Why I Write What I Write

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.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

5 replies on “Why I Write What I Write”

Race was a “non-issue” where I grew up in Eugene as well. In my experience the grossest examples of smug racism is the cultural appropriation by the hippies or new agers who think they are honoring other cultures and races by misusing, abusing, misrepresenting, and sometimes being downright sacrilegious with sacred cultural items. I see this as no less arrogant than planting a flag in the ground. And then to make matters worse, the response I often received for being critical was that I was the one who didn’t know what I was talking about because they learned about being Indian from some medicine man who wrote a book (and obviously I am not a medicine man because I don’t walk around with a pipe and feather bonnet). This is why I had to leave the beautiful state of Oregon.

Thanks for this, Josh. Nice to see your name here. Good to know you’re reading along!

Thanks, always, Scot for writing what you write, and naming with such knowing. As an African American, female born and reared in Oregon, (whew, what a mouthful of really deep stuff), I have lived through, and have embedded in my core, all that you listed as evidence of a different kind of place. It takes heavy lifting and pulling as we climb to get through it day by day, but I’m always reaching for others to join me on the next rung, even as I realize I may look back and find I’m doing ‘this’ by myself. Troublemakin’ man, you are so smart, thoughtful, precise and wonderful! Thank you so much for daring to put pen to paper and bring forth indelible and powerful truths.

Thank you, Scot. I hadn’t known what got you started writing about race, and so it’s like when you are looking at a painting in a museum and don’t really get the full story until you read the text panel beside the work.
The more I read your blog, the better understanding I have about the process of considering race, racism, social and political constructs, and the reading of non-overt racism, something that as a self-described non-political, non-academic, also mostly self-taught person when it comes to the history and racism, helps ground me in something more solid than my sentiments.
It’s still strange for me, and I get asked by black people, more than white people, about why I write (my blog is Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake) about what I call my humorous obsession with race relations. Even though I’m white, I grew up in a pretty integrated setting, and lived in NYC for many years, and had the same kind of culture shock when I left the city to move to what seemed like a very white, segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma for a few years.
I have only been writing my blog for over year, so I am still at the beginning of my journey, but I believe I write to make connections, to not be afraid to open up about injustices, to laugh at myself when I catch myself making missteps with my thoughts on race, and to learn. I learn from you and your writing that wraps around the rough edges, and I thank you for that.

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