I grew up in Olympia, Washington, a large town of 20,000+ people in the 60’s that had only one black family. One. There were a hand full of Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk. Plain white milk.
In 1970, the Caucasian high school graduation student speaker caused a controversy resulting in numerous parents walking out of the ceremony when in her speech she called our town a “white racist ghetto”. It was the first time I’d heard someone actually crack a previously unspoken barrier with her words. What she said caused much anger, but the ensuing debate in the letters to the editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference. Olympia began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.
Leaving for college in California helped broaden my point of view, to be sure, but in the 70’s there were no diversity initiatives, so it was still a vastly Caucasian campus. When I went to study in Africa in 1975, I had the enlightening experience of being one of two whites traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Tanzanians on trains and boats, and became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at and frightening small children, and constantly perceived as out of place, not belonging.
Returning to the Northwest meant blending in as homogenized white milk again. Although there was some minimal diversity in my medical school class, it wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative in 1980 that I began to experience the world in technicolor. I joined a group of doctors in training that included a former member of the Black Panthers, a Kiowa Indian, several Jews, someone of Spanish descent, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, and a Yupik Eskimo. Not only was I challenged to explain how I perceived our inner city patients’ cultural and family context, but I witnessed how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers worked with patients who looked or grew up like them. It was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic. There I saw patients who lived in the projects, struggling with poverty and social fragmentation. There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Askenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English. It was a wide world of color that walked into my exam rooms, enriching my life. I found that white milk, wonderful as it was, didn’t hold a candle to some of the flavors I was discovering.
When we made the decision to move north near my husband’s home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants, it felt like a homecoming yet not without an adjustment. I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the border). I didn’t have the same cultural background to fit in easily. The color of my skin no longer was noticeable, but the difference in rituals, the language quirks and traditions stood out. In other words, the milk looked just as white, (maybe skim versus whole or 2%), but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)
Even with those apparent differences, more changes have happened in our rural community over the last twenty five years since we moved here. We have two thriving Native American sovereign nations, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, and increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry harvest, some of whom have settled in year round. My supervisors at my workplace are African American. Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and East Indians are immigrating in large numbers, attracted by affordable farmland. I was shopping today at a new rural corner grocery only a few miles from our farm, built and managed by Sikhs who have stocked the shelves with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.
It has taken awhile for homogeniety to mean something other than white. Instead, it has become the most wonderful tasting chocolate I could have ever imagined. Even the local dairies understand.