I am a white, 46-year-old, mother of two elementary school children. We have lived on Mercer Island for five years. I have recently become aware that some of the African-American families on the island do not share the same sense of community safety and welcome that I do.
Her children have been told by classmates “your skin is the wrong color,” and “I don’t want to play with you because you’re black,” — things that hurt a child’s sense of safety and developing image and identity.
How rampant is the problem? Why do I hear from black and Indian friends about horrible situations when I perceive my extensive network of Mercer Island friends, colleagues and acquaintances as being as intolerant as I am of such comments? Are there just a few bad apples? What else can I/we do to help effect change and educate people in a highly educated community?
According to a mom of black kids, “Mercer Island is known in the region as a place that people of color are not welcomed.” I don’t want to live in that community — but I don’t think I do. Do I?
Your question touches on many current, large issues for which there are no simple answers. Like so many towns and cities across the country, you live in a community that is aware of its reputation and is taking steps to become more welcoming and inclusive. Most likely the majority of Islanders are similar to you, intolerant of overt racism and welcoming of people from different backgrounds and races. Even with the good intentions of the majority culture in a community, the experience of people of color can be very different.
There are many reasons for this difference in community experience. People of color are subjected to negative questions, behaviors and attitudes, called micro aggressions, on a regular basis that majority culture members (Caucasian in most parts) are not.
Some comments are overt such as those you quoted, though some of the most common micro aggressions are subtle; sometimes so subtle that they are not perceived by the majority culture. The subtleties can include being followed around by employees in a store, stopped while driving for no apparent reason in certain areas, having an on comer cross the street when approached, having a person of privilege espouse the myth that people get where they are based solely on merit, being taken for a service worker or pathologizing a cultural behavior such as an animated or loud communication style. Though these micro aggressions might seem minor, there is a physical and emotional toll in their silent and unrelenting nature. And as you referenced, racism toward children can be especially damaging to their developing sense of safety and developing image, identity and esteem.
Mercer Island and cities across the United States, and across the world, are in the midst of grappling with difficult issues related to racism, equity and respect on an institutional, personal and community level.
The city has a Diversity and Inclusion Committee dedicated to issues of race, diversity and equity that is exploring avenues for a change process at the community level. The Mercer Island Police Department requires annual training on implicit bias and the police chief works locally and at the state level chairing initiatives to build trust between the police and communities of color.
The Mercer Island School District has a Diversity Action Committee at each school as well as a superintendent Diversity Advisory Committee. To spur classroom conversations on race and equity, the district uses specific curriculums and brings in trainers. Dr. Caprice Hollins and Ben Ibale provide staff training related to issues of equity, diversity, access and privilege. Schools work closely with parent and school groups to use incidents of racism as opportunities to teach on social tolerance and respectful behavior.
On a community level, One MI is an organizing network for equity on the island with goals to enhance positive identity for children of color, advance cultural competency in the Mercer Island community and drive community-level policy change for equity. Everyone is welcome to participate in the events of this organization and you can find them on Facebook.
The experience that propelled you to write your question is part of the personal process. Your awareness will allow you to participate in conversations and to work with others toward positive change. You can act on an individual level by acknowledging this difference in experience and by supporting community change efforts.
Norms changes come about through conversations (some are difficult) and working through individual and institutional incidents of racism. Communities do not change on a dime. They change over time and the process can be messy and non-linear.
Like any community change, these processes require each of us to enter conversations in good faith, to listen empathically to each other’s experience and to make adjustments to institutional practices and personal behaviors. There is no doubt that the laws, norms and communities of today are different than those of 50 years ago. This change was slow with many ups and downs.
So DP — you live in a leaning-in and growing community. There are still instances of racism that leave some members of the community feeling not always welcome or safe. But the overwhelming majority of Mercer Island institutions and individuals want a community where all members are treated with respect, feel safe and feel welcome. And please stay in this conversation. Urge groups, individuals and institutions to address inequities as they arise and model respect, inclusion and the powerful, simple enjoyment that comes from friendships with neighbors of all Island cultures and races.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.