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Kiran Herbert: Portland and Portlandia, Two Worlds of Whiteness

June 18, 2013

Oregon’s liberal mecca was made white by explicitly bigoted laws, and its hometown satire white-washes race relations.

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Image from Flickr via Curtis Gregory Perry

By Kiran Herbert

I was born in the northwest of a state that boasts of trees and rain and Stumptown coffee. Now, in my treeless, industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, people automatically assume that I’m cool; that is, once they find out I’m from Portland. I can see the shift in their eyes: suddenly I look a little more impressive. These interactions are typically followed by the inevitable, “Have you seen Portlandia? What do you think?” Yes, I’ve seen the show. And because I can relate, it induces an almost violent nostalgia more often than any sort of comedic relief. It’s surprisingly spot-on.

Portlandia has completed three seasons to date, and the “hipster” demographic it presents can be found in a host of different cities, from Austin, to Chicago, to Lena Dunham’s (and my) Brooklyn. “Hipster” as a mainstream term has of course become a vague signifier for a general, marketable populace—young, semi-affluent, semi-artsy, semi-ironic, and often white, though it is by no means confined to white people. Portlandia itself is sometimes a depiction of hipster culture, though it is more often geared toward a hipster audience, and, it is thoroughly white.

It’s all a little disconcerting when you consider a TIME magazine piece saying, “In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.”

The show’s audience is one that can argue, often honestly, that there are few black people in their day-to-day lives, so it’s realistic that their entertainment keeps pretty pale. After the first few episodes of Girls debuted last year, Lena Dunham said she didn’t write any African-Americans into the show’s first season because she didn’t feel she could accurately render characters that she didn’t sufficiently know. It’s not necessarily an unfair line of thought, though of course most people living in urban Hipstervilles see and interact with a variety of ethnicities. Portland however, and thus Portlandia along with it, is undoubtedly lacking in people of color.

During my five years living in Portland I had the honor of being the only one in my entire friend group. The city’s musical exports are practically all white, as are our other celebrities and the most famous of our writers. Portland has been described again and again by those who live there as a hermetic place, and by the New York Times as a city with an “obsession with all things independent and artisan,”—it’s “West Coast urban cool” in a bubble. It’s all a little disconcerting when you consider that a 1993 edition of TIME magazine reported, “In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon looks like the city of the future.” Portland is often praised for its livability, for being an ecotopia and a certain kind of alternative example of how conscious and well-informed people can live. The fact remains that the city is around 76 percent white.

Surprisingly few people know that from Oregon’s birth onward the powers that be were determined that the state stay predominantly white. In 1844 an amendment to Oregon’s constitution simultaneously outlawed slavery while ordering all freed black people out of the state under the threat of lashing. In contrast to the south, Oregon didn’t want black labor, they simply wanted black people gone. Forced labor replaced corporal punishment in the amendment before anyone was actually lashed, but the small black populace got the idea and maintained a low and isolated profile, outside of the cities and away from enforcement. In 1849 another law was passed that allowed black people already in the state to remain, but forbid more from settling in the territory. Though that law was eventually repealed in 1854 under a different act, later attempts to rescind the new law in order to prevent blacks from settling again made the repeal appear more of an accidental oversight.

Ultimately Portlandia is a comedy, and strangely, there seems to be a refusal to laugh at the lack of diversity in Portland or to touch racism at all.

A third law in 1857 made black migration into the state illegal again, and banned those already there from owning land, entering into contracts, and being able to sue in court. Similar things happened throughout the country, but there was exceptional fervor in the case of Oregon. In 1862 multi-racial people (in addition to blacks this included Chinese and Hawaiians) were made to pay an annual tax of $5 to live in the state. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s only exploited attitudes that were already present in Oregon, and it was no surprise when the state was one of only six in the country that refused to ratify the 15th Amendment giving black people the right to vote. Racist real estate laws were openly included in state governance, in self-explanatory acts like the Oregon Exclusion Law—and a great deal of the racist language used during this time remained on the books until 2000.

In the late 1800s a large Chinese population traveled to the state, brought by the prospect of work building the railroads. During the Second World War the black community came to work in Portland—as they came to San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles—mostly building ships for Kaiser Shipyard and working the ports. But, because of the white population’s overt racism and the strict confinement of black housing to select neighborhoods, when the war ended, a greater percentage of black Americans left Portland than any of those other cities. Those that stayed were denied the more desirable housing that they could afford, restricted to the Albina and Vanport neighborhoods—the latter being adjacent to the most toxic waterway in Oregon. At this point the overt racism of groups like the Klan was replaced by a more subtle bigotry, taking shape in the creation of ghettos that were literally poisonous.

As the show is known to accurately skewer the city’s tendencies, people unfamiliar with Portland are left with the impression that it’s a place where white people and minorities do interact breezily.

