Portland has shown us a history of Black and brown folks fighting tooth and nail for their spaces, while white Portlanders have taken up that space and gaslighted us by attempting to convince us that this white utopia is just fine as it is.
By Margaret Jacobsen
By now the whole country is aware that our liberal-loving, hippie-supporting, recycling, earth-conscious city of Portland, Oregon, isn’t this utopia it had labeled itself to be. In fact, it’s one of the first times that the whole country has become aware of its large KKK presence dating back to the 1920s.
The most common misconception is that racism was bred and raised in the South. We also assume that northern states were more progressive than southern states but that simply isn’t true. When Oregon joined the union in 1859, it was the only state which forbade black people from living within its borders.
I have been in Portland for six years and when I first arrived, I didn’t notice how few people of color lived here. I assumed it was just because of the neighborhoods I was spending time in, or the friends I had made. It wasn’t until I met other Black and brown people, that I began asking, “Did you notice that there aren’t very many of us here?” Like me, many of them were transplants and the ones I met six years ago have since moved to the East Coast.
The longer I lived here, the more questions I asked and I learned about an Oregon that was very different from the utopia it paints itself as. I learned that in the 40s and 50s many Black folks were thriving in Portland, particularly the Albina district of the city. They were thriving until redlining began, until banks refused to give Black families loans, or buy homes unless they used cash. I learned that not only have the majority of Black families been displaced over the last 10 years of gentrification, I also learned that because most of them were born in Oregon, they had no choice but to stay put.
Gentrification wasn’t taken seriously until it started to affect lower-income white neighborhoods in 2012–only then did our city begin to talk about gentrification and turn a small spotlight on the black and brown people who were pushed out of their homes too. It took white people suffering for them to realize that the people of color in Portland had already been suffering.
In the past few years I’ve experienced the scary underside of this liberal city, micro-aggressions run rampant here – from white folks thinking it’s perfectly acceptable for them to lay their hands anywhere on your body, to them making jokes about people of color under the guise that it’s okay because they’re not conservatives, so therefore they are better.
There is a refusal to talk about the history of the Native folks that lived on the land before the white folks came west, there is a refusal to take responsibility for the poor treatment of Black and Latinx folks in Portland. There is a choice that every white person in this city chooses, which is to ignore the cries and despair of Black and brown people demanding that they deserve so much more than the coffee shops and hip bars that have replaced the churches and jazz clubs.
As Portland began to grow in its popularity, so many things have been swept under the rug. The whole city looks like theft: from the new condos that line all of the old streets of Portland – each one replacing a building once owned by a black person – to the local artisanal ice cream stores, craft burger shops, Asian fusion restaurants and brunch spots that probably stole their recipes from a person of color, but no one cares.
Our city has banned plastic bags, encourages recycling, boasts of having the most vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants, so people assume that there is no way that we have a race problem–because if you’re liberal and you’ve chosen to recycle and listen to NPR, then you can’t possibly be racist.
Despite their refusal to engage or listen to the people of color who repeatedly tell them that our city has caused us more harm than good, white people believe themselves to be allies. But white folks cannot just attribute that label to themselves, we get to decide whether or not white people are actually working on deconstructing white supremacy within themselves and within the world.
We want accomplices: being an accomplice in Portland means a constant disruption of a system that is rooted in white supremacy. Being an accomplice means constantly policing the racism in your social circles and using whiteness to protect Black and brown folks from being assailed by racist micro and macro-aggressions. Being an accomplice in Portland means supporting Black and brown-owned business and calling out the appropriation of our cultures in white-owned restaurants and stores. Being an accomplice in Portland means breaking passive-aggressive behavior and forcing honest discussions about how our city has repeatedly catered to white supremacy and neglected Black, brown and native citizens.
The white people occupying Portland have to take on the necessary labor to create meaningful change for equity. Portland has shown us a history of Black and brown folks fighting tooth and nail for their spaces, while white Portlanders have taken up that space and gaslighted us by attempting to convince us that this white utopia is just fine as it is. But enough is enough.
Author Bio: I currently live in Portland, Oregon, with my two children. I’m a D&D loving Hufflepuff that interests include praising Beyoncé’s name wherever I go, watching Korean dramas and anime, spending a lot of time wishing I could write poetry and creating projects that benefit other people more than they benefit me. Find me on Twitter and Instagram.