Do you remember that statement “most people don’t know that they’re poor until you tell them?” I remember the first time I realized I was poor, I was sitting in a classroom in high school and we were doing an exercise in economics. The exercise put us in groups of four, gave us an annual salary and forced us to discuss how we would live and survive with a family. My group had the annual salary of 20K per year. The exercise made us think about every detail from spending money on gas, food, clothes, utilities rent etc. I remember how crushed I was when I found out that my group was below the poverty line. I was surprised because life as I knew it was on that paper, my life, my daily interactions and most of all my norms. I remember getting in my mother’s car after the exercise and telling her about what it felt like to be told I was poor. My mother, being as honest, intellectual, and strong as she was, looked me in my eyes and said “Cherly, we’re not poor, we live in poverty. You can be a rich person and live a very poor quality of life.” This statement, this gift that she gave me, still resonates for me today, in ways I never expected.
For as long as I can remember I have identified as a Black woman. There are spaces in my life where the reminder that I live in this body, under this socially constructed identity, Seattle is where I have been reminded of that more than any other place I have lived. The most frequent reminder and even harsh reminders occurred for me when I lived in Seattle from ages 32–37. I grew up in all Black communities, attended schools and lived in neighborhoods where everybody looked like me. Nothing in those moments reflected the difficulty of my life as a Black woman in Seattle. I could write a 300 page book on these experiences. In this blog I will summarize a list of experiences that I am sure will resonate with those of you who have ever been a member of an out group, especially on the basis of race.
I have this saying to describe the areas where I have lived in my life in comparison to my Blackness:
- Omaha, NE- Taught me what it meant to be Black, (here I developed my pride in my identities and the love and cultural richness of my communities)
- New Mexico-Taught me the history and present harshness of what it means to be Black in the world and in Academia.
- Seattle- Never let me forget that I was Black (not in a positive way)
I arrived in Seattle back in May of 2013. One day after work, in a house where I lived on Beacon Hill, I remember the owner of the house, a Native American man, making a joke about me going back to Africa. Yeah, I was off to a great start! I remember on the first day, (5 days after I had arrived) of my new job as a fellow we were having a discussion about diversity and the lack of it in our program as part of our orientation. The head of the program passed out a diversity plan, after I reviewed it for a second and thought to myself “what the fuck is this?” I was so disappointed by the blandness of the plan and then I looked around the room. I noticed the handful of us who were non White and the disappointment that resonated in our energy. I raised my hand and said this plan seems very safe, and honestly White, like it’s meant to help y’all, what about us? The director of the program immediately responded and said we have diversity. She pointed to the one Black woman sitting to her right, and the only black woman on staff and then dismissed my issue, even though the other non-White fellows spoke up in support. She passively aggressively dismissed my claim, our claims. I was disappointed, the group of us met outside during break and after the conversation I felt extreme frustration with the efforts of leadership to dismiss us, our experiences, and traumas. The previous experience summarizes a few (notice the emphasis on few) of my experiences in Seattle. Here are a few other succinct examples:
- Having to argue in a professional workplace for the right to have my natural hair and that of a coworkers exist without punishment. In the process, listening to my Asian and White colleagues compliment me when my hair was straightened and ignore me or make smart ass remarks when it was curly.
- Receiving hate mail from local White supremacist calling me niggers frequently for advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in companies
- Speaking with high powered executives who only wanted to do surface level transformative work, but discriminated against me in the process, because they refused to remove their own blinders.
- Having managers, who identified as women of Color (non-Black) tell me that discrimination doesn’t exist in our company while non-white people were leaving at substantial numbers and witnessing an annually increasing turnover rate for our population.
- Having White, especially women, and Asian populations who consider themselves allies claim to be there to empower my voice, but at any moment’s notice would interrupt in conversations and speak over me as if I didn’t exist. While simultaneously practicing comparative discrimination in a sad and failed attempt to build camaraderie, as if we couldn’t create space to support one another. And not checking their own biases in the process. They used progressiveness as a justification to discrimination.
- Watching Black young adults being mistreated and excluded by nonprofit organizations and dropping out of programs at substantial rates, while their faces/life experiences were being used in marketing propaganda to promote superficial diversity initiatives. While in these programs, watching them receive harsher punishments and go into companies where they experienced racism daily as interns.
- Walking into corporate spaces for meetings and multiple receptionist taking one look at me and assuming I was there as a non-profit program participant and not a professional who owns her companies.
- The hundreds of yearly panels and talks discussing issues of discrimination, but nothing being done to create change following the event. As if information is enough on its own, with no action. Or the countless people who wanted to ask me how they could change, and even when I told them my perspective, they did nothing.
- Last but not least, never to be forgotten, the Seattle Freeze from my own racial community. I never felt as rejected by Black communities as I did in Seattle. I rationalized it by thinking, hey if I’m facing some of this shit as a Black woman, imagine what people who live here most of their lives are going through. I chalked it up to self preservation. I even remember another diversity strategist, a Black man looking at me and telling me how he was going to “steamroll my business” because there was not enough work for us all.
- Having to fight for equal pay and rights in the workplace, even to women bosses, when it was clear that I was underpaid and men with less experience were making me more than me
- The daily fight of advocating for others and their right to exist and be treated fairly, while taking scars in the process. Always being the voice, while being the victim. Being exhausted at the end of the day and not having an outlet to process my emotions without judgement or someone’s need to overshadow my experiences to talk about their own, especially my non-Black friends.
In order to preserve my sanity I knew I needed a new place of residency, so I left to find communities like the one I grew up in, spaces that reminded me that Blackness was beautiful and rich in culture. I promised myself that I would maintain businesses in Seattle to do the work, to help promote equity and equality, I just couldn’t live there. My goal here is not to speak badly on the City of Seattle, as I am sure this happens to many of us, in multiple cities, for me, it was more prevalent in Seattle. This is a message to help those of you who live there create awareness. It is to help those of you contributing to instances of harm, build consciousness. And in transparency, to also help me release some of the pain and pressure I felt during the battle of being Black in Seattle.