In the 1960s the freeways ploughed through these black communities, to provide a commuter path for whites who had moved to the suburbs. Real estate agents continued to follow the earlier, official laws that prohibited the introduction of people of any race or nationality that would be detrimental to property values. So minority populations continued to be denied bank loans for properties outside of their designated areas, which were being destroyed by roadwork. The government eventually acknowledged the unequal policies in place and legislation was passed, like the Oregon Fair Housing Act, and the bank discrimination officially disallowed. But as the last decades pushed on, minorities were consistently pushed north, their moving the product of environmental racism—of loans refused and prime loans denied, of rents rising with trends in gentrification. Minorities were forced, as they are all over the country, to live near the sewage, unclean bodies of water, and amidst food deserts—the noise of the highway their own personal lullaby.

Portland’s non-white neighborhoods now make regular appearances on Portlandia, such as in the episodes featuring the Women and Women First bookstore (in real life a shop called In Other Words on NE Killingsworth) or the brunch place Fisherman’s Porch (filmed outside Woodlawn Coffee & Pastry on NE Dekum). Sometimes the show will even go to historically black neighborhoods such as King, where you’ll find NE Alberta St and the setting of the “Battlestar Galactica” skit. The characters will interact, without hesitation, with a black family, or there will be brief glimpses of racial diversity as people wait in line for brunch, but a viewer wouldn’t have any reason to believe that these are black neighborhoods. A certain amount of effort is made to insert a little color, but ultimately Portlandia is a comedy, and strangely, there seems to be a refusal to laugh about the lack of diversity in Portland or to touch racism at all. If anything, its scenes featuring people of color—in which white characters are completely comfortable and at ease with black ones—simply confuse the picture, and, they’re inaccurate: they come off like a quick attempt at political correctness. It’s like pointing to a black person on the street and saying, “See, there’s diversity.” As the show is known to accurately skewer the city’s tendencies, people unfamiliar with Portland are left with the impression that it’s a place where white people and minorities do interact breezily. And since many of the young people in Portland are transplants, Oregon’s particular racial history gets lost, and the reasons for Portland’s whiteness get, well, whitewashed, unknown by those who simply came to farm or ride their bike. It is also important to note that Portland is known for its liberal, accepting culture in relation to the rest of Oregon, and that comparison allows some level of self-congratulations in the city.

If you don’t know, it’s quite easy to believe that Portland is so white because it somehow just happens to be that way.

Portlandia is a white show for a white audience, and Portland is a very white place, by design. But the show’s accurate portrayal in this regard does basically nothing to raise self-awareness through comedy or to generate any sort of local conversation. People may say, “The show’s too white,” so a few more minorities are thrown in the mix, but it is never laughed at—a fact so strange for a show that laughs at every slightly unique breed of white urbanite. To laugh at a mania for Battlestar Galactica, or local-seasonal-organic food, or an obsessively liberal culture, is to laugh at ourselves for things we wouldn’t necessarily want to change. To confront the uncomfortable lack of diversity in one of America’s liberal Meccas by bringing it up on the show could however, actually slowly enact a little change. By laughing at subtle racism, gentrification and white privilege, maybe we can subvert it.

Those that make television sometimes subscribe to an apolitical agenda, often forgetting that the sphere of popular culture can never be apolitical. But when I laugh at Portlandia, I’m laughing because it is political. I am laughing at myself and at my community, while thinking about the absurdity and commercialism of some of my liberal values. Portlandia’s objective is to depict various mutations of privilege, to make those who become so obsessed with their progressive image reconnect with actual real world concerns. The show is undoubtedly a success in this regard. Race conversely, is an issue that makes hipster culture undeniably defensive and is only reluctantly addressed.

Ultimately, what upsets me about Portlandia is really the larger problem of how Portland is perceived by the rest of the country. More people are moving there every day, ignorant of the large Mormon or fundamentalist populations, the meth problems, and, of course, Oregon’s very particular racial history: if you don’t know, it’s quite easy to believe that Portland is so white because it somehow just happens to be that way. Diversity can be found in north Portland, but property values—on Alberta and Mississippi, on Killingsworth and Fremont, and even in St. Johns—are rising and Portlandia is only encouraging the trend. That those who were forced to live there will no longer be able to, seems only a matter of time.

Kiran Herbert is a graduate student at NYU.

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40 comments for Kiran Herbert: Portland and Portlandia, Two Worlds of Whiteness

  1. Comment by ptpt on June 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    Maybe it’s beside the main point, but… Isn’t it problematic to say a show co-created by the son of a Venezuelan and a Japanese-German is “a white show for white people”? This piece seems to be based on the assumption that hipsterism, obsessive liberalism, or a taste for local-seasonal-organic food are entirely, unproblematically “white” phenomena… Regardless, an interesting piece and provocative food for thought.

  2. Comment by Itztli on June 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    As a brown person who has lived in Portland for five years, this is the truest thing I’ve ever read about this damned city.

