Each of my three Black children has been the subject of mistreatment, discrimination, profiling and racist epithets from schoolmates, teachers and coaches – and from those who “protect and serve.”
My younger son accompanied a friend to Rogers High School one afternoon in May 2019. The plan was to confront a Rogers student whom my son’s friend said was harassing the friend’s girlfriend. The friend hit this student as my son stood by. Some would call that being a loyal friend; some would say that was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others, that it was a poor decision. Still others, that this incident showed my son acting out like a typically aggressive young Black man. He and his friend were both taken to juvenile detention. My son was questioned inappropriately by the Rogers resource officer, kept overnight at juvenile though he should have been released into parental custody, and eventually forced to plea to a misdemeanor and do community service. All unpleasant but endurable events, but the white man at juvenile detention told my son as he locked him in, “You’re just an (“N” word); you’ll never be anything but a criminal.”
My daughter is the ultimate high achiever: great student, talented musician, gifted athlete. Yet it is this very gift of natural athletic ability that has made her the target of a more subtle form of racism. Some white coaches – the eighth- and 10th-grade basketball coaches at Sacajawea Middle School and Lewis and Clark High School – would say, “It doesn’t look like you’re trying hard enough,” depriving her of a place she deserved because she was too smooth, too unruffled, too gifted. As an elite soccer player, she would be yelled at by opposing players, parents and coaches.
There is an unacknowledged fear of and prejudice against Black athletic aggression in our town. While at middle school, my daughter was called the “N” word by her “friend” group of white boys. They would rub her skin and comment, “Oh, it doesn’t come off?” In ninth grade, some other white boys called her a (“N” word) monkey.” They were asked to apologize; that was LC’s painfully inadequate response to overt racism. In her ninth-grade college prep English class, she endured a discussion on why there weren’t more Black students in these college prep classes. One white girl commented, “I think they don’t work hard enough.” How do you explain 400 years of slavery, oppression, segregation, poverty and emasculation of the Black family to an ignorant, self-satisfied white girl? As my daughter now explains, “Even liberal parents think they don’t need to take the extra steps to educate their children about racism.”
My older son’s experiences throughout his younger life were typical of Spokane segregated Black/white experience, and of the hypocrisy of “nice” white students/parents. We lived in a white neighborhood, and he and his siblings attended the very white neighborhood elementary school. In fifth/sixth grade, white “friends” would invite him over and then start using the “N” word and other racist language as a joke, but also because they could. This exemplifies the ignorance of white Spokane culture: Let’s pretend our children wouldn’t do/say that. Again, white Spokane doesn’t own or acknowledge it. His pre-calculus teacher at LC told his white female friend not to let my son cheat from her, even though he was the smarter student and wouldn’t/didn’t cheat and she well might have!
While all three of my children had some kind and empathetic teachers at LC, Wilson Elementary and Sacajawea, the administration at LC in particular was tepid in its response to overt and subtle racism. My son was also breathalyzed at his prom – though he didn’t drink – the only one of his group to be pulled aside. As a driver for a food delivery service, my son experiences a different sort of welcome depending on the community. At Eagle Ridge and other gated communities along the Palouse, he often sees white residents gazing at him suspiciously, hands on hips, wondering perhaps if he is a threat. There is no problem at poor and middle-class neighborhoods. These residents at gated communities people put up physical and psychological barriers to access and understanding. As he explains, “There is a natural separation of Black and white communities because the ideology of these white people is to put their white families and their immediate communities before the bigger community.”
My children are smart, kind and compassionate. Truly, they are the products of their experiences, good and bad. They have even been strengthened by the name-calling and overt racism, but I worry about the subtler racist assumptions of white culture in Spokane: that they are lazy, dishonest or dangerous. That my sons are a threat. Until Spokane acknowledges the incendiary mix of the power of its dominant white culture to discipline Black students disproportionately and to stop and arrest Black citizens disproportionately, along with the more unspoken assumptions and attitudes of its “nice” citizens, racism in Spokane is here to stay.
Elizabeth Reason has lived in Spokane since 1981.
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