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