  3. Comment by lot of cities had crappy racist real estate laws. on June 20, 2013 at 6:44 am

    You are just like Lena!!!!!!!! Because Brooklyn!

  4. Comment by Scola on June 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

    “Oregon’s very particular racial history” doesn’t sound very particular at all. In fact it sounds extremely, mundanely, typical of what happened throughout the US.

    The 1850s stories are pretty typical. A historian once said something to the effect of “You can explain the 19th Century history of America like this: Chicago wanted to take the wealth of the West and send it by rail to New York. St Louis wanted to ship it by barge to New Orleans. Chicago and New York won.” While Americans learn that moral revulsion to slavery led to abolitionism, abolitionists were actually never really in the mainstream until abolition happened.

    Oregon’s laws reflected the Chicago-New York model, where the west would be settled by white yeoman farmers. Blacks would either be contained in the South or shipped to Liberia. Similar laws existed at the time in most of the Western states. They reflected the policy of the newfound Republican Party, which wasn’t so much abolitionist as aligned with a set of economic policies (slavery containment, homesteading, railroads). It’s not terribly surprising that the farmers of Oregon, many of them New England natives (remember Portland was named in a coin toss–two settlers from Portland ME and Boston respectively wanted to name it after their home towns) would align to this model. With under 3k residents, the idea of urban Portland was likely scarcely considered.

    Jump forward to the 1920s and the Great Migration. At this point the vast majority of black people still lived in the South. However, a series of immigration restrictions culminating in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 cut off the supply of cheap, unskilled laborers from Europe, mostly from Italy. However, it didn’t eliminate the demand, and black laborers migrated to the great industrial cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit, etc. etc.

    …but not Portland, Seattle or other Western cities. Why? For the answer, start with geology and economics. A large swarth of the Appalachian region was rich with coal, and coal was a main input for every industrial process of the age, starting with steel. It was long considered un-economical to produce steel far from coal mines. Therefore the steel mills lined the northern cities within easy reach of Appalachia. Where there’s steel there’s manufacturing, cars, etc. Where there is manufacturing their are jobs for black migrants from the south. Put it another way: ever wonder why no West Coast city (except SF, where Italians worked the port) has a Little Italy, but every Eastern and Midwestern city does? Italians immigrants worked in the mills, and when they were excluded by law black migrants took their place.

    The West Coast was kind of a backwater. Outside of San Francisco, few cities mattered. Then WWII happened. Military production changed the west coast. However, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area were the focal points, not Portland. Pushed by US Steel’s high prices, Kaiser finally built a steel mill in Fontana, CA, near LA, creating the base for an industrial economy. A new phase of the Great Migration happened. This was in spite of the fact that California had very similar discriminatory laws as Oregon (not just against blacks, but Asian, and even Armenians). If you look at black populations in California they were heavily concentrated in areas of industrial war production: South LA, Richmond, Oakland, and Southeast SF, with the notably exception of SF’s Western Addition where they simply moved into the homes left behind by Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps.

    Note that throughout both phases, and after in every northern city the same housing, banking and other discrimination happened. At least Portland didn’t have riots where mobs torched black ghettos, as happened in New York, Chicago and others.

    Jump ahead to the modern day. The West, outside California, has slowly become an escape valve for the rising population and cost of California. Not just Portland but Seattle, Phoenix, Danver, etc. Furthermore, as a former backwater, the Northwest has none of the industrial legacies–the brownfield sites, the teeming neighborhoods of former industrial workers looking to adapt to a post-industrial society. It looks appealing to many.

    All these cities are the same, mostly from a demographic standpoint: Portland is 6.3% African American. Seattle is 7.9%, Phoenix is 6.5%, Denver comes in highest at 10.2%. The local history has less to do with this than national history, geography, geology and economics.

  5. Comment by casademoss on June 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    I am a black male and I was born and raised in Portland: my mother and her family survived the Vanport flood.

    I felt compelled to write as a confirmation of the article, and to say thank you to the author. It is important that we have this conversation not only in Portland but also around the Nation. It is uncomfortable and messy, but too many times it is avoided with a dismissive attitude. Too often I hear a complaint of reverse racism to programs designed to encourage equity as if we do not have racial problems anymore.

    “It is also important to note that Portland is known for its liberal, accepting culture in relation to the rest of Oregon, and that comparison allows some level of self-congratulations in the city.”

    I urge those who read this article to recognize the truth in its message, to fight against complacency, and work to build upon the foundation that begun with the civil rights movement. We are fooling ourselves if we believe we can correct hundreds of years of inequality with a few decades of slow movement toward social change.

    Thank you for listening.

  6. Comment by Betsy on June 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I arrived in Portland 25 years ago, well before cool showed up, and the city was 90% or more white at that time. It was freaking eerie to be in such a white town, and I’m white myself. Slowly it is changing, thanks primarily to immigration from various non-Western European countries. But this article is spot on, racism is only very superficially noted here, if acknowledged at all. While it is may not be as overt and brutal as it once was, it is subtle and systemic and runs deep, affecting all people of color, which in one way or another means all of us.

