Racism in Portland & Oregon

I woke up this morning before dawn to thank the full moon for this new day. Despite not sleeping well, after a full day of trying to prepare for mediating my pending divorce, I powered through my kundalini yoga practice to head down to the Pearl for a discussion on “After Obama: Talking race in America today.” 

The early morning forum was a partnership between the Portland Pearl Rotary Clubs new Social Justice Task Force, Oregon Humanities, and Ecotrust. The conversation was facilitated by Kim Singletary, who did a fantastic job of making us laugh, listen and think. I also want to give her a shout out, because I saw that she’s hosting another forum called Black American Women and Questions of Citizenship in the U.S. Media at Albina Library.

It’s hard to convey what a powerful and thought-provoking conversation we had together, and I don’t believe that I could do it justice to recap. But what I do feel very called to do is to reflect more about how the conversation has inspired me to think about how I can take action to shift our local community culture toward one that welcomes and honors diversity, while systemically working to shift policies that have deep roots of cultural racism and socio-economic division.

As a third generation Oregon, I appreciated the ice-breaker question being an about what we love about Portland and Oregon, with the caveat that we were also encouraged to share what turns us off about the local culture’s attitude toward racism. It was easy for us all to find common ground around loving being close to nature (even it the facilitator cheerfully joked about how she likes looking at it through a cafe window or driving by…coming from a culture where nature is enjoyed in a picture frame). Yet, we quickly shifted to talking about the rural/urban, red/blue dichotomy, and how truly racist Portland’s history is.

Having grown up in rural Southern Oregon and Eugene, I moved to Portland in 2000 the same month I graduated from college. As an International Studies major, I had taken my share of classes to understand how we each have a personal culture/history that shapes our world view, especially when it comes to our perspective on racism (where I uncovered my own parents’ and grandparents’ mostly latent racist leanings). My twin sister and I had many deep conversations about our personal white privilege, and still today questioning how we influence social change as an identical pair of like-minded yoga loving white women living in inner NE Portland.

Portland has gentrified so incredibly much in this century.

Our conversation this morning brought up a lot of memories around how I was feeling three years ago. At the time, my son Kieran was a third grader at Irvington Elementary. His class was learning about Portland’s history of systemic racial injustice. As a social science and history kid, he soaked it up. Gratefully, his teachers really took on the opportunity to open up their young minds. They also invited parents to learn, and I was happy to participate in a special guest lecture where they brought the creators of the documentary Whitelandia.

I already knew much of the history, having done a summer long independent study of Portland’s history in graduate school, where I uncovered the Albina Plan and the tragedy of the Vanport Floods. Yet, even though I had learned about the history a decade before, relearning and sharing it with my ten year old son was a moving experience that left me unsure of what I could do beyond try my best as a mother to unteach racism.

The four minute trailer about Oregon’s racist history was completely thought-provoking and at the time I remember seriously thinking about writing a potentially controversial blog post about my experience of gentrification in NE Portland, but was far too wrapped up in the obligations of my life, as I am now…the quick story is that I was living in the Albina neighborhood and experiencing gentrification and questioning my own place in the problem.

Those stories will need to come later, because for today I want to circle back to how this morning’s conversation has inspired me to take my own baby steps to end cultural racism in Oregon.

  1. I plan to take my kids to visit the current exhibit on Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Year at the Oregon Historical Society. I know my son will eat it up, and at age nine and four, my daughters will likely give me sad astonished looks when they learn the history of their beloved mother state. Whatever we learn, it will be an opportunity to plant more seeds of questioning the cultural status quo and hopefully creatively thinking about what else we could do as a family to be part of the solution.
  2. After researching Whitelandia, it looks as though they never managed to get the funding to finish editing and distributing the documentary film. It is such an absolute and utter shame, and I feel compelled to contact the creators to ask about the current status, and if they respond letting me know that they could use more funding, I would like to go to the social justice task force to brainstorm how we could help with fundraising. 
  3. My last step isn’t a quick and easy “to-do,” but one that will take a commitment to many more baby steps. In our conversation today, participants questioned the root of racism. In my personal view, racism exists because of a spiritual disconnect created by perception of “other,” the false illusion of scarcity, and thinking/speaking/acting/living from a place of fear, rather than love. I believe that opening my heart and mind up to authentic conversations about racial oppression will help me continue to do my best to shift not just the dialogue, but create policies to create genuine social justice.

I’ll touch more on in another reflection about gentrification, but here today, I am at another personal crossroads of having just moved in temporarily with sister’s family, knowing that I will need to find a place to live by summer as a newly single mom. From this place, it is indeed challenging me to move past my own fear of scarcity, and instead trusting that this is the place I am spiritually called to raise my family, while doing my best to make my community a better place.

Lastly, I would love to engage personal comments from others who attended this morning’s forum, and to figure out how to have more of an ongoing dialogue about local social justice.


Darcy Rose

Whitelandia Trailer / 2015 from Tracy MacDonald and Matt Zodrow on Vimeo.

Posted in Living Wholeheartedly.

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