Language about Tacoma is racially coded and problematic

By Casey O’Brien

Our language about Tacoma is coded — and it is a problem.

A friend of a friend of mine who is from Seattle was chatting with me recently about Tacoma. What she had to say didn’t shock me, but it did disappoint me.

“Tacoma’s dangerous. It has such a drug and gang problem. It’s sketchy. And it smells bad.” From someone educated and, I thought, fairly progressive, it was saddening to me that she saw my adopted home this way.

A friend of mine from high school who went to UW told me that if we ever wanted to hang out, I should just come up to Seattle because “it’s way more fun.” Comments about Tacoma run the gamut from mocking it as Seattle’s more boring cousin to outright calling it a hotbed of violence. When people call Tacoma “Tacompton,” it is a prime example of how racial coding influences our perspectives.

The truth is, the perception that Tacoma is more dangerous, more sketchy or more “ghetto” than its northern cousin are largely tied to the fact that it is far more racially and socioeconomically diverse than Seattle, or even the rest of Washington.

Based on census data, both Seattle and Tacoma are about 65 percent white, but they vary in percentages of other racial groups. For example, Tacoma is about 12 percent African American, and Seattle is only 7 percent. Seattle is about 5 percent mixed race, and Tacoma is around 8 percent.

Even within Tacoma, the neighborhoods that people want to spend time in, even our own students here at Puget Sound, are largely divided by racial lines. Students spend very little time in South Tacoma or even Downtown, many never venturing past 6th Avenue.

On campus, I hear people comment that they are “afraid” of South Tacoma and Hilltop. While I do not blame these individual students, I do think our collective perception of the city in which we live needs to be examined, especially as white folks.

Our understandings of “danger” are colored by our perceptions of race. “Dangerous” areas to white people are almost always also brown areas. The nickname “Tacompton” serves to illustrate this. It compares Tacoma to Compton, a multi-racial neighborhood of Los Angeles perceived to have high crime rates, and both areas are also much more diverse than the surrounding residential areas.

We need to be conscious of the impact these perceptions can have, especially on members of our larger community. If we want to be a part of this city, we have to engage with this city, and to engage with it, we can’t turn up our noses.

I have enjoyed every moment of the last four years in Tacoma — not just in Proctor and at Point Defiance, but in every neighborhood. I have enjoyed protests and marches, wandering through King’s Books and our other lovely bookstores, seeing exhibits at the Tacoma Art Museum and eating at restaurants all over the city. There are parts of every neighborhood of this city — not just the North End — that I will be sad to leave in just over a month. As a journalist, I have written stories about and explored many aspects of this city, and I think I am a better person because of it.

So cross 6th Avenue. You’ll be glad you did.

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