    There are some pockets of strong anti-racist work going on, but the guilt that is inherent in white privilege, whether conscious or not, seems to terrify many with privilege (the hipster set and gentrifiers) into a panicky, knee-jerk defensiveness about how not racist they are. There is such fear and shame, I think, which is expressed as “We’re not racist, we’re good people, aren’t we? We voted for Obama and listen to hip hop and love ethnic foods!” If racism is acknowledged there is too often an assumption, that people of color should now have to do the job of educating us, pointing out just how our racist thinking is expressed. But please do so kindly, of course, because we mean no harm.

    Maybe that last is important, all around, in dismantling racism. Courage and kindness.

    I don’t know that Portland is any more racist than anywhere else in the US., but I do know racism is deeply woven into the fabric of the city.

  7. Comment by jo on July 23, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Thank you Scola for actually doing your homework and giving us all a good history lesson.

  8. Comment by Deputy Dan on July 23, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Thank you to the author. Spot on. I would add that there are really two Portlands, geographically-speaking. There’s Portlandia Portland which contains all the shops/restaurants/business/lifestyle trends that encompass The Portland Mystique that causes everyone to flock here. We’re mostly talking the eastside out to about 82nd and including roughly N Mississippi and Alberta to the north and maybe SE Woodstock or so to the south. To my eyes (having lived here since the 80s) this Portland is well above “76% white.” This area is dominated by yuppies in condos, twenty hipster 20-somethings packed in rental houses, and upper income breeders in the nicer houses who either cashed out of a more expensive real estate market or were lucky enough to move here before things got nuts. This is the approximate area where the obnoxious transplant sheep want to be and it’s becoming a less and less affordable, mostly-white, club. Upscale, boutique-y, very, very self-satisfied and, yes, utterly hermetic.

    The second Portland is everything else (except maybe the westside which is another animal altogether) and probably includes a very significant share of the population. There are huge areas of Portland without bike lanes and “bioswales” (let alone sidewalks) that contain the only house and real estate that minority/immigrant/poor white families and their businesses can afford. (And a large number of them were edged out of the Portlandia neighborhoods because of skyrocketing rents.) It’s massively uncool and therefore ignored almost entirely by the Portlandia crowd (the show and the city’s like-minded denizens). Go for a drive sometime and you’ll see what I mean. I’m sure it’s the same in all these white, liberal Portlandia-type cities.

    So when you say “Portland,” define your terms. We definitely got some Apartheid-style shit happening here. I can’t watch Portlandia anymore because I suspect it’s only perpetuating/intensifying the things it pokes fun at. For those of us who aren’t obsessed with lifestyle trends and coolness, this place is really becoming a drag. Please stop moving here.

  9. Comment by TrickyRick on July 24, 2013 at 11:09 am

    So i’ve done another skim thru, and i still don’t agree with this “Portlandia” parallel to racist america. I view it as somewhat obvious, but i guess as a well off, self educated whitey from the burbs of the Bay, it should be obvious and a “needless to say” issue. I’m used to surrounding myself with a real people, and it being a reverse in race ratio. (myself and few others in a room full of black folk, hispanics, asians and a whole other slew of non whites) “Portlandia”, as a comedy sketch show, knows it’s audience. Plain and simple. I did however find your history of Portland educational and i’m glad you prodded me about not reading this the first time because it IS important for people to know about this crazy little white city that is quickly growing into a DIVERSE gentrified urban Bohemia. There is no Oakland here and yes that kinda gets to me, but is that really a bad thing? Aren’t Places like Oakland and Brooklyn a result from racist whites protecting their neighborhood from “outsiders”.

    That’s it for now, i could go on and on, but at that point i could just write my own piece.
    Sorry i’m naturally difficult and i really enjoy going against the grain. I usually just stick by my guns and say “f*** it” “i just don’t really care” but that’s really a lie. Because i do care, i care way to f***ing much, our human history and continued reality/society is deplorable. I’m glad to be alive and find them diamonds in the rough though. Love you Kiran, and your voice.

  10. Comment by Tim Larson on August 22, 2013 at 12:47 am

    Racism in any form is ugly and instinctive. From the days of the Caveman human “birds” have flocked together and been cautious when coming into contact with other humans that were not a part of their own particular “tribe”.

    The animalistic behavior of early humans did indeed present danger in the daily battle for food and other scarce resources. In many (but not all), cases, if your tribe had food and their tribe was starving, the starving tribe would attack and harm you to feed themselves and their children. This same behavior is exhibited by the entire animal kingdom. It is called a law of nature, not animal racism.

