Kristin Wiggins could have sworn the man was staring at her.
It was evening and Wiggins and her husband were driving on Interstate 5 just north of Olympia, next to a white man in a big pickup truck, complete with a billowing American flag. Over and over and over again he would inch up to the passenger seat window and stare at her. He got so close that her car was pushed to the left edge of the lane. Wiggins, a Korean American, would stare back. After all, it was a battle of wills.
“In my mind, it was like, ‘This is code. This is a message,’” said Wiggins, 43. “He was using the flag [on his truck] as a symbol that this is his America and not mine. He was trying to intimidate us.”
Eventually the game got dangerous — the man kept creeping up on Wiggins’ car, switching lanes to tailgate them — and Wiggins asked her husband to pull over. It wasn’t worth it. Plus, she knew this type of man. People who can make traveling as a person of color in the Seattle area uncomfortable.
It’s not all small towns and it’s not always, but especially right now, at a time of increasing political and racial tensions, some of Seattle’s people of color are scared. Many Seattleites who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), say they don’t feel as safe while traveling now as they have in years past.
It’s hard to put a finger on the shift — social progress is usually linear. But in the years since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, race-motivated hate crimes have gone up in Washington state and in the U.S. According to FBI statistics, the number of race-based hate crimes perpetrated in Washington from 2016-18 is nearly 56% higher than race-based crimes from 2013-15. (Meanwhile, per U.S. census data, the state’s population only increased about 5% from 2015-18.) This, coupled with the police killing of George Floyd in May has resulted in increased tensions around race, and people of color feel more vulnerable while traveling. Some have even pondered the need for a modern-day Green Book — the travel guide used by Black people during the Jim Crow era.
Need for a new Green Book?
One thing is indisputable: People of color should not have to restrict themselves from travel because they have been made to feel unsafe in certain areas of the country.
“I ultimately think it’s the responsibility of the state government and the federal government to make sure Black people can travel safely,” said Quintard Taylor, professor emeritus and an African American history specialist at the University of Washington.
And yet, that doesn’t always happen.
Several people of color who spoke to The Seattle Times said they have been made to feel like outsiders while living and traveling throughout the predominantly white Pacific Northwest. And while incidents of racism against Black travelers have made national headlines recently, in the PNW, it’s not just Black people who have felt unsafe while traveling.
Wiggins tries to talk with her white friends about her experiences — like when she and her family went to Ocean Shores and pickup trucks drove up and down the street for hours with American flags flapping in the wind. Her son was on the curb and she had to yank him back as yet another truck came through with a frustrated honk. Her white friends suggested she call the police.
“And tell them what?” Wiggins said. “It didn’t occur to me to call the police for something like that. I didn’t call the police when that guy was staring me down on the freeway. I don’t want to go through that whole exchange. I don’t want to have to rationalize my fear.”
Experiences vary depending on race, but none of this is new.
For instance, being Black in America has always come with restrictions, particularly around travel, Taylor said.
“One of the most important restrictions on slaves was the limitation of their travel; they could not travel unless accompanied by their master,” said Taylor. “Restrictions on Black movement have been around until, theoretically, the 1960s. Even then, the nature of segregation meant there was a limit to travel.”
In today’s world, things are both different and very much the same.
Amanda Bradley, a Black Seattleite, has noted a stark change in her feelings about traveling the Pacific Northwest over the past few years.
“Even growing up I didn’t feel as scared as I do now at the age of 33,” Bradley said. “Traveling is something that I really like to do. I just made it a practice that I don’t travel alone.”
She remembers driving to Oregon with her white mother right before Trump was elected in 2016. In some spots, she didn’t feel comfortable getting out of the car: the MAGA flags and blatantly racist signage had her glued to her seat.
Tensions have escalated in the years since, as social justice movements battle the tide of racial inequality and white supremacy.
“I think in this moment there’s a rise of racial justice — but there’s also a concomitant rise in resistance,” Taylor said.
Bradley has avoided exploring Oregon solo because she’s heard through “the grapevine,” that there are certain small towns where it can be dangerous to be a person of color.
“Especially when you’re getting gas, or if you — God forbid — have your car break down. I don’t feel as unsafe traveling with friends, but in this political climate, traveling has definitely gotten worse,” Bradley said.
That’s where the idea of a new Green Book comes in, said Seattleite Kamal Garg, a 47-year-old Indian American. People of color need to know where it’s safe to go, Garg says.
The Green Book, short for “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” was first created in 1937 so Black New York City residents knew where they could go without worrying that they would experience brutality and verbal abuse. The book quickly became a staple for Black people traveling and living in the U.S. throughout the Jim Crow era. It was dangerous to travel without one.
