Multiculturalism In the U.S.’s Fifth-Whitest City

Last June I went to a Deltron 3030 concert at the Fremont Solstice Fair. RA Scion, a white MC and an opening act, loudly urged everyone in attendance to remember the unrest in Ferguson and in Baltimore. He got no reaction from the sparse early attenders. Del the Funky Homosapien, who is black and part of Deltron 3030, later got on the mic between songs.

“Hey, do any of you read?” asked a slightly incoherent Del. He got a slight cheer from the crowd, but rather than talking about current events as I had expected him to, he just laughed slightly. “OK,” he continued. “I just wanted to know if y’all read.”

Those two exchanges, initiated by an angry white man from Seattle and a peaceable black man from Oakland, sum up the Northwest’s awkward attempts to address an evolving mix of cultures at home and elsewhere.

Seattle is nearly 70% non-Hispanic white, the 5th-most in the U.S. behind only Portland, Colorado Springs, Omaha, and Louisville. We’re also just a few generations removed from the days of racial convenants that dictated who could live in many neighborhoods. Twentieth-century events have also shaped the city’s ethnic makeup: World War II brought African-Americans to Seattle to help with production, Little Saigon developed following the Vietnam War, immigration from Ethiopia followed in the 1980s, and then Microsoft brought thousands of largely white and Asian transplants to the region a decade later. Now it’s Amazon turn to bring thousands of new employees and their families to the area, the newest company to make an impact on the city’s ethnic and economic makeup. Some suburbs are changing even more quickly: for example, over a third of Bellevue residents are foreign-born, with China and India strongly represented.

Having grown up in New York, I had a lot of friends who were first-generation Asian-Americans, their parents having emigrated after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it easier to do so. I often communicated with those parents through their American-raised children who became language and cultural interpreters. On the West Coast there are far more Asian-American families who have lived in this country for generations. Compared with the East Coast, there are far more Asian senior citizens here who speak English as their first language. Japanese internment wasn’t really discussed when I studied history in school, but I see evidence of it in Seattle’s Japantown where Maneki Restaurant has operated for over 100 non-continuous years. George Takei’s internment-themed musical Allegiance fizzled out in New York but I expect it to play to big crowds out West, where families like Takei’s will more strongly identify with it. Internment is just one subject I’ve seen explored in Chinatown’s excellent Wing Luke Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

Seattle’s black community makes up about 8.5% of the city and is concentrated in the central and southern neighborhoods. This combination of African-American transplants and recent immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia have led to an interesting mix of cultures and cuisines. Chicken and waffles, that Harlem soul-food staple, is the hippest dish on many menus around town; even local basketball star Nate Robinson has his own wings-and-waffles restaurant. The city also celebrates its own Jimi Hendrix, whose namesake park opens this summer, and Quincy Jones, whose name graces his high school’s performing arts center. I’ve been to the small but important Northwest African American Museum, adjacent to Jimi Hendrix Park, which I recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about this part of Seattle’s history.

The Hispanic population in Seattle is small but rapidly-growing, and it’s largely Mexican — a big difference from the heavily Carribbean population I remember from New York. Mexican immigrants and organizations are a big part of the positive, empowering marches that May Day should be known for here. In addition, there’s a notable Native American influence on the city. I didn’t know what a “Seahawk” or a “Thunderbird” was before I moved here, but Seattle’s football and junior hockey teams both have logos that draw respectfully from the local native peoples’ beautiful art styles. Seattle’s Burke Museum and Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum both have great collections of native art and historical artifacts. Totem poles dot parks throughout the Pacific Northwest. There’s even a local food truck called Off the Rez that sells “Indian tacos” made on frybread.

Even though Seattle is nearly 70% white and I’m 100% white, that doesn’t mean that Seattle’s people are my people. For starters, this is a town known for its Nordic heritage. In Ballard, which despite its north-central location has zero Indian-born people living there, one can find the Nordic Heritage Museum, an aquavit distillery, and an annual festival commemorating Norway’s Constitution Day. You’ll also find a lot of people who remember when it was even more Nordic. I celebrated New Year’s 2015 at the Swedish Club with complimentary pancakes at midnight and an ABBA cover band. My mom’s side of the family is from Italy and great Italian food is everywhere in New York, but Henry Hill’s “egg noodles and ketchup” remark about Seattle is largely true. I visited Seattle Center’s Italian festival a few years ago and, although I appreciated the classic Fiats and the Italian ice, it really hammered home how marginal the Italian community is here. Columbus Day, which is sacrosanct in New York, was rechristened in Seattle as Indigenous Peoples’ Day two years ago.

Within the walls at a tech company I’m used to the upper-middle-class white-and-Asian mostly-male generically-geeky culture. I get more enjoyment out of exploring the culture, history, and cuisine of the many peoples who have shaped and been shaped by Seattle.

This is part 4 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.