    Luckily, we humans now possess the highly developed level of intelligence required to form and live in societies where cooperation and harmony between people from all tribes is possible. This is frequently a messy process for a generation or two, but then after experiencing a series of interactions without harmful results, in personal relationships, schools, churches, the workplace, and romance develop, and the barriers begin to disappear.

    These changes in the ways we react towards people from other “tribes” does not come universally, or at a pace that makes very many humans happy. Therefore it is always appropriate to comment when things are done discriminatorily to any among us, and to work for the eradication of this behavior.

    That is what has happened in Portland over the period of history Kiran described, and during the period of his young life. It has been almost 87 years since Oregon repealed it’s discriminatory exclusion law, and 53 years since the last laws using race or ethnicity to discriminate in voting, property ownership, and education, were removed from the books.

    Since you brought up a 30 year old magazine article, lets look at two groups from that period.

    In the 1980’s a small group of young white males mostly undereducated and physically abused as children, formed gangs that were labeled “skinheads”. They were never accepted or tolerated by the community at large, and through their racist ideals and inflammatory rhetoric, actually provided an opportunity to revisit just what an ugly thing discrimination is. I doubt that you could find more than a handful of “skinheads” in Portland today.

    Around the same time, two racist gangs called the Bloods and Crips began moving from Los Angeles to Portland to expand their lucrative drug business. The number of young black men and women to die at their hands makes the brutality of the “skinheads” statistically irrelevant. It is still possible to see the red and blue colors of these gangs on a daily basis in many areas of Portland.

    The Portland portrayed in Portlandia pokes fun at the many small groups that help “keep Portland weird!”. Perhaps if we had more vegan, lesbian, lactose and gluten intolerant, pierced and tattooed blacks, they could get an episode too! Face it, if you want to be in a comedy series, you have to be funny, not angry.

    The door to Portland is wide open to anyone who wants to come here. If you are a good person you will find opportunity and friendship at every turn. Not everyone likes the rain, not everyone likes the bicycle lanes, and not everyone likes the whiteness. It just happens to be that that is the way it is at this time in Portland. The only part of it that was planned that way are the bike lanes.

    Have a great time in New York Kerin. In case you are interested no one here has missed you.

  11. Comment by exoregon on August 24, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Go about ten miles outside the city limits and it’s just a matter of time before you spot a giant pickup truck replete with confederate flag and gun rack – that’s the REAL Oregon. Tillamook County, for instance, had an openly active Klan chapter well into the 90s, and I have no doubt the same was true elsewhere around the state.

    I lived in Portland for years, “before it was cool”. And I’m not being snobby, it really wasn’t very cool. Nobody had a job, nobody rode a bike, bands would usually skip us on tour between Seattle & SF, meth and heroin were ubiquitous, one of the highest suicide rates in the country…and I’m talking about like just ten years ago.

  12. Comment by paul on August 26, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    With all of this talk of racism and a historical lesson about Oregon, it is disappointing that you would not provide a similar historical, better etymological, break-down of the term ‘hipster’.

    Do your homework and recognize that while you just provided an exposes on racism in Oregon, you also contributed to a continuation of systemically racist language use that abstracts certain classes and certain histories from the dominant historical hierarchy.

    Hipster means white-negro. You may of heard of the author who described it… his name was norman mailer.

    keep up the good fight.

  13. Comment by R I on August 30, 2013 at 5:12 am

    http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21582315-are-oregons-strict-planning-rules-stifling-growth-biking-and-hiking-no-parking Perhaps the zoning laws which sustain Portland’s idyllic urbanism, with Sauvie’s Island, sublime waterfall hikes, and vineyards just outside our bike-ably dense city, is what also supports segregation and wage inequality in Oregon. “Last year two academics at Harvard University, Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, found not only that land-use restrictions were impeding migration to wealthier parts of the country, but that those impediments accounted for roughly a tenth of the increase in inequality in wages since 1980.” I don’t know though, just brainstorming.

  14. Comment by Andrea on September 2, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Take advantage of young idealistic white kids who move here have to get them involved. Most are underemployed and have plenty of time/resources to spare. As a privileged white kid, I can say they will welcome it and be thankful to be told how how they can help. I worked for a labor union for a few years after I moved here and it totally changed my perception of this city. While super white and definitely way more skinhead than most are willing to admit, I think there are a lot of people interested in social justice who just don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, and get confused by all the other hot air circulating. Set em straight!

  15. Comment by Lynne Duddy on September 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I’m a Portland native and the founder of Portland Story Theater. We are launching a new series called BRIDGES. Maybe you want to tell your story? Be heard?

    We are looking for people who recognize that life is not completely rosy in the Rose City around the topic of race. We want people, like you, who have the courage to speak up and share their emotional truth by sharing their personal narrative.

