A few days ago the Q-Center, Portland, Oregon’s aspiring LGBTQ community hub, hosted a discussion about racism. The event was organized in response to a mostly-online fight that erupted over a local gay bar’s Facebook ad for a performance by white drag performer, Chuck Knipp.
Knipp’s bread and butter is the character, Shirley Q. Liquor, whom he describes as “an inarticulate black welfare mother with 19 children.” I’ll spare you video. The act is performed in black face and plays to damaging and hurtful stereotypes for laughs.
Hundreds weighed in on whether Shirley Q. Liquor is an example of racism, with people on either side of that question further divided over whether cancelling the event was a violation of Knipp’s freedom of speech. The debate was heated, personal, and reached into the far corners of the community. In the end, the bar cancelled the event and apologized. The community is still recovering, with many packing the Q Center event.
As of the 2010 census, Portland was 76.1% White, 6.3% Black, 7.1% Asian, 1% Native American, 9.4% Latino, and .5% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. Portland is an overwhelmingly white city in an even whiter state.
Why? A racist law prohibited non-white immigration into Oregon until the turn of the last century. That law didn’t just keep non-whites out. It also made Oregon into a white flight state, even after the law was abolished. Waves of white people have migrated to Oregon to escape everything from the South after the emancipation of former slaves to “crime” and “urban decay” in 1980s LA.
This history is has created racial dynamics that have ruled the city. In 1920′s, the Ku Klux Klan dominated Oregon politics, picking the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. The history of the Black community of Portland is punctuated by clashes with a police department that is notoriously tone deaf on questions of race.
In 1988, when an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with baseball bats by neo-Nazi skinheads, hate crime statistics broke with the usual pattern in cities across the country by rising rather than falling, a deviant statistic many blamed on local police apathy in the face of the proliferation of racist hate groups in the city. Portland quickly became famous as a national leader in recorded incidents of racist violence.
In the 1940s, many of Portland’s Black workers lived in Vanport City, Oregon (I mistakenly sourced a story that placed Vanport in Washington). But Vanport was built on a flood plain. In 1948, it flooded. Black families resettled and established a community in Northeast Portland. But because of red lining and other racist practices, the community was never able to gain a stable financial footing. When the Portland real estate market boomed in the 1990s, Northeast Portland gentrified and Blacks were forced to migrate again.
The history of Portland’s Black community is a history of white domination, frequent migration, marginalization, and vulnerability, an experience shared to one degree or another by other communities of color in the city. Portland’s white community, on the other hand, is characterized by quite different experiences including, for some, being on the upside of dramatic, far-reaching, and very recent inner-city gentrification.
This is the sh*t Shirley Q. Liquor stepped in. On one side, there were whites who, because of demographic domination dictated by the city’s peculiar history, rarely face challenges to white privilege. For many of them, “diversity” is a code word for race. And the lack of diversity convinces many of them that Portland is a post-racial society.
Political dynamics amplify this perception. When people of color are so small in number, they tend not to complain so vocally, leading to the impression that racism is less of a problem. But, in communities where people of color are few in number, the opposite is often true. In fact, in such a climate, the fog of colorblind racism can be so thick, even well-intentioned whites can find themselves lost in it.
On the other side of this fight were African Americans who feel doubly marginalized by race and sexual orientation in an overwhelmingly white city. Their vulnerability make slights like this one especially painful, and all the more so when they are committed by “family.”
Across such divergent experiences, we too often find ourselves talking at cross purposes because we lack a shared language for discussing acts of racism. That shared language escapes us because what words mean to us depend on our experiences of the concepts behind them.
Some talk in the language of colorblind racism that minimizes racism’s power. Refusing to see color makes racism disappear to them because that’s the only way they feel affected by race. Others of us live lives in which color is only a signifier of a vast array of experiences shaped by structural racial inequality. Minimizing racism has the effect of minimizing one of the most definitive and often humiliating experiences of our lives.
In a society so shaped by race, cross-racial relations are defined by this experience across the color line. We can learn a lot from places like Portland because this fundamental dimension of life in America is exaggerated by demographics skewed by a racist history.