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Roadside Chat with Matthew Howard on Race and Mobility | Part 1 of 3

Headshot of Matthew Howard wearing a white shirt against a gray brick background.

Matthew Howard is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington (UW) Seattle. 

Among other topics, he studies how historical events shape the African American identity and experiences, in both literature and life. 

He started at SDOT on April 1, 2020 and is working with the Street Use Communications team. 

We sat down with Matthew, who shared with us how he hopes his work on transportation and more broadly, on issues of mobility, will empower Black people and provide deeper insight for how race and mobility affect social change.  

This Roadside Chat with Matthew will be published in a series of three posts over the next three weeks. This is the first! This Q+A is condensed for clarity and readability. 

Matthew, tell us about your stake in this work, and about how your academic work is related to your work in transportation?  

This year has seen Black people (and our nation as a whole) witness a stream of deaths that call into question our understanding of race. From George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor’s untimely death at the hands of officers carrying out a search warrant, and even Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times in Wisconsin, there are ongoing conversations about the conditions that led to their harm. 

It’s not enough to know that Black people have long been oppressed in this country. Understanding how and why anti-Black racism exists will help counter its negative effects on Black people’s lives. Failure to understand these things will only continue the cycle of events that see Black people oppressed and murdered. As a young Black man, I don’t want to be another name in these conversations, nor do I want anyone else to be.  

It’s important for me to bring much-needed nuance to these conversations about race and I do so through my research on mobility. Over the past six years, I’ve focused on historical events that continue to shape the African American identity and experiences in both literature and real-life. I believe that ‘mobility’ isn’t just about transportation. Rather, mobility is a complex relationship between people and the systems built to govern and interact with each other, that affect show individuals move about the world and experience social progress via who they are. 

Societies can better address the issues certain racial groups face by analyzing what those people’s needs are. This work has led me here to SDOT, where I continue to explore ways that City workers can create equitable solutions so that all community members can be mobile. 

What are some of the key factors that shape how you do your work?  

One factor is positionality. You’ve probably heard this word thrown around a lot these last few weeks, months, maybe even years. Positionality describes how your identity influences your understanding of the world. It implies that who you are (for example: your heritage, where you grew up, etc.) affects how you view the world and other people. It’s important to be aware of your positionality so that you can approach life adequately grounded. 

For example, I am aware that I’m a young Black, straight man from east Texas who now lives in the Northwest. I can tell you all about hurricane season but have no idea how to get through an earthquake (whenever I say I’ll just stand under a doorway, people look at me like I’m crazy). I can tell you all about Juneteenth while most people I’ve met in the Pacific Northwest hardly knew it was even a thing, let alone a holiday. And it’s not their fault – they didn’t grow up the way I did or where I did. So, their perception of me is shaped by their own experiences and mine, of theirs. Pacific Northwesterners have their own experiences that I can only see from the outside too. 

More about Juneteenth:

“On June 19, 1865, about two months after the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. General Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln….The holiday received its name by combining June and 19.” 

Derrick Bryson Taylor, New York Times  

I also operate from a place of being a teacher. I taught at UW for four years so it’s almost natural for me to try to get people thinking more critically about the way they view the world and how the world views them.

I think it’s of the utmost importance to center how we talk about positionality when we talk about race and mobility. If we want to maximize people’s ability to be mobile (whether that’s physically, economically, or socially), we must center how their positionality could help or hinder that ability. My work ensures that we always bear in mind the positionality of those we hope to serve/help. 

How does being aware of your positionality affect how you interact with others, especially with respect to SDOT’s work? 

While it’s important to remain aware of your positionality, it’s also important to be aware of other people’s positionalities. As public servants, it’s in our best interests to meet the needs of the communities we serve. City workers can best do this by considering the types of people that make up the community, how community members see themselves  (i.e., their positionality), and how they’ll be affected  by what we do to the city-scape.  

Understanding positionality allows us to better listen and respond to the needs of our diverse City residents.  

That makes sense. So, we’re all affected by our positioning and specific “location” – geographically as well as ideologically and in a host of other ways—and this affects who we are, who we understand ourselves to be, and how we regard others. Does this also affect how others see us?  

Absolutely. Positionality also impacts how the world views you – it works both ways. This can be called your “legibility.” Your legibility in the world determines how people will treat you – even if they’re totally unaware of the reasons why. Legibility is highly performative because we often tailor the identity we present to others. Our peers also have their own interpretations of what they expect based on their own positionality. 

To give you an example: when I tell people that I’m from Texas, they often smile and say, “But you don’t have an accent!” I then must explain to them that not everyone from the state has that typified twang and drawl like Matt McConaughey. It’s mostly Westerners, Northerners from up near Dallas, and some Central folk who speak with that accent. 

It’s easy to overlook or ignore incorrect assumptions about other people’s  positionality and legibility – but not addressing those assumptions can lead to  unfounded and unchallenged stereotypes and prejudices. We (SDOT) bear in mind the positionalities of many Seattleites into our initiatives, goals, and programs to aid their pursuit of mobility. 

Matthew, thanks for sharing your experience. What can people look forward to on the next installment of our roadside chat?  

In the next installment, I’ll speak more about how history shows how misrepresentation of Black people’s legibility has continuously undermined their mobility.    

Stay tuned next week for the next installment of our Roadside Chat with Matthew Howard.