    Lynne

  16. Comment by excerpt from the inside on September 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    I’m a ten year resident of this town that I have a love/hate relationship with. I’m black and live in the inner SE. Ive noticed 2 things in my short time here mingling mainly with hipster-centric crowds:

    Being that I hardly ever run into any other blacks in these circles, it tends to lend to the ultra-comfortability level of whites doing imitations of what they percieve as “acting black”. It usually never happens in my immediate circle, because I only hang with folks that I know are more conscious to race relations and are willing to have open talks about race issues. I always overhear it coming from nearby. “Oh no you did-nt!”….”whassuuuup bro-ham!”……”fa shizzle mah nizzle” and so on. Any means of making your friends laugh at the expense of a race (instead of a particular person in that race, like Snoop Lion) is considered coolness points.

    The other observance is the way most whites that live on your block avoid interacting with you if you’re black. Younger whites are the most guilty of this. Having solidarity within your block is important I think.

    I point to out-of-towner (that also means people from other parts of OR) transplants that bring their hangups, bad habits and just generally no consistent contact with non-whites, with them, for these unfortunate realities.

    I have since changed my focus to connecting with blacks that are about social action and relish black history and culture, which is the basis for more evolution than the mainstream America will ever admit.

    Okay, I’m done venting, but this is reality and like Kiran’s article and a commenter said, “it’s that way because its that way”.

  17. Comment by Corey on September 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for posting this series. Very much needed to continue the discussion of what race relations look like today. I will be coming back as a reader if you comment on cultural touchpoints such as this.

  18. Comment by Gustavo on September 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Deputy Dan above hit a very important point. There are two Portlands – and the second one is largely ignored by the media, the residents of the 1st Portland, the city government, and the county government. And also completely ignored by the author of this article.

    East of 82nd, there’s approximately another 100 blocks of Portland. Go out past 205 on Division or Powell, and you’ll see a huge increase in Asian and Latino businesses. The people are a lot more diverse. There’s no cute artisanal coffee shops, or vegan bakeries. But there’s a lot of carnicerias and pho.

    I’m a Latino who moved here from the bay area. To me, the most subtle racism is the exclusion of the non-homogenous neighborhoods from the definition of “Portland”. The continuing disinterest and disconnection from the city in anything past 82nd. But really, the biggest comes from all the largely white residents of the inner neighborhoods who don’t even consider the outer neighborhoods to be part of the city. And when pressed simply respond with jokes about “Felony Flats” and “Yuck Gresham”.

  19. Comment by Breandan on September 3, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    I am a person of Irish ancestry who grew up in the South, and I have been living here for 3 years. I could not agree with Betsy more. It is creepy to walk through a place with so little diversity made worse by how proud Portlandiers appear to be of their city. I am fairly sure it is not the case, but it feels like they are proud of the fact there are only white people around.

  20. Comment by Sharde Marie on September 3, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Correction:

    The book store on Killingsworth and the shop on Dekum are both in historically Black neighborhoods. You just can’t tell because they moved everyone out already.

  21. Comment by djsqueezebox on September 4, 2013 at 1:20 am

    I grew up in Portland in the 70s and 80s. I’m white. I now live in another super-white NW city (Seattle). There is something about the alarming rate at which Portland has gentrified that merits further study. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of gentrification happening in Seattle as well, but not at the same rate as Portland; not even close. The speed at which NE and North Portland went from being working-class neighborhoods for people of color and immigrants, to being boutique playgrounds for youngsters living off of marijuana money and house flipping, is staggering. And white Portlanders don’t seem particularly aware of, or self-concious about, the process. I’d love to better understand how Seattle and Portland differ in ways that have promoted Portland’s turbo-gentrification.

  22. Comment by jo on September 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

    I am so tired of guilt ridden white people talking about the poor helpless black people who were shoved out of their house so that rich whites could move in. That’s pretty racist is you ask me. Black folks at the mercy of the whites. This presumes that black folks haven’t enough power or brains to deal with their environment.
    This is what really happened in the Boise Elliot neighborhood.
    It was originally eastern european immigrants working in the ship yards at the bottom of Mississippi hill. Many upwardly mobile blacks came here to escape the Jim Crow south and find good family living wages working in the ship yards durng WWI and WWII. When they were flooded out of Vanport they moved to inner NE
    A: because that’s the only place they could buy property, and
    B: to be near work.
    When the Crack Cocaine epidemic got going it was like the wild west here. Shootings every day often even during daylight. No one was safe. Hookers and pimps and gangs in the streets all day and all night long. Spent needles and condoms littered the alleys and yards of the residents. The cops wold not come here unless someone was lying dead or bleeding in the street. They’d get pissed off at you if you called. “Look, we get reports of shots fired every day. Don’t call unless someone has been hit.” Really that’s a verbatim quote. You couldn’t get a taxi to come here, no pizza delivery. Anything worth 5 dollars was stolen. I’ve had my garbage can, garden hose, even clean laundry off the line stolen. That’s just a partial list.
    Many of my black neighbors fled this awful violence and crime to raise their kids in decent places with good schools so that they could continue their upward mobility.
    So the real racism here is that City Hall would not do anything to help this part of town. The cops were out gunned and scared. City hall didn’t care. My neighbors did their best to keep the neighborhood clean and vibrant, but the drug dealers won. So they left to greener pastures.
    When poor whites started to move in because of the bargain basement rents most of the drug dealers moved on because the new residents were not Crack customers. Then the Meth cookers came. Then it got really dangerous.
    This area was zoned industrial until the few lovely “Church Ladies” still living here got busy and had the city declare this a historic area. It was their efforts to improve their homes and neighborhood that got the ball rolling.
    Yes I miss my former neighbors. But I consider it a good day when no one is trying to kill me or steal my stuff.
    I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 23 years. Longer than many of the newbie hipster residents who think they’ve got all the answers have been alive.

