My D.C., your Washington, whatever

December 31, 2013

Co-workers grab a late bite to eat at the Maine Avenue Fish Market at the Southwest waterfront last summer. (Amanda Voisard / The Washington Post)

“Wow, this is a lot of people for self-proclaimed real Washingtonians to bitch about,” the Facebook update said. A friend of mine, who’s lived in D.C. for years but hails from elsewhere, was commenting on the new Census figures released, showing the city has added nearly 13,000 residents since last year. A large number, yes, but one that The Post’s Carol Morello reported Monday is actually slowing down.

It was the second year in a row that the growth rate dipped. The city’s population rose by 13,800 the previous year and by 14,500 in the year before that, according to census figures.

In a statement issued Monday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said the latest census estimate shows that the city continues toward its goal of adding 250,000 residents within 20 years.

“The new population estimate demonstrates that the District continues to be one of the most attractive and competitive cities in the nation,” Gray said.

But my friend’s sentiment was one that I’ve seen plenty times before. Residents who’ve lived here for X amount of time, who take particular umbrage, either personal or intellectual, with being set aside from actual District natives who were born or primarily raised here. And it’s a sentiment that although I respect, has always struck me as bizarre.

When I point out in a column that something makes me feel a certain way as a native, it is not for the purposes of division. It is to highlight the very specific personal connectivity, an unchangeable one, to the place I still call home. If I lived in Topeka, Kan., for the next 40 years of my life, I’d still call myself a D.C. native. The fact is that having no choice about the matter is what separates those who arrived for college, a job, a spouse, whatever, from those that were brought into the world here. It’s not a big deal, it’s just a fact.

But, to give my friend credit, his specific point is a salient one. The notion of “real Washingtonians” at this point is just stupid. It’s a backwards-thinking mindset that plays on the odd inferiority complex that has dogged certain generations forever about D.C. The “real” vs. “non-real” classification has roots in the racially divisive mythology of “The Plan,” which gives no credit to anyone for who they actually are.

I don’t need, say, an 80s/90s Howard grad from lord knows where, who happens to be black, telling me about who is and isn’t a real Washingtonian. That never has, and never will, make any sense. Marion Barry was born in Mississippi. Chuck Brown was born in North Carolina. Ben Ali was born in Trinidad. None of that takes away from their legacies in this city.

But, the distinction of native versus non-native (as opposed to “real”) is an important one. There are certain things that simply cannot and should not mean the same things to you if this isn’t where you were born and raised.  Which is fine, and makes sense. That’s not some badge of honor, in all cases. For years, it was a scarlet letter. Now, it’s just reality. Should it give you a seat at any table you want when it comes to any civic discussion? Who knows. Should it get you a position in local politics just because? Absolutely not.

Yet, to treat people who take their positions as native Washingtonians seriously as a monolith of self-important people is foolhardy. For one, it’s not true. While this may not be the place it once was, I’d say most D.C. natives just want the term to stop being a de facto lightning rod for standoffishness.

People who conflate the “real D.C.” with “this is where I’m from” get defensive about it, while on the other side of the spectrum you get the Washington types saying “wow, you don’t meet that many people from, actual D.C.” To which my reply, frequently is, “you should get out more.” It’s a pointless permutation of interaction that I wouldn’t mind seeing go in 2014.

Clearly, these days, from a simple numbers standpoint, it doesn’t matter where you were born, or raised, or went to high school to make a significant impact in this city, be it locally or even nationally. But as we go into a new year, I implore you, if you do, to stop calling people “real Washingtonians.” Then, hopefully, people can stop assuming that us natives of the city don’t care about what they think, just because they landed somewhere else first.

Some of us have somewhere else to go. Some of us don’t. But, we all have something to say. If this current population model is going to be remotely sustainable, that distinction is one worth being smart about.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Clinton Yates | December 27, 2013