Can White Portland's Fragility Handle a Megaquake?
Editor's note: A shortened version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Portland Monthly
Consider your performative solidarity officially on notice:
Doing the least, like sending a guilty “just checking in” text or a sympathy-saturated “thinking of you” email to your Black friend, compelling them to choose to respond to your fleeting request for coddling, is insufficient. Your #BlackOutTuesday post ain’t cuttin’ it. Don’t expect a pat on the back for the nine-minute video of you pressed against the scorching pavement chanting "Black Lives Matter." Let’s not even go there on the topic of the selfies you took of your clenched palms, raised among a sea of whiteness at the park in your gentrified neighborhood. Yes, your presence in numbers this time around at protests in Portland and elsewhere speaks volumes, but you get no kudos for just showing up. Black people have been here.
About the word “woke.” You know, the trendy but reductive term you started using after you became a Ta-Nehisi Coates stan? The way you felt after you saw DeRay McKesson speak at the Old Church or attended a Walidah Imarisha lecture? It became your shorthand for “I came. I saw. I conquered [my white ignorance. Now I’m done learning. Can I come to y’all’s cookout?].” The answer is a resounding no. When it comes to the ways Black and white people relate to our shared history, you don’t even know what you don’t know. You can’t be woke. Also, y’all killed the word back in 2018 anyway.
Collectively, your “allyship” of convenience hasn’t served Black America. Even if you see yourself apart from them, you are cut from the same cloth as Amy Cooper, Tom Cotton, and the folks who stand on the 1st amendment to provide platforms for their voices without thinking through the consequences of your actions. Your silence because you’re afraid of what your family, colleagues, or regular group of brunch friends will say is your complicity. Your quiet, gullible optimism that if you work to “fix” racism then the discomfort you feel in being confronted about it will go away is your tacit consent to targets put on Black lives everywhere.
Acknowledge it away—your white privilege—but it will always be a tool you can employ at will as a weapon against Black people or a tool to shield your own transgressions. Defund the police? Yes and defund and disinvest in yourselves. Liberal, conservative—whatever. You are superspreaders of a sickening power none of us can wholly break free from.
You’ve won! Our reality is now the Sunken Place; both your conscious and unconscious calculated anti-Blackness is why this country values money and property and law and order by any means necessary over people. It’s the taproot from which glaring disparities in education, employment, mass incarceration, housing, nutrition, maternal care, COVID-19 and other health outcomes, all spring. It’s asinine to blame the intellectual superiority of white people for these circumstances, but you do—some of you publicly, some of you in your secret convictions.
So, white America, whatever accolades you all are waiting on Black people to award you, you haven’t earned. And if I’m keeping it allllll the way 100, in the eyes of some Black people, the likelihood is you never will earn them. Too much of your doing remains to be undone. And it will never be done if in the wake of present circumstances, you all—as we expect—revert back to your factory settings: complacency and self-regard. It is your personal doctrine and what you say and how you act when no one is watching that matters. No one can police that and no law can control it either. It is completely on you.
White people, understand that this country was built for no one but you. Everything that you know and enjoy today is a byproduct of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. Everything.
When I see you shake your heads and hear you cry foul at violence and the looting at protests—some of which you are doing—my head shakes and cries foul, too; the wealth of this nation is the result of the plunder of a whole people from Africa, the systematic violence against countless Black lives, the separation of families and the looting of our land, our culture, and our bodies and the denial of our rights even when we’ve put ourselves on the line to uphold the highest ideals of this country. That all of this has continued over the past 400 plus years is unfathomable. Reparations? We can discuss it, but truly, there is no dollar amount big enough. The generational potential and incalculable loss of wealth is a tragedy Black people will never recover from.