  23. Comment by hapax on September 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    One thing you forgot mention, all the ignorant white people with “Oregon Native” bumper stickers. Not only on bike rack covered Subaru yuppie types, but popular with the rebel flag, gun rack, pickup crowd as well. Whenever someone asks me if I’m a “native Oregonian”, I reply “as native as any white person on this continent”, that gets some funny looks. I love how those types always repeat the Tom McCall quote “sure come and visit, just don’t move here”, but how many of them actually know McCall grew up on the east coast?

  24. Comment by Helen on October 2, 2013 at 1:52 am

    Been reading a few articles lately about how white Portland is, by people of African American descent….but I have to think they have the same blindness….it is true that Portland has very few black people, but it has a large Hispanic, Asian and native American population — it is near several native American tribes. So are those folks invisible to you? I see them everyday, they go to my kids schools, I work with them…. while it is true there are few black people that I meet/interact with, there are lots of minorities.

    As for hipsters that it is an age group, that folks who are born in different decades have little interaction with, and shows like Portlandia don’t display the city we live in , not even a little bit…. it is just a show written by folks from New York, with actors from New York — which looks pretty stupid and any one older than 35 or younger than 20 …. doesn’t relate to the show, ie the majority of the population.

    My 2 cents

  25. Comment by bob on October 14, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    “By laughing at subtle racism, gentrification and white privilege, maybe we can subvert it.”

    I agree, but wouldn’t doing so be in itself a flaunting of white privilege? i thought white ppl aren’t supposed to flaunt our privilege like that.

  26. Comment by Linar on December 17, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Isn’t it problematic to say a show co-created by the son of a Venezuelan and a Japanese-German is “a white show for white people”?

    No, because those of us who are not white — and especially those who can pass as white (which is not to say that said co-creator can, as one does not know his experiences growing up) — are just as able to create white things for white people if that is what we consumed growing up and are encouraged to create.

  27. Comment by Evan Kerry on January 14, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Hey hey,

    There was a time when ‘urban’ wasn’t code for a minority or black person? right? I mean if we are having a history lesson here let’s consider other things..Like looking to the future, I mean, what is the end result of nationwide gentrification? My guess is that the poor who have been uprooted will simply populate the new suburban/ex-urban wasteland which white America currently does. After, of course, American cities have been populated by the privileged whites (whom everyone seems to hate, yet no one wants to own up to being) . Anyways, linguistically it is going to be hilarious in my old age to see a ‘suburban’ hip-hop dude have street cred…Just a thought.

    And, as a white male, should I feel guilt or any kind of semblance of it because of the accident of my birth? I know the history of the country, yet I should bear no responsibility for its outcome, right? Just a gut reaction to all of this ‘whiteness’ talk.

    Mike

  28. Comment by laura cooskey on January 15, 2014 at 12:22 am

    Historical note: Oregon Territory in the 1840s was composed of present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Oregon did not become a state until 1859. Thus, many decisions concerning these Northwest states came from Washington, DC; Salem, Oregon, had little power at that time.

  29. Comment by Susan on January 16, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    There was some research done recently that the author should probably take a look at. There was a task-force on race and education at Portland State University through which a group of professors examined population, race, and public education. The study showed the bursting-at-the-seems growth of Portland’s Latino (particularly Mexican-American) population. When the author comes back from Brooklyn, they might want to check out the tremendous growth of this community within the city of Portland. Within Portland Public Schools, the Latino population grew at almost ten times the rate of any other population in the past ten years. Incredible growth. Also, the Chinese and Vietnamese populations in Portland are huge, distinct, non-white populations that should be recognized. Outer South East Portland (anywhere past 52 all the way out past 122nd, Montevilla, and the new South East Hills (the hills behind 82nd) are exploding with non-white people. While Portland is growing at an incredible rate, the growth is less white-transplant that some may think (though white transplants are still flowing freely into the city limits, no doubt).

  30. Comment by Maddie on January 27, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you for this article – the opinion, the history, and the suggestions for the show. Comedy can be constructive when it’s truthful. “Portlandia” could play a vital role in getting this conversation really going in Portland.

