Portland Oregon has been in the news a lot lately. Mostly for not very good things. The city has a great image generally, but that’s because the people talking about Portland, generally look and think like me. White, bearded, and generally liberal. However, there’s a history to Portland that’s rarely talked about, which is that it was essentially founded to be a White Utopia. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a great article interviewing people of color after the Max Light Rail attack, I recommend you read that here, because they do a great job explaining the background.
I think generally, it’s safe to say, that Portland encompasses both the best and worst of being a white culture. You’re able to find good high paying jobs in technology. You are able to be around other white people because you have a similar background. I can’t decided if those two sentences are the best or worst. On the one hand it means that generally white people are well off, but that also means that we are exclusive and not well integrated with the rest of the community at large. This leads to ignorance, in liberals it results in something of a White Hero mentality, regardless of good intentions. In Conservatives it can manifest itself into hate, including white supremacy and neo-nazi’s. The former wants to make friends with minorities to understand them better, but that can result in tokenism. While the latter ends having “our Mexican” who isn’t like those other Mexicans out there. Which is a justification for liking one Mexican while hating all other job stealing Mexicans.
I’ve become acutely aware of this over the past several years in Portland. I am married to a Mexican-American woman as many of you know. In Austin these issues didn’t come up as often as they do now, and I think that was more due to the people she was working with during her PhD studies and Post-Doc. However, whenever she started working at Intel, which has a big problem with diversity, these issues became a focal point of many things she does. She’s been heavily involved in Women’s groups at Intel. She’s a member of the Saturday Academy working to get under privileged and minorities involved in science and technology at an earlier age. These were things that, to be honest, are fairly new to me as a thing that needs to be done.
Growing up in Grove City, you didn’t really realize that you had it pretty well. It was a very very very White community. The school system was really good. Opportunities were there for anyone to join Saturday Science, there were ways to easily take more advanced classes in any subject if you were on the college path. Since Grove City was a really small school, our High school had 800 some odd students, we didn’t have the massive disparities due to differing socio-economic. They were there to be sure. It was a handful of kids rather than the majority of the kids as some rural or inner city schools see.
I guess it’s really fair to say i grew up sheltered and started to experience more diversity while studying at Pitt. I have been lucky since going to Pitt to marry my amazing wife, study in Europe meeting people from all over the world. People from countries the US has foreign policy issues with.
Even despite that, I’m still uncomfortable around people that I don’t know how to start a conversation. I think it’s important to be honest about that discomfort to myself and use that as an opportunity to grow. The only way to get rid of the discomfort is to meet more people. I don’t want a black friend because they are black. I want and need more friends of diverse backgrounds to grow into a better person. My wife has opened my eyes to her family’s cultural. I really enjoy Mariachi music now, Son De La Negra is one of their favorite songs and one of mine too.
So how does all this relate to being a White Liberal in Portland? Well, I think for a start, we need to meet people where they are, try to understand their world and world view. It’s very different than ours. We need to start joining groups and becoming part of the larger more complex city of Portland or whatever city you currently live in. The other thing that we must do is listen. When people are talking about their history and where they came from, you’ll hear both a lot of similarities and many defining differences. You can build bonds on the similarities, while using those differences to understand people in a way you never could before. These differences can be painful because it forces you to look into the mirror and really think about where you came from and for you to grow as a person it requires to potentially reevaluate how you got where you are. I know that I grew up in a pretty special area that gave me a huge amount of opportunity. My parents were in a position where they enabled me to go to Pitt leaving with minimal debt. This makes me very fortunate and puts me in a very different place than people who built up a lot of debt going to school or came from an area where they weren’t enabled to succeed.
Upon self-reflection, I need to do more listening and growing.