“We need a new Green Book for the Pacific Northwest,” Garg said.
He thought of the idea while he, his wife and his two young kids were road tripping back to Seattle last month after spending their coronavirus lockdown in Palm Springs, California. The family planned to stop for the night at a Marriott in Salem, Oregon, and were only a few hours away when Garg was alarmed to see news stories of armed white men outside Salem businesses who claimed they were protecting their community from Black Lives Matter protesters.
After calling the hotel and contacting the sheriff and Salem’s Chamber of Commerce, Garg still wasn’t sure if the hotel he wanted to stay at, or the surrounding businesses, were safe for his family.
Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, spoke to Garg that day and confirmed there was one business he knew of, a salon in downtown Salem, that had armed individuals around the premises. When Garg asked if Salem was safe for his family, Hoffert said yes, adding that Salem “is an incredibly safe and welcoming city for all visitors or travelers to stay.”
But this vote of confidence wasn’t enough for Garg. The family ended up spending the night in Eugene, Oregon.
A few days after the trip, Garg posted on the Families of Color Seattle community Facebook page to see if anyone had similar experiences to share. He was met with over a dozen responses.
Green Book’s function — recast
Bradley, Garg and Wiggins are not alone in feeling unsafe while traveling in the Northwest. On June 4, a multiracial family looking to camp in Forks were accused of being antifa invaders. They were followed, cornered and trapped until some high schoolers helped them escape. Around the same time, a Black Lives Matter march in Sequim was overtaken by armed residents, who were also convinced they were protecting their land from antifa. In Klamath Falls, Oregon, residents also prepared for an antifa attack that didn’t happen.
The original Green Book listed the few safe haven options that were available to Black people at the time while on the road. In today’s world, however, this would inadvertently limit the freedoms that BIPOC should have today. After all, there’s a reason why the Green Book ceased production after the 1964 Civil Rights Act — there shouldn’t be a need for it.
“But we can’t go back to the era of segregation where Black people can only stay at those places [in the Green Book]. That’s unfair,” said Taylor. “It’s a question of whether or not this would be voluntary or mandated by society.”
Other Seattleites agree that a new Green Book isn’t the solution to increases in community racism. People of different races experience racism differently — a Green Book that’s safe for Asian people may not be safe for Black people, says Anne Ching, an Asian American Seattle resident.
“You might have a perfectly good day where you go out on the trails hiking, and you could have a random experience where it’s not safe,” said Ching. “I believe I’ve seen an ebb and flow according to the political climate as well. I’d probably be more cautious going further out now where I probably wouldn’t have before.”
However, efforts to create a contemporary Green Book aren’t new: The National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD) has maintained a directory of Black-owned hotels since 2001.
“In many ways, we are the modern day Green Book,” said Andy Ingraham, president of NABHOOD. “By creating NABHOOD, it was just another safe haven for Black Americans and, quite frankly, anyone that travels to feel safe at one of our hotels.”
Currently, the NABHOOD database does not show any Black-owned hotels in Washington state; the closest are in Portland. (Of course, it’s possible a Black-owned hotel in Washington may not have registered with NABHOOD, or advertised as a Black-owned business.) But, as Ingraham points out, “When you have a market that represents a diverse population, you’re probably going to see more diverse hotel owners. Only 1% of all hotels in the U.S. are owned by African Americans.”
Some folks, such as Dr. Dennis Rogers, a member of Blacks in Travel and Tourism — an “ecosystem” of small Black travel businesses, cultural institutions and other stakeholders — think of a new Green Book as a means of capitalizing on the economic interests of Black-owned businesses. Safety, says Rogers, is not as much of a concern as it was in the days of the initial Green Book.
“The Green Book in its original format was written in the context of segregation,” said Rogers. “I don’t think we are where we were, but I do believe that it’s important to know from state to state where safe havens are.”
Ultimately, a complete, exhaustive list of places friendly to all BIPOC seems impractical, especially when you account for the inherent limitations to making such a list: determining criteria, avoiding generalization or changing the list to follow the sociopolitical and cultural climate.
And, of course, it goes without saying that people of color shouldn’t have to devise ways to guarantee their own safe passage through any region of the U.S. But, given the fraught political climate, something has to be done, says Garg.
“A Green Book has always been necessary,” Garg said, “but now, with counterprotests and rallies, it just looks too much like armed angry people that believe they’re justified to take action against people of color. So what do you do? If you’ve got kids, how do you balance? How do you shelter your kids from things that might be potentially dangerous? I’ve learned that there are places I’m better off not going.”