  31. Comment by nonlds on February 3, 2014 at 9:03 am

    As a soon-to-be-transplant from Utah, I would like to know where exactly the “large Mormon population” is in the area?

    According to this, Oregon is a whopping 5% LDS:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Oregon

    This says Portland is 2.3% LDS:

    http://www.bestplaces.net/religion/city/oregon/portland

  32. Comment by nonlds on February 3, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Oh, my bad.

    Metro area is 3.75% LDS:

    http://www.bestplaces.net/religion/metro/oregon/portland-vancouver-beaverton

    Look out! It’s a Jell-O mold laced with Prozac!

  33. Comment by Joseph on March 7, 2014 at 1:10 am

    What bothers me about this article, as most articles about race relations tend to do, is it’s complete absence of a discussion of Oregon’s American Indian population

  34. Comment by Ted on March 16, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Great article, and the comments are just as illuminating, especially Scola’s.

  35. Comment by Christi on September 28, 2014 at 12:28 am

    As a history buff who grew up in extreme north west Oregon, Kiran Herbert’s explication of institutionalized racism left me stunned. Slowly, I remembered VanPort– the area where “those people” lived. In the late ’40s, the entire area flooded to the 1st floor windows and no apparent effort was made to assist the displaced residents.

    In the late ’50s, my home town had a Naval base, an excellent HS basketball team and a star player who happened to be black; he was also an honors student. The dad was retiring from the US Navy. As good parents Mr & Mrs “J” wanted to let the boy finish HS (3 semesters) with his friends and admirers. Perhaps he would be scouted… They found a house that met their needs. The neighbors were thrilled at the prospect of a star player just down the block (a nice, middle class area). The town was in an uproar when the family was told that they could not legally purchase any house. This town had a Scandinavian Lutheran majority, a respectable Roman Catholic minority and a Jewish mayor. It should have dawned on me that there might be a law somewhere that would be against that, too

    I’d never heard about the segregation laws, not even from our out-spoken US history teacher. [ I found the article through a mention in today’s Travel Section]

  36. Comment by Jeremy on September 28, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    i don’t understand why a large Mormon population is negative or relevant to this article. I enjoyed the article nonetheless but it seems odd and potentially offensive to call out a denomination like that.

  37. Comment by Kevin O'Keeffe on September 28, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Personally, I like Portland’s ancestral demographics. If other do not, then I suggest they (like the author of this piece) either move out, or choose not to settle there in the first place, as the case may be.

    Why is it supposed to be a bad thing that Portland remains as a predominantly White city in the USA? Its almost as if White people are regarded as some sort of vermin, in the worldview of the author, and perhaps more importantly, the author’s intended audience. If that’s how you feel, then maybe you should be in favor of us having our own country, where you don’t have to interact with us? Perhaps Portland could serve as the capitol of this noble republic?

  38. Comment by Mmiddle on September 28, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Someone should do an article on racism in the Portland police force, historical of course. When I lived there in the late90s-early 00s, there were at least 2 incidents that rivaled Ferguson but that went effectively unnoticed – once when they shot a young mother (pregnant?), and once when they pulled over a guy and shot him because his car seemed too nice. A woman named JoAnn something ran for City Council, and the cover of WWeek showed her sulking in the background behind her perky white challenger. And I believe it was towards the end of my time there that the law prohibiting blacks from owning land was finally fully erase.

  39. Comment by Dustin on September 30, 2014 at 1:39 am

    This article is dumb. It tries to create strife where it doesn’t exist, or at least not on the level that is suggested. I’ve read studies of racist attitudes across the United States. I don’t believe the Pacific Northwest was particularly high on racist sentiment. I grew up here and am white. It’s true that there aren’t as many black and Latino people as there are in other parts of the country but I think that’s purely logistical or geographical. People here don’t care, just like in the episodes of that stupid TV show.

    Gentrification is real and has unfortunate side effects and environmental feminism expresses real cons earn over the atrocities visited upon poor communities but it is a mistake to generalize racism to the broader population on the PNW. If anything it is an attitude being brought in by all the people encouraged to move here by that stupid show cuz it’s hip to live in Portland.

    Live and let live.

  40. Comment by Craig Lewis on October 2, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    If the point of this article was to link/criticize a sketch comedy series as a poor reflection of a city’s racial diversity/harmony…in the words of an urban hipster–“massive fail, changing the channel now”. I believe the creators of Portlandia write/satire from their own personal experiences about people/subjects they believe to be amusing to at least themselves, if not a wider audience but certainly not to an all inclusive audience, which simply isn’t possible, right? You either like Mexican cuisine or you don’t. You either know how to and are good at preparing Mexican cuisine or you aren’t but either way, you haven’t failed society by any large denomination. I suggest the author create her own series using the flavors and issues she would like to see. Who knows, it might even make it on TV?

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