With the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past May, Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation and around the world. These events precipitated a national reckoning with race, sparking difficult conversations and serious reflection in communities across the country.
Although Sammamish is a wealthy suburb with a small Black community, students here still organized a Black Lives Matter protest this past June. During the protest, several speakers revealed personal experiences with racism in this community.
Through interviews with students and community members, the Sammamish Independent found that tensions over race have been subtly simmering in Sammamish for years, revealing a community that does not want to touch on these issues.
“Sammamish being predominantly white, most people aren’t affected by racism so it’s just not discussed,” said Addy Lamaute, a member of Eastlake High School’s Black Student Union.
Jacob Whitney, the co-president of the Black Student Union, explains that Sammamish’s privilege as an affluent and majority-white town has contributed to people misconstruing the lack of discussion on race as a sign of progress. Many who fall for this misconception miss what is happening in schools.
“I’ve noticed that racism in this town mostly appears among younger people, other teenagers, and mostly in the form of humor, especially dark humor,” Whitney said.
Cases ranged from microaggressions to blatant incidents of racism. Over the summer, high schoolers took to social media to expose the usage of racial slurs as a major problem, reposting videos and screenshots of students using the n-word.
In July, Sammamish students submitted a lengthy record of racist incidents to the Lake Washington School Board. Instances ranged from obnoxious fake accents, blatant perpetuation of racial stereotypes, racist jokes, and other inappropriate behavior from staff and students alike. Whitney recounted the dehumanizing experience of having his hair petted without his consent in school hallways.
Such incidents are not confined to schools. Rachelle Horner, an Eastlake High School teacher, described having her own hair petted in the Sammamish Trader Joe’s. In recent years, racist graffiti has appeared in local neighborhoods. In November, a Black Lyft driver was infected with COVID-19 after two white passengers from Sammamish hurled racist slurs at him and refused to don masks.
Besides these incidents, many have found the community’s efforts to address diversity and inclusion lacking.
Whitney suggests the Sammamish city government recognize Black History Month and take greater action to foster dialogue around diversity and inclusion, like neighboring cities have done. School curriculum is another area of focus.
“Education shapes who we are and what our worldview is,” said Amin Sidiali, a Skyline High School student. “It’s important that we are raising generations that are educated about these issues.”
However, some local educators and students find the prevailing public school curriculum does not adequately include diverse perspectives.
Horner, who has taught history and English at Eastlake for 13 years and advises the Black Student Union, said that many high schoolers enter her classroom with very simplistic viewpoints.
“Columbus is a hero. All the founding fathers are heroes, even the ones who owned slaves, because everybody thought it was okay at the time. Brown people don’t write books. The list goes on,” Horner said.
In some situations, educators restricted by district guidelines have called upon outside voices to help inform their students.
Since 2005, Delbert Richardson, a local activist, has brought his American History Traveling Museum to schools in the Pacific Northwest, including Eastlake High School. Richardson’s museum teaches American history through an afro-centric lens, and regularly receives invites from educators to speak at their schools.
Richardson said the interest in more diverse viewpoints of history has increased since 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president.
“Society is just now becoming conscious and aware of the importance of looking at history through multiple lenses,” Richardson said. “He who tells the story controls the narrative and history has been created in a white male dominant lens. But there are other versions of the story that my museum hopes to explore.”
Efforts to reform the public school curriculum have met local opposition. An uproar ensued this October after Skyline High School hosted a day of learning about concepts like anti-racism, redlining, and black oppression in the United States. Conservative parents were up in arms, many interpreting the lesson as “indoctrination” and “anti-American.”
Horner said the Eastlake staff is in the process of auditing the curriculum with a focus on teaching through the lens of equity, and then adapting lessons and units accordingly.
“We are a totally mixed nation with different cultures coming from different countries and that makes America a pluralistic society. That’s why it’s important that we help all students see themselves in literature and history,” said Horner.
The Lake Washington School District and Issaquah School District have started making some changes due to last year’s protests. LWSD has established a District Equity Team and ISD has established an Equity Advisory Group. Individual schools issued statements to support equity. Eastlake’s Black Student Union has also started a new segment on the school announcements called “Discussions About Race” to foster dialogue and address racism in both its expressed and subtle forms.
Students agree that the recent interest in topics such as racism, diversity and inclusion would not have happened if it were not for the Black Lives Matter protests. This progress is the result of both the heightened national spotlight, as well as years of hard work, said Horner. She hopes interest in these topics will continue to sustain.
“Not everybody is treated equally, and it is our responsibility to fix that,” said Horner. “It is our responsibility as parents and educators to teach our students that we all share an innate humanness, regardless of the difference we possess on the outside.”