Over the weekend, the images of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia shocked and saddened citizens across the United States.
And here on the Eastside, residents took action to show their support for those injured and killed while protesting a white nationalist rally in the Virginian city.
On Sunday evening, just one day after the horrific events took place, residents gathered on the steps of Issaquah City Hall to condemn the hatred and racism of the Charlottesville attacks and to honor those who were harmed standing up for the humanity of all people.
On Monday, peace and tolerance activist group Plateaupians for Peace held a similar vigil at Sammamish City Hall that drew 70 people. Several Bellevue residents are members of the group as well. At the vigil, the group read excerpts from the writings of renowned peace activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou and Rabbi Michael Adam Latz.
“Standing up against hate is at the very center of our organization … so there was no question that we needed to do something,” Plateaupians co-founder Sarah Hawes Kimsey said.
Plateaupians co-founder Kate Gordon stated that just because the Eastside tends to be a whiter, more affluent area does not mean that its residents get to ignore issues of race and discrimination. On the contrary, she said, they should use their positions of power to bring about change.
“Its time for those of us who do have that privilege and that affluence to stand up for those who don’t,” she stated.
Tiffany Smith-Fleischman, who helped organize the Issaquah vigil with Indivisible District 8, said that she did so in honor of a friend who, as a person of color, told Smith-Fleischman that she was feeling scared these past few days. “People in places big and small see how important it is to show up and speak out against white supremacy,” Smith-Fleischman said.
The rally drew people from around the Eastside, including former 41st Legislative District Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton). Speakers came from all kinds of marginalized groups and included a transgender, a bisexual, a mother of a biracial child and an African American woman who had grown up in Virginia.
Though the bloodshed of Charlottesville may seem far away from the relatively peaceful communities of Issaquah and Sammamish, there is one kind of racism that is prevalent everywhere and that the Plateaupians are working hard to extinguish — institutionalized racism.
Even though a person may feel that they are not racist and would never consider committing any outwardly racist acts, the person can still have deep-seated, everyday prejudices that they might not even be aware of. For instance, a young woman walking home alone at night who sees a man coming towards her on the sidewalk may feel an extra twinge of fear if the person is black.
This is institutionalized racism — this subconscious, automatic judgement about a person based on race.
“Though we as white people say we’re not racist … because of the society we’re raised in, there’s always that institutionalized racism,” Gordon said.
Gordon herself has noticed institutionalized racism in Sammamish. At the farmers market, she has seen women wearing hijabs receiving stares and second glances from people who may not be familiar with the Muslim faith.
Institutionalized racism is not necessarily our fault — it has deep roots in our society, culture and history. But, it is our responsibility to try to change it.
“The overt racism is something we can fix … But it’s that institutionalized racism that is hard to fight,” Gordon said. The only way to turn around institutionalized racism, she said, is to be aware of it on a daily basis and to commit to changing those little behaviors and beliefs.
The Plateaupians do not at all pretend to be free of institutionalized racism — they, too, have noticed those little, everyday moments of racism. The key, they said, is to acknowledge the moment and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I’ve had to catch myself, to correct myself,” Gordon said.
“I’m not perfect,” Kimsey said. “I’m learning every day.”
As for the answer to bringing an end to violent demonstrations like Charlottesville, Kimsey said that we must all work together each day to respect and give a voice to those around us who are marginalized.
“It’s gotta start with listening and participating and pushing out your own boundaries where you’re comfortable and allowing other voices to be heard,” Kimsey said. After all, “People of color are uncomfortable every day.”
Plateaupians for Peace organizes events throughout the year to spread knowledge and acceptance of other cultures.