“Colorblind” laws are a figment of your imagination; laws were written with you, the dominant culture, in mind. And even when they are changed, the changes are only as good as the people in power to effect them. Overwhelmingly, that is still you. White people, you can take police and politicians to task for Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Manuel Ellis, and countless other Black people who didn’t make the headlines because there was no video or because they survived similar mistreatment, but when you add up the receipts, it won’t equate to wide-scale improvements for Black America.
To even begin to achieve the work to make the lives of Black people actually matter, white America must collectively acknowledge the debt it owes us. This work begins city by city, state by state, comments section by comments section. Where are you on the journey, Portland? Not even at the starting line.
White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to people of color, especially Black people, and should therefore dominate society. Understand that our society can never be entirely rid of white supremacy. It is the foundation of this country. It is the foundation of Oregon.
So what do you do?
Your greatest challenge as individuals is, and in perpetuity will be, to hold yourself accountable and to teach your children to do the same. Your everyday actions and inactions are threads in the larger narrative playing out right now in cities and towns here and around the world.
Whether you're a white Portlander or a white person anywhere else (yes, even those of you with Black partners, children, or other family members), start on the most granular level. To borrow a term from the lexicon of pandemic, be your own contact tracer: investigate how your inner thoughts and your past and present interactions with the Black people you encounter in your everyday life upholds the values of white supremacy and the white dominant status quo.
Maybe, you're not sure how to talk to your children about racism, but it hasn’t occurred to you that their toys, favorite shows and movies, and maybe even their school, aren’t representative of the diversity of the world.
Maybe your longtime friends with the vacation home you spend a couple weeks at each year are Trump supporters, but it’s easier to not talk politics than to risk the friendship and your hookup.
Maybe the sign on your restaurant says everyone is welcome in “your America,” but your white front-of-house staff treat Black and other POCs as if they aren’t welcome at all while your back-of-house staff is hardly white at all.
Maybe, you’re a brand or an exclusive cultural institution and you’re “standing in solidarity, demanding racial justice,” but your lack of commitment to basic representation is evident in the art you choose to center or the art and culture you appropriate for your own financial gain. We see you.
Maybe you’re a local news and culture publication and you over-scrutinized potential hires because you're concerned that non-white identity is incompatible with the myth of journalistic objectivity. Plus your white staff and your leadership, your white staff and your leadership (and race-bait that earns you clicks and money), your white staff and your leadership, and your demi-diverse, ostensibly empowered staff and old-guard white leadership have built a model off fetishizing or white-washing Black and POC stories for the comfort and entertainment of your predominately white audience, all the while doing harm to communities you claim you want to listen to.
So you made a commitment to hire more “people of color,” and you added an equity question to your interview protocol. But you didn't have the self-awareness to realize your question would force the Black and other applicants of color to do mental somersaults and code-switch to answer in a way that's impressive and agreeable for you but keeps them in the running for the position, hopefully without selling out.
So you passed long-overdue cannabis reform, but you earmarked a stagnant amount of chump change for social justice equity, you can’t or won’t explain what happened to the rest of the money which went to law enforcement and your municipal coffers. All the while, the cannabis industry is rigged and Black people are still being arrested at higher rates for cannabis-related infractions.
So, you hired one or two new Black employees, made (highly problematic) bias training mandatory for everyone, instituted a well-meaning but misguided mandate to use “lunch and learn” instead of “brown bag lunch,” but Black employees are still disillusioned with your internal culture and unwillingness to change. How is that working out? What are the effects of that dynamic on the outcomes of your equity-emphasized work?
And because I know you’re out there—if somehow you’ve managed to not encounter Black people on a daily basis, or you literally have only one Black friend, know that that is an intentional act of anti-Blackness. There are Black people in Portland.
Stumptown, do you see yourselves yet? Need I say more? Are you pouting? In your feelings about what you perceive as mischaracterization? Or are you capable of better?
