Sunday, August 26, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At monthly potlucks, guests explore issues that many people won't touch

Seattle Times staff reporter

That prickliest of subjects — race — is a barefooted affair on a steamy Friday night over boxes of Snappy Dragon Chinese takeout.

Fork or chopsticks? Pass the string beans, please.

Lisa M. Taylor hosts tonight's race dinner, one of many held in private homes throughout the city for years.

Indeed, in progressive, mostly white Seattle, in this city chastised for its failure to address race — we're too polite! — regular folk have dipped toes and, in some cases, dived headlong into the subject. Strangers tote casseroles and fruit salads to monthly potluck dinners and, bit by bit, bare their souls.

As one white man puts it: A lot of people have friends of other races, but you have to be pretty close before you can really talk about race.

Taylor pushes back the sofa in her Northgate apartment, smoothes out an African cloth on her living-room floor, and opens the sliding-glass door, soda bottles, bags of chips and a package of paper napkins left over from Thanksgiving.

Making dinner plans

If you're interested in establishing an in-home dinner discussion group, the Urban Enterprise Center has resources, discussion topics and host packets. For information, call Lynn Coriano at 206-389-7337.
She is a 35-year-old program manager at the YWCA, and a transplant from San Diego. She is vivacious, gregarious and won't hesitate to speak her mind. Bring it on!

Taylor's race, her blackness, is always there. It needles her at moments when she feels a coolness from a white person.

"There is always that question," she explains. "Is it because I'm black?"

Once, house-hunting in West Seattle, she arrived early for an appointment. She plopped herself on the sidewalk to wait.

She saw curtains across the street open slowly, revealing an older, white face, and then close. Open. Close.

"I'm thinking, `Why don't you just come out and introduce yourself? Offer me a glass of water or something,' because it was hot that day! There was no interaction. I found that so odd."

Such interaction, or lack of it, across racial lines was at the root of the initiative on race launched by former President Clinton in 1997. A national conversation, through "town meetings" across the country, would help build a stronger country.

"I'm not suggesting that town meetings will solve the problems," John Hope Franklin, a historian and initiative advisory-board member, said in 1997. "But I am suggesting that a national conversation about race and ethnicity has not occurred in our history."

Reporters asked if organizers believed talk would really make a difference. Labor activist Linda Chavez-Thompson shot back: "The alternative is, what if we don't talk about it?"

Needing to talk

Talk. There are those who believe talk is productive and those who believe too much talk goes on at the expense of action. Those in the second camp ask how much can really be accomplished chatting over glasses of wine.

Taylor, though, sees talk at the origin of all human change. She could learn something from a 70-something white woman. And a 40-something black man who had grown up in the South.

One by one, her guests arrive: three men, three women, all well educated and professional; four whites, one Asian, one black.

To an outsider, the two-hour dinner will seem uneventful: no shouting, no weeping, no accusations or awkward acknowledgements about prejudice. The conversation will meander among strangers who have become friends. Trust is built, which, they say, is the point.

The Seattle race dinners sprouted from the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson.

Herman McKinney, who is black and executive director of the Urban Enterprise Center of Seattle, got a phone call from a white friend.

The friend had always considered himself open-minded, but watching the O.J. trial made him uneasy. He thought O.J. was guilty in part, he realized, because O.J. is black.

He needed to talk. So for three hours, over lunch at the Washington Athletic Club, he and McKinney did just that.

"He thought he had really gotten beyond the issues of race," McKinney says of his friend, whom he wouldn't identify because he is well-known in business circles. "It was bothering him. We talked openly and agreed to remain confidential. After that, we felt better."

And McKinney went back to his center's board and proposed the Forums on Race, in which prominent speakers would address luncheon crowds at hotel ballrooms. Bill Bradley, then a U.S. senator, opened the series in June 1997. Coincidentally, Clinton announced his national race conversation the same month.

Ten other forums have since been held. Among the featured speakers: black poet Mona Lake Jones, Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation, and Julian Bond of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The forums, which had a $170,000 budget last year, are funded through public, private and corporate grants, including some from The Seattle Times.

The Seattle Office of Civil Rights pledged $30,000 this year and the same amount for next year.

The luncheons cost $35 to $50, pricing a sizable slice of the city out. And there has been grumbling that the forums define race as just black and white.

So Forums on Race has hosted seven free dinners, more neighborly events held at a community center or church social hall. At every event, the audience breaks into smaller groups for intimate discussion. Participants are invited to sign up for in-home dinners.

There have been about 300 such dinners in the Seattle area since 1997.

"We want to open the door for people to have a conversation, people who may have never had this conversation before," says Lynn Coriano, the Forums program manager.

Coaxing such a conversation can be tricky.

"White people are hesitant to talk about race, in part because they don't really have to," says cultural historian Maurice Berger, author of "White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness."

"To be white in this society is to not have to think about skin color."

That's a generalization, but one that Bill Block, a white attorney in Seattle, agrees with.

"It's hard for Caucasians to realize that if you're a person of color, you live with the (race) issue," says Block. "You have some interaction every day that has some racial overtone."

But for whites to talk race requires some courage, he says. They have to wrestle with the knowledge that society isn't just — and the guilt that comes with that knowledge.

"There's the question: `Am I responsible?' " Block says.

An estimated 10,000 people have participated in the three-faceted Forums on Race. Organizers will survey participants next month to gauge if the program has changed behavior or attitudes.

Sharing experiences

Carla Dimitriou is white and a Seattle visual artist. Her husband runs a local jazz club, which draws a racially mixed audience. When she stands at the door, people of color sometimes are cool to her.

