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The State of Whiteness

November 2011

Robert Balkovich

swimming-into-whiteness-header
 

When I was a child I was convinced that most people couldn’t point Oregon out on a map, and even if they could they probably wouldn’t waste their energy. I thought we were a state of nothings: no big cities, no exciting attractions, no celebrities. My family and I traveled often, and when people asked where we were from we would reply “Oregon,” and pause for reaction. Most people simply looked at us, confused. “It’s the state above California,” we would then clarify. It wasn’t until I left Oregon for Brooklyn at age 18 that I realized that people had begun to take interest in my home state.

In Brooklyn I did not have to clarify where Oregon was, everyone I met already knew and had plans to move there. “I’ve heard Portland is great, like a ton of sustainability and awesome music,” was the usual trope. “I just feel like, you know, it’s so much easier to live consciously in a place like that.” I always did my best to dissuade them from their ambitions: I told them about the non-stop rain, the over zealous religious communities, the conservative contingent, the meth, and the economic problems that were plaguing the state. Something about the concept of all these young Brooklynites trying to backtrack, go to where I’d just come from, irritated me. There was something about the situation that rubbed me the wrong way, something about Oregon that made it the antithesis of the liberal paradise that these people described, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Within a few years, Oregon had became so popular that it had its own sketch comedy show. When Portlandia premiered my friend Adrian, a fellow Oregonian-cum-New Yorker, and I watched it, hoping to find catharsis in its depiction of our home state. We were pleasantly surprised by the show and bemused the fact that many Portlanders found it offensive. Online message boards for the show were filled with defensive Oregonians upset with the snarkiness and “negative attitude” of the show. Many non-Oregonians were also posting, interested to find out how much of the show was exaggeration and how much was reality.

One post in particular caught my eye. “Where are all the black people in this show? I thought Portland was supposed to be some kind of super liberal city, so why is everyone on the show white.” I scoffed, “Do people not realize that Portland is the whitest major city in the United State?” Apparently some do not.

Of the 528,121 people who filled out the 2010 census living in Portland, Oregon, nearly 400,000 of them were white, 76% of the population. St. Paul, Minnesota; Anchorage, Alaska; and Kansas City, Missouri: all are more racially diverse than Portland, Oregon. What’s more, Portland is by far the most racially diverse city in Oregon. Almost every other city in the state clocks in at at least 90% white. After thinking about it for a bit, I realized that that was the thing that pissed me off the most about this liberal, alternative push towards Portland. The whole idea of it is a misnomer, as Portland may be progressive in a lot of ways, but racially, it’s completely antiquated.

A few months after this realization, Adrian’s step-mother, Tessa, came to visit. Tessa was born in New Zealand, spent part of her childhood in South Africa, and lived in New York and the Midwest before finally settling in Oregon. She is a smart, kind, outspoken woman who doesn’t hesitate to give her opinion. When I asked her where in Oregon she lived, she replied “I live in KKK country.”

When I was in high school kids associated with some sort of white power faction were not uncommon. They were not shunned or reviled, they were treated like any other social group: preps, goths, nerds, jocks, white supremacists. If my high school had had more than ten black students there might have been tensions, but instead the issue was simply avoided.

The few times there were outbursts of racial violence they seemed to come out of thin air. One day during lunch a black girl cut in front of a white girl. The white girl called the black girl a nigger, and the black girl promptly turned around and punched her in the face. Sympathies for that incident fell largely with the punched, who was dragged dramatically across campus to the nurses office, crying and covered in blood. For the rest of the day I heard “Poor Samantha got punched in the nose”, but never once “I can’t believe someone at our school just got called a nigger”. It was never discussed why she had used that word or why it pushed the black girl so far over the edge.

These examples from my high school experience are just a microcosm of the racial problems that face Oregon in the 21st century. Tessa, quick to call a bigot a bigot, seemed to understand what was wrong. I decided to make a point to talk to her about the issue, but first I wanted to know how we had ended up this way. As usual, history provided me most of the answers.

When pioneers first started coming to the Oregon Territory many of them came from slave states, but very few of them actually brought slaves with them. Even in its earliest incarnations, the Oregon Territory did not legally allow slaves to be brought into the state. This law, though, had little to do with abolitionism; in fact, the first governor of the state of Oregon held a decidedly pro-slavery stance. Outlawing slavery was, in effect, just a way of keeping African-Americans out of the state. An article in the Oregonian on Portland’s lack of racial diversity quotes Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University, as saying: “Conventional wisdom at the time was clear… If you don’t have more than one race, then you don’t have any racial problems.” For working class or poor whites living in Midwestern and southern states in the mid 1840s, free blacks represented a threat not only to their job security, but also their social standing, as “white trash” was often placed on a rung lower than “black” on the social ladder. One pioneer, Jesse Applegate, wrote in 1878, “Being one of the ‘Poor Whites’ from a slave state I can speak with some authority for that class—Many of those people hated slavery, but a much larger number of them hated free negroes worse even than slaves.”

Although there was an official ban on slavery, some pioneers brought slaves anyway, usually a trusted house servant. Many of those people freed their slaves once they reached the territory. In response, Oregon enacted several laws in an attempt to curb the influx of free blacks. There were exclusion laws to keep any new “negroes and mullatos” from entering the territory, and a law called the “Lash Law” that mandated that every black in the territory be lashed every six months until they left. When Oregon adopted its constitution, one of the amendments was an exclusion law, making it the only free state in the union to include an exclusion law in its constitution. In the 1860s the laws were reduced, and African-Americans, Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants, and multiracial people were allowed to live in the state for a $5-a-year fee, although they were not allowed to own property.

