OLYMPIA — Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) has initiated a review of all ethnically and racially offensive geographic names in Washington state.
“We can’t change the past, but we can change our course so as not to repeat our past mistakes,” Jayapal said. “No injustice should be below our notice, so while some of these creeks or lakes may be in remote places, they stand as a constant reminder of times when women, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and others were thought of and treated as less than a whole and autonomous person. It is pretty incredible that in 2016, we still have dozens of racist and offensive place names on record in our state.”
More than 1,400 places in the United States contain racial slurs, including at least 48 in Washington.
A “Coon Creek” in King County will be the first to be addressed for a change. An immediate focus will also turn to other places around the state containing the word “coon,” as well as those with “squaw” and “Jim Crow” — which is a derogatory 19th century minstrel character that became symbolic of segregation and black suppression laws in the South.
The process to change names on official geographic maps is community-driven. Anyone who wishes to make a change can initiate it by filling out a form and delivering it to the Washington State Committee on Geographic Names. Once the proposed change is considered by the committee, community members and tribes near the location are given a chance to weigh in. New names must meet certain criteria. Once a change is agreed to, it is then reviewed by the State Board of Natural Resources, which comprises the State Board on Geographical Names.
The ethnically offensive name used most frequently in Washington and throughout the United States is “squaw” — an Anglo-derivative word that refers to Native American women and is commonly regarded as offensive. “The fact is, words matter. These names would not be used in conversation today and there is no reason to keep them alive in locations in our state. Instead of clinging to relics of an intolerant past, let’s rename these places so they celebrate the people and cultures that made Washington into the wonderful place it is today,” Jayapal said.