptation of movements and lack of inclusion at decision-making levels. White people, particularly white women and femmes: do some reflection on how you take up space in movements. Listen (without input) to communities of color.  Realize that your voice isn’t always relevant. Give the mic to someone else.

Bri Little is a writer and newbie organizer in Seattle. She’s interested in centering marginalized voices, preserving Seattle’s vibrancy, and telling it like it is. Nikkita Oliver and Dae Kim Hawkins are her heroes. 

Featured image Alex Garland

7 thoughts on “White People Can’t Save Seattle”

  1. Wow. This is really terrible. You’ve got all the liberal “anti-racist” catch phrases (“centering marginalized voices,” etc.) and all of the bitterness of a child who doesn’t get her way.

    1. I didn’t get any bitterness at all – I just got an assertive voice firmly insisting that she has something to add to the conversation, and that her viewpoint is as relevant (and perhaps more) than others, no matter how well intentioned.

    2. No value or substance but a lot of white fragility/protectionism in your comment.

      I don’t know what work you do but if you done any work in the non-profit industrial complex of Seattle, you would realize that this article is spot on.

    3. The author is not a child & works in the field that she is writing about. What are your credentials Lonnie? 57 years experience talking down to professional women and people of color?

  2. This is an important, well-written and easily digestible article for those who wish to face these problems head on.

    I will go one step further however…. I think many of the Caucasian people being referred to in the article know exactly what they are doing and how counter-productive their actions are. They are unwilling to focus on their own problematic behavior for a variety of reasons, the 2 most prominent are:
    1) This is mostly a scam. While there are many decent, dedicated and dynamic individuals ready and willing to volunteer, at the top of the non-profit pyramid schemes are white and white-serving people of color in positions of organizational authority who will apparently do almost anything (including hurt the people and the causes they are pledged to support) to continue their leisurely, comfortable lifestyle. They get accolades for keeping up the fight (which they never seem serious about winning) which brings them positive attention and opportunities, yet all the while, its obvious they are more concerned with keeping their positions of authority, therefore ensuring the same non-results get repeatedly foisted on the public. They collect handsome, livable-wage salaries all the while supposedly working on serious issues which they in turn treat more like pet projects. They are grant-chasers, more concerned with augmenting their own positions of power than utilizing their authority in favor of the causes they state are their priority.

    2) They don’t actually want things to change. They know things are “wrong” but are also highly aware that to correct these situations, they would have to give up a lot more than some hollow rhetoric and the window space which they hang BLM/safespace signs in. They realize full well the benefit they receive from this system of white supremacy, yet refuse to actually confront it, primarily due to the fact that they are the primary beneficiaries of the aforementioned corrupt system.

  3. Thanks for this. I’m reading and listening and this fits. Long iterative process, bring it on. Let us have compassion and honesty. We seem to be missing both and for sure we are not digging enough into practical solutions, namely that people of color need to be in positions of power to benefit all of us.