What We’re Fighting About When We Fight About Racism

Portland Oregon - White Stag sign.jpg

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.

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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.

14 replies on “What We’re Fighting About When We Fight About Racism”

What a powerful article. Is there a similar article that discusses Seattle’s racists mentality?

Word, Khanh!! One option is replacing ‘Portland’ with ‘Seattle’, in the article 😉 Except, people in Seattle are too “PC” to have a drag show as blatantly racist as the one mentioned in this article. The issue is people being unwilling to check their privilege, therefore preventing most Seattle-ites from having genuine conversations about racism. That fog of colorblindness is too thick these days.

Thank you for writing this. I was at the event last week too. There have been many articles about Shirley Q. Liquor in the local press recently but this is the first one that has taken the time to get to the real story here. I applaud you for using this opportunity to bring us together as a community rather than push us further apart.

Glad to be able to weigh in and try to help. I lived in PDX for 25 years and love/hate it. So many really terrific people trapped in really difficult racial dynamics.

You’re absolutely right. Thanks for pointing that out to me. I guess I’ve been long from Portland for too long.

Thought provoking article Scott. I have a new perspective of the City of Roses. Roses stink of racism.

A lot of people there were (and probably are) out-and-out racist. They have little or no contact with anyone but whites. To them, that is a normal state of affairs. When you talk about Portland, it’s important to understand that Portland is just the center of a metro area that includes Vancouver, Washington, Washington County, Oregon, and Clackamas County, which have the same history and demographics as Portland. In these areas, whites still exclude and marginalize non-whites.
I lived in a development called Cedar Hills in Beaverton, OR, which once had covenants against blacks. Everyone was white, still, when we lived there in the 80’s and early 90’s. I was certainly glad to get out of there and move to Hawaii.

Thanks for this comment. This is really helpful. I’m glad you were able to get out and get to Hawaii. Hawaii, of course, has it’s own racial dynamics and history of colonization and oligarchy, but the balance of cultures there makes room for people of color to express themselves and haoles, well, for haoles to find a little bit of humility, Thorsten Twigg Smith and his ilk to one side.

I can only advise readers that this is a very shallow and poorly researched article, totally lacking in scholarly effort. These two need to spend a little less time listening to themselves and more time listening to “Living in this World” by Guru.

Thanks for the comment, though as long as you exerting you’re “scholarly effort” on itunes, I think I’ll pass on the suggestion.

Your article brought back memories-
I grew up in Portland I am mixed black & white in the early 80s my area blacks and Asians where the only minorities and few. We where treated like crap being beat up and called names. One day my mom was seriously hurt and an ambulance came i was hysterical. Then and an Asian woman picked me up, held me and comforted me then took me home with her. They didn’t speak english I was unfamiliar with the food she then said hot dog and I was like yes. My grandma found me later that evening. My mom and her became friends and I with her kids my mom and her would cook together I still havent had better egg rolls to this day. We moved and lost touch but these are some of my earliest memories I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.
From elementary to high school when I saw an Asian kid I always would befriend them. If they didn’t speak English my magic word was Bruce Lee they would smile and nod and say Bruce Lee and we would play together. One of the vietnamese boys dad would catch the biggest fish and would bring my mom some too. When I was in Like 6th grade I lost it and beat the dog crap out of this kid for pulling his eyes and making a new girl from Vietnam cry. I actually moved again and saw her in high school we immediately recognized each other.
I left for College in Kansas and settled in Missouri. Asians are a very small minority it’s mainly black and white. The 2 Asians 1 vietnamese 1 korean I met through work I took under my wing immediately and as I moved up I made sure they Moved up with me. When I moved on they moved on with me and we have all prospered. They have always been true to me and stuck up for me when I needed them and are True friends.
I am not certain if it was how horribly we both where treated in Portland or the Asian lady that was so good to me when I was little. I have always just stayed that way. I am proud of you for writing this article. I like it when we stick up for each other.

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