"I didn't understand," she says. "I didn't see myself as being part of a dominant culture."

A close friend is African American but, even with her, Dimitriou didn't talk about race.

She attended the Bradley forum and found the after-speech table conversation "stimulating, meaty and uncomfortable." She returned for others.

At one, a black man shared an incident in which a white co-worker said to him, "When I look at you, I don't see color." The man spoke with frustration about how that statement invalidated him.

"It made me realize all the ignorant statements I've made," says Dimitriou, who prefers the term Caucasian to white.

Meredith Easton Brown is white. She grew up in the suburbs of Hartford, Conn.; Boston and New York. Her father was a Protestant minister who once partnered his white parish with a black and Latino church in East Harlem.

Race can be about class as well as skin color, says Brown, who has facilitated some of the Seattle dinners.

"I'm married to a white guy, and he didn't feel privileged about his race. He felt underprivileged by his poverty. Single mom. Subsidized housing. Subsidized luncheons ...

"It strikes me that when people share experiences, there is as much diversity among Caucasians as among people of color."

The right time to talk?

"White Lies" is a racial coming-of-age, an autobiographical series of vignettes about growing up in Manhattan's Lower East Side in a housing project where whites were the minority. Author Berger's father was white; his mother was a Sephardic Jew who didn't want her dark skin to classify her as a person of color.

He doesn't believe white people can talk honestly across race. Rather, he says, the dialogue must begin within — asking yourself, for example, why you would or wouldn't vote for a black candidate or see a black play.

But McKinney thinks it's time to talk. "A lot of this is just people not really knowing one another and then finding out there are so many similarities, as opposed to differences. How people want the same things for their children, for example."

Taylor is the adopted, African-American daughter of white parents. As she readies her apartment for her dinner guests, she recalls how in college, visitors would walk into her room, see a family photo, look at her and go "Huh?"

"We all have our prejudices," she says. "I know there's stuff I carry around."

But an interracial dialogue can be tiring when, for example, the one black person in a group is always perceived as speaking on behalf of an entire community.

"At some point, you think, `When do I stop having to be a teacher?' " says Paula Harris-White, an African American who runs King County's civil-rights commission. "When do I have to stop telling the same story over and over?"

Zigzagging conversation

Forums on Race are open to anyone — and confidential. That rule is made clear at every event.

Taylor and her dinner guests made an exception at the request of The Times. The group hadn't planned on meeting this month. When they did, as a courtesy, this newspaper paid for the food.

Joan and Lloyd Takasugi are husband and wife. She is white and runs her own travel business. He is third-generation Japanese American, a computer analyst.

Penny MacElveen-Hoehn is white and an educator.

John Perkins is African American and a consultant.

Shelton Huettig is white, a marriage-and-family therapist.

Happie Byers is white, a retired educator.

They are a comfortable lot, hugging hello and goodbye. They eat shoeless, picnic-style. They take turns talking but, as is the tendency when a discussion becomes passionate, they occasionally speak over each other.

If race is a porcupine out in the world, on this night, in this context, race is more wheaten terrier, nuzzling its way into the conversation. It may not be acknowledged right away, but at some point, it has nosed its way back into a lap. And it is tended to.

Joan talks about a friend who is shot down by his boss when he suggests they recruit from African-American universities.

The group groans and talks about people having good intentions but failing to follow through.

"Talk is cheap," Penny says.

"Who takes a stand and says `we'll do something different?' " Lisa asks.

Joan talks about how people "don't want to disturb the apple cart." Shelton agrees: "People always feel like they have to conform."

Lloyd chimes in about a documentary called "The Color of Fear" by Lee Mun Wah. A group of men are at a weekend retreat and talk intensely about race.

"There was this one Caucasian man who was totally oblivious," Lloyd says. "He had never dealt with issues of a person of color. Then he came around. The irony is that this man thought he was a very liberal person."

Lisa screams in mock horror. "Oh my god! That's what scares me. Seattle is so full of them."

Happie nestles into a floor pillow. She is a great-grandmother, nearly 50 years older than Lisa, the youngest here. Her racial consciousness was seeded in the 1960s but has blossomed in this group.

"It's subtle," she says. For example, she just saw the film "Emitai," about French soldiers and their forced recruitment of Senegalese villagers during World War II. Happie hated the film.

"A friend of mine said, `Why?' I said because I hated to be white. I identified with the French. I didn't like it."

The conversation zigzags: a living wage; Tommy Hilfiger and FUBU; illegal immigrants; first jobs; blacks and church.

When Lloyd wonders why the black community seems more religious than other groups, Lisa challenges: What community? Where? "That's just it," she says. "There is no black community. I'm an anomaly. I'm a black Catholic."

Race has never been a subject this group has shied from. Indeed, they are here because they wanted more insight. That's another criticism of Forums on Race: it preaches to the choir.

Maybe we are the choir, Happie says. But there is an increased awareness being nurtured about what it's like to be in one's own white skin and what it's like to be a person of color.

Shelton, active in the civil-rights movement in the '60s, believes he's doing something important again. Penny is more willing to call people on their racial judgments. Lloyd says the trust cultivated here allows him to practice talking about race.

"It's not foreign anymore," he says. "You know you're not going to get your head bitten off."

The group makes plans to see an art exhibit, maybe a film. They wonder why people sign up for dinners but never follow through. They consider expanding their group with another black, a Latina, a Korean American.

Lisa slices up a chocolate cream pie.


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