Thursday, October 06, 2011

The substantive thing about the Amanda Knox coverage: how it reveals underlying prejudices in the Pacific Northwest

The Northwest is many things, but one of the things it is, that's not talked about much in the coverage and praise of Seattle and elsewhere, is that it's white. I mean that in more than just the manner of a throw away phrase. Although the Northwest is liberal in many respects, when it comes down to race and ethnicity the liberality often times reveals itself to be only superficially so, in both my opinion and in others. We talk about equality, about honoring diversity, and yes, you probably will have less overtly racist incidents happening here, but when it comes to how people respond to each other in ways besides superficial respect, and to what they actually understand about folks who aren't of white-anglo ethnicity, the northwest is very sheltered, non-comprehending, and quite frankly separatist. The sheltered-ness doesn't just extend just to people of color but to white, European, ethnicities who are outside the realm of the accepted English, Irish, Scottish, German, and Scandinavian ones. People here often vote with their feet and with their social circles, simply and voluntarily segregating themselves from non-white and non-anglo folks through the means of moving to whiter areas and simply not engaging with non-white folks, at least with the non-approved non-white folks, in meaningful ways.

This makes the prejudice harder to see. However, because the people are so polite, on the surface, the prejudice often comes out unconsciously, in the form of mess ups that reveal preconceptions that folks out east, or for that matter out in California, would never make. Anti-Italian prejudice is one of them, and it comes out when you least expect it, and like the other types of prejudice makes you wonder where these people came from? What rock did they crawl out from under to be that naive?

More on this later.

*on edit: okay, here's the addition: One very poignant example of some of the entrenched feelings in the Northwest that I've experienced involves old people. One old person in particular. When I say old, I mean in his seventies. You could say that, well, old folks say the damnedest things, but bear with me.

I was sitting in a coffee shop in Ballard with this guy, Ballard being the Scandinavian neighborhood of Seattle. The reasons I was having coffee with him are complicated and have to do with my life outside of the World Wide Web. Now, ethnically, I'm a quarter Italian, a quarter Polish, with the rest being an amalgamation of the ethnicities I label anglo, so my appearance doen't necessarily scream out that I'm Italian. Me and the guy are talking, and all of the sudden he tells a joke: "What sound do you get when you run over a bunch of wine bottles with your car? Wop wop wop wop wop!" I sat back there struck dumb.

Now surely, there are folks out there whose grand parents have racist tendencies and who sometimes tell off color or really stupid and insulting jokes. However, this was the only time in my life that I'd ever heard something anti-Italian that was this extreme. In fact, it was one of the only times in my life that I'd heard overt and purposeful anti-Italian sentiment joke, as opposed to casual ignorance like assuming that all folks who are Italian have mob ties, or a general put down of Italians. I've also been around a lot of old people in my day, and none of them ever came up with something that extreme against a fellow European ethnic group.

My thinking is simple: if there are folks out there, in Seattle, of a certain age or not, who openly and unapologetically slam European ethnic groups that are non-Northern European, what must both those same individuals and others be thinking about ethnic groups that are far more different than them than Italians? To me, the joke wasn't just an offensive act, but was in fact a bellwether indicating what likely lies beneath the surface of the Pacific Northwest, a space containing material that's not pretty. I remember Edward Albee saying, in an interview, that his parents weren't just racist and anti-Italian but anti-Irish also, and how that was quite extreme for the times. Here, in 2010, when this happened, you have folks in the Northwest who still feel that Italians are meant to be the butts of jokes, and who see nothing wrong expressing it loudly and openly in a crowded coffee house, notably in the Scandinavian part of town.

What must folks like that think of the Ethiopians who live in Seattle? Or the Eritreans? or the Somalis? Seattle has a large East African community, believe it or not. What about the Vietnamese, or the Chinese? What about Latinos, what about Native Americans? What about African Americans? What about Arabs?

You see where I'm going with this. I see the disdain and unbelief that the Seattle area had for the Italian judicial system in the Amanda Knox case as coming out of some of the same ignorant ethnocentric attitude held in lesser degrees by many people that this older gentleman exemplified. Like I said, a great degree of ignorance by folks outside of ethnic groups outside of a small spectrum is common in both Seattle and in the Northwest as a whole. The difference is that most people in general don't make malicious jokes based on it.

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