Richard Sherman & Macklemore: Seattle Raises Race

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You can’t tell me otherwise—I’ve lived in and traveled through too many other sections of this nation: people think of Seattle as a “white” city.  And with good reason.  In 2010 the census put as at 69.5% whitey—though 33.7% people of color, however that works.  Secondarily people think of Seattle as Asian, also with good reason given our historical influx of Vietnamese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders and the robust and colorful “Chinatown” they brought with them.  But for white boys like me who grew up attending inner city schools in Seattle, it’s always been a little bit schizophrenic to consider our city “white” because our experience was anything but.  Even if the majority of Garfield High was white in 1995, for example, Garfield was considered a “black” school—in large part due to its location in the Central District, its fierce athletic and music departments, etc.   It was also known—and still is to some—as “the slave ship,” due to the AP and predominately white classrooms located on the top floor.  More to the point, inasmuch as hip-hop culture is identified with black culture (much more so when I was a kid) that was the dominant and “cool” culture that we all came up with.  By definition, being a white boy and being popular in the schools I attended presented challenges (I don’t mean to imply that it presented more challenges than being black in America).  So there was always something that bugged me about the impression of Seattle as a white city, awash in sonic waves of Nirvana, packed full of limp-wristed, pale people that inhabited dark coffee shops (where I sit right now typing).  I don’t think I was the only white boy to come out of that academic/social experience constantly managing the temptation to say, “not the Seattle I know” when people generalized or guessed at our culture in far-flung cities. 

 

Anyway, I say all of this just to frame the irony that Seattle, in the last ten days, has produced the two individuals and the two incidents that provide the most useful fuel for discussion of race—particularly racism against blacks—that I’ve seen in a long time: Richard Sherman’s interview after the Seahawks’ win against the 49ers and Macklemore’s commentary about walking off with all the Grammies last night.  More to the point, I’m proud—proud that these two famous Seattleites (ok, I know Richard Sherman’s from Compton) have led the way in pushing hard on the nuances of race and racism in their respective industries. 

 

Sherman’s inspired soliloquy after he outclassed the San Francisco offense as well as his eloquent press conference have been properly dissected in the media already, most impressively, I think, by Dave Zirin.  I love it: Sherman doesn’t waste any words: “thug” is the new way to use the N word.  And what better evidence of the broad blindness of American racism than the fact that this man who’s being called a “thug” is a Stanford grad and deeply invested in service to his community, in addition to, as he said in his moment of thrall, “the best” at what he does on the field.  The fact that a broad swath of America could watch Richard Sherman celebrate the win with panache and joy and see only an angry black “thug” underlines either how unfamiliar most of this country is with black culture or points to the fact that any “black” behavior is “thuggish.” 

 

Macklemore was polite at the Grammies last night and he failed to make any political statements under the limelight.  But just after he texted and tweeted and did all those things he does so well about how Kendrick Lamar had been “robbed.”  Implicit in this message is that Macklemore understands that his race had more than a little to do with the sweep of awards he made. When Macklemore released “white privilege” all those years ago, some people yawned, some people snickered, some people hated, some people nodded.  And I admit that I was suspicious about the transparency of what he was doing on that track—standing on white privilege to decry it seemed  ideologically tautological.  But then again, how else do you do it?  Make an indie-alt record?  Dude is a b-boy, by any measure.  At any rate, at least to my mind, Macklemore’s messages on social media last night mark his integrity and his awareness of the mindfuck of racism in the hip-hop industry more fully than any track he could write and sell about it. 

 

So it’s a validating if frigid and foggy January morning for me—to see that at least for the moment national conversations about race are emanating from Seattle, and they are not laced with the inoculating agents of political correctness or expediency.  Go Hawks; rock on, Ben (Macklemore).  Maybe at this rate Garfield High School won’t always be known as “the slave ship” in the neighborhood.  

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