I’m often asked why I write a race blog. I get why folks ask the question. I would get more looks by writing about food justice or climate change, and I know a little something about those subjects, too. Yet I write about race. Why?
I grew up in rural Hawai’i. My childhood and young adult years were spent in a community that was almost entirely made up of people of color. White people owned most of the land and dominated the economy, but in little towns like mine, they were extreme minorities and treated mainly as outsiders.
When I moved to Oregon in my young twenties, I ran face first into a community that was well over 90% white. The latest statistics indicate that things have changed somewhat in Oregon. People of color are now around 15% of the population. But in the 1980s, such was by no means the case, owing in part to Oregon’s peculiar history of racial exclusion laws that continued well into the first quarter of the twentieth-century.
I experienced a serious case of culture shock. Where In Hawaii the small white minority was highly conscious of their own race and culture, whiteness in Portland was virtually invisible. White culture, really the story of whiteness, is not treated as the narrative of just one group in Portland, but instead as the paper on which all other narratives are written.
Now, to be real, some of the whites I knew in Hawaii were insensitive racists. Hawaii is, after all, politically and economically dominated by the U.S., which means by white people. But, because whites were so in the minority, ordinary working class white folk tended to be, well, humble, or at least careful and culturally sensitive, if not always in a good way.
In Portland, Oregon, white identity, white consciousness, and white traditions (rooted, I remind you, in a history of racial exclusion) formed the foundation of cross-racial civility. Whites had their way, not so much through overt racism, but by not talking about race. To me, fresh from a very different reality, the polite but unassailable assumption of white as the norm felt like overt racism. After all, the only folk who act like that in Hawaii are overt racists. The whole situation was confusing, and made all the more so by a few other peculiarities of life I’ve since learned are common in communities where whites are an overwhelming majority.
For instance, because whites in Oregon didn’t, and still mostly don’t, perceive people of color to be a threat, there isn’t much consciously organized opposition to the idea of us gaining political power. But, race is a political system meant to subjugate non-whites to white interests. That doesn’t change in instances when non-whites are few in number. When we are too few to challenge the racial hierarchy, it only means that white dominance can be maintained subtly (not to mention arrogantly). So subtly, in fact, that members of the dominant group often don’t even realize it’s an active process being perpetuated by them as a matter of business as usual through acts they’ve come to think of as politically neutral.
And this stuff goes in spirals. Because people of color aren’t able to threaten white dominance, most of us tend to accommodate the racist consensus to avoid being sidelined as troublemakers. And, you guessed it, our going along with it gives white folks the sense that there’s no problem, making the subtle brand of racism of places like Portland, Oregon especially difficult to challenge. It’s couched in liberalism and steeped in the smug belief that white people there are less racist there than they are in places where racism is expressed more overtly. After all, unlike in East New York or Detroit, almost no one in Portland, Oregon is complaining.
And, the next turn in the spiral, when we do complain, bearing witness to racism, we’re treated like social incompetents embarrassing ourselves by admitting to hallucinations in public. When we are defamed in this way, other people of color will often turn their backs on us, afraid of being painted with the same brush. And this, in turn, further reinforces that same smug, self-satisfied racism.
I lived that reality in Portland for nearly 25 years. I started out an angry young man and was quickly labeled a troublemaker. But I soon learned that when addressing inequality across identities, the shortest distance between injustice and justice is rarely a straight line. I developed the patience of an elephant, knowing that one must often act slowly and go the roundabout route, even in situations where directness and speed seem the only way to achieve the momentum necessary to dislodge deeply entrenched injustices.
I no longer live in Portland, Oregon. But that life taught me many things, not least among them that there are good people everywhere, some even wearing the masks of smug racists. In reaching them, language is a powerful tool. We can draw images with words that cast injustices in a bright light, even for those who aren’t so obviously served by seeing them.
And that is why I write what I write. I strive to make injustices we might otherwise overlook visible by arranging words on their rough edges.