Let’s see it if you are. If you’re committed to improving, harness that same level of zeal, work ethic, and persistence you’ve been tapping into over the last two months to find the perfect recipe to make the most flawless, Instagrammable loaf of quarantine sourdough possible. You might have old texts, curt emails, bombshell letters of resignation, colorful exit interviews, or cancel culture posts you can unearth to help jog your memory. Or maybe it just dawned on you that you haven’t heard from your Black friend in a while. (Sometimes we just stop talking to you altogether to protect our own sanity.)
Now before you do anything rash, I advise you to check your white guilt and the impulse you may now feel to reach out to the Black folks in your life. DO NOT CALL YOUR BLACK FRIEND RIGHT NOW! This might be a novel concept, but consume content about the Black experience produced by Black creatives and thought leaders—not white non-experts on Blackness you feel safe with. We all have the same internet, and from it you have equal access to books, culturally-specific contemporary publications, podcasts, and other seemingly endless resources that can be the impetus for your own self-examination.
With coronavirus and police killing us and the threat of military action which will also disproportionately and fatally impact us, we’re busy dealing and trying to rest for the sake of our own healing. Don’t get in the way of that. It may be a challenge to feel out when is a good time to have those conversations: Willingness to do the labor they require is unique to each Black person since the burden inevitably falls on us to be your tutor in the process. Again, now is not a good time. Do not ruin our Juneteenth!
Everything I’ve laid out for you so far is a lot. But I said what I said. Sorry, not sorry. Keep reading.
I was 24, naive and sheltered from growing up in a predominately Black middle-class Maryland community when I came to Portland for what I thought would only be one summer. I committed an egregious error in the eyes of historic Black Portlanders by not reading about the history of Portland and Oregon before I arrived and when I made the decision to stay. My path to understanding and acceptance of the unyielding force of whiteness was harder for it.
But seven years later, I’m a different person; yes, there are white people I love and have friendships with—trust me, they have plenty of work to do, too. I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to do it. But this work is painful. Even more so for Black people; we’ve been on this journey since 1619. The people who genuinely love and value me and are worthy of my friendship won’t shun me for being honest. Quite the opposite if they’re worth their salt. And they’ll go to work slaying my trolls too.
This is the last piece I will ever write and spend my sacred Black energy on that centers whiteness in this way. I no longer have the patience or desire to be deferential to those who get instinctively defensive and lean into their white fragility to gaslight me into believing what I’m seeing and feeling doesn’t exist or “can’t be that bad.” My beloved baby boomer dad, while forever supportive of me, reminded me that “actions have consequences” and cautioned that I might “alienate” some of you with this piece. Honestly, that’s fine. After my experiences working on vineyards in Washington County, as a journalism grad student in Portland, and in various capacities within the local media landscape, truth be told, I don’t have hope for everyone—even some POCs are too far gone.
Ironically, as I write this from my perch in Buffalo, NY, I’m reminded that feeling angry and alienated is one of the driving reasons I left Portland earlier this year. New York, like any other state, has its anti-Black and challenges with racism too. But I got an education in Oregon. If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.
My dad believes that every generation must do better than the last; In this historic uprising, I believe we are. This piece will forever be a part of that legacy.
Tiara Darnell is an award-winning audio producer, editor, and writer based in Buffalo, NY, and Portland, OR. She is a graduate of Spotify's Sound Up Bootcamp for women of color podcasters as well as Transom's traveling storytelling workshop at KUOW in Seattle. Tiara is currently the Editor of NATAL, a podcast docuseries about the Black maternal health crisis, and host and executive producer of High, Good People, a “potcast” that explores the relationships between people of color and cannabis in the new age of legalization. Tiara believes all stories are about power; her work spans cannabis, food, travel, race and culture, health and wellness, and more. Tiara has bylines in Portland Monthly, Travel Oregon, Travel Portland, Broccoli Magazine, Willamette Week, and Oregon Humanities among other publications. Spending time on the water, cooking and nourishing others, blending her own teas, and fresh flowers on her kitchen table bring her joy.