Even after the exclusion laws were repealed, there were still open racial hostilities in the state. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had a nationwide revival, with Oregon being a location of serious Klan activity. They were able to elect several public officials, including state legislatures, and publicly endorsed the campaign of Democratic Governor Walter Pierce, who was elected in 1923.

There were two large influxes of minorities: Chinese in the late 1800s to help build the railroads, and during World War II, black dock workers recruited to work at the shipyards in Portland. Neither group was accommodated by the state. The dock workers and their families were moved into housing projects in a neighborhood called Vanport. On Memorial Day, 1948, the Columbia River flooded and destroyed the housing. The remaining African-Americans, unable to find non-discriminatory housing in much of Portland, relocated to North East Portland, where there was already a small black community. To this day, North East Portland remains Portland’s only “black” neighborhood. My father was raised in Irvington, one of the communities in North East Portland. According to him, racial tensions were high.

 
 

In the 21st century, Oregon remains mostly homogenized, the combination of a prolonged history of racism and geography — Oregon is far away from any other major hubs of culture and has only one large urban area itself. There has never been any sort of ethnic revival, nor has anyone ever asked for one. Oregonians, both liberals and conservatives, seem to be content with the state of race relations in their state, simply because no one is ever confronted with the issue of race. This lack of conflict leads to complacency. Being faced with a problem forces you to solve it. Oregonians have never been faced with the problem of race, so they have never solved it.

“They have this attitude that’s like, you can’t get angry, you can’t say anything divisive or controversial.”

 

One major factor that Tessa believes contributes to the lack of racial awareness in Oregon is the liberal, new age attitude towards the subject. “It’s the new age people who are making things worse,” she insisted. “Because they have this attitude that’s like, you can’t get angry, you can’t say anything divisive or controversial.”

In an article on NPR, a recent transplant from upstate New York is interviewed. He is a young biracial man who came for the hardcore music scene and works downtown in a food truck. When the reporter asks him about the lack of diversity in Portland, he seems incredulous: “Portland may be only 6 percent African-American, but Gardiner says he’s lived in whiter places. ‘So to me it’s actually got a pretty reasonable-size black community. I can look down this street and I can spot a black person somewhere,’ says Gardiner, who then points out a black person.”

The idea of being able to point out one black person on the street in Oregon is something that fuels both forms of racism: outspoken racists use it to call out a perceived rising racial tide threatening to take over the state, and those who are ignorant or apathetic towards racism use it as proof that there is some kind of visible minority community. The new age idea of “color blindness” is not applicable in Oregon, because black people do stand out, not because of their actions or character, simply because of their skin color. It would be the same if you saw a white person walking down the street in Cameroon. This unintentional heightened visibility hasn’t been a positive thing for the black community in Oregon. When I asked my mother about racism she’d witnessed, she sent me an article about a well respected University of Oregon music professor and minister who was arrested on several different occasions for fitting criminal profiles, the profile being that of a black man.

Tessa introduced me to an African-American friend of hers, a woman named Amy who had recently moved to Oregon from Brooklyn. I asked Amy about her experiences. What she told me was not shocking:

“The biggest issue for me is that there is no visible black community in Ashland which makes it difficult to feel as if one ‘fits in.’ Twice I’ve been told by white men in bars around town that they’ve never had sex with a black woman which is actually a rude and obnoxious thing to say (and certainly unpleasant to hear as it makes me feel like some sort of novelty or porn fantasy that they would like to act on). The racism in Ashland tends to be of the liberal kind – people being overly friendly for fear of being thought of as racist. And I am very aware of my behavior because I know how easy it is to get cast as the ‘angry black woman.’ I have had several initial encounters with people who feel as if they have every right to engage me in a conversation about race since I am a black woman; generally it is at times when I’d prefer to be anonymous such as at the grocery store or at work. I have never felt more like a Black Woman in my entire life because in Ashland, that’s all I am.”

In the last 10 years the population of Oregon has grown by 12%, with much of that growth focused around Portland. Every year young people flock there, and all of them that I have spoken to espouse the same desire to live in a place that is progressive, friendly, and freeing. Like the pioneers before them, most of those people are white. If this trend continues, Oregon will continue to be a completely whitewashed state, devoid of the benefits of multiculturalism and higher levels of racial awareness. The people I meet who intend to move there, all of them white, don’t seem to be interested in this. When I talk to them about why they choose Portland, they speak as though they are talking about a made up place, some kind of hipster Utopia.

Portlandia jokes that Portland is a place where you never really have to grow up, and for the most part it is true. Part of growing up is recognizing and accepting the differences of the people around you, and people who want to move to Portland don’t want to accept people’s differences, they want to move to a place where everyone has the same value system. Like the pioneers, they are actively looking to leave places because not enough people share their same value system, and in 21st century America, it is much easier to achieve that in a racially homogenized setting. Tessa describes living in Oregon as living in a puffy white cloud. I imagine all of these young people, with their ideologies loaded into wagons, setting out towards this great white expanse.

 

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About Robert Balkovich

is an Oregonian-cum-New Yorker who currently lives in Brooklyn. He holds a B.F.A. in Writing from The Pratt Institute, and his work has appeared in Ubiquitous magazine. In his spare time he enjoys traveling, islands, Latin America, jogging, and the novels of Barbara Kingsolver. All inquiries can be sent to robertbalkovich@gmail.com.

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