Monday, December 11, 2006

No wonder white people love it here

i just got back from a mini-vacation to see family in Atlanta. everyone knows that "hot-lanta" is nicknamed the chocolate city. lots and lots and LOTS of black people. for the black people that live there, it's NO. THING. but when people that are from up north go down there, it's like being a kid in a candy store. to walk the streets and everywhere you go there are black people? it's really something. and not just the average joe black person, but black professionals. there's never a feeling of feeling like you don't belong. instead, it's the white people that are mentally dismissed, like the way they do us. it's an indescribeable feeling. i feel SO "in place".

so it got me thinking. white people must feel that way ALL THE TIME. i mean, everywhere they go, there are their people. no wonder it's so easy to feel invisible in portland. well specifically the Hawthorne district, where my mom and i went this past summer.

we took my kids over there to stroll around in the evening time. all along Hawthorne street is riddled with novelty shops and eateries. we walked past several restaurants where the white people were laughing and drinking, having a good time. it's hard to explain, because of course who looks around at passersby while they're eating? but this was different. it's like, we were in a sea of white people who were chatting and having a good time, and never even saw us. we were invisible. like i said, it's hard to explain. it's something as simple as someone looking at you and instead of giving you a "hello" smile, just merely looking past you. it's like that. and it's not that i wanted attention, it's the feeling of not being thought of as important enough to be noticed.

but the same way i felt so at home, and felt so much like atlanta was where i belonged, all the white people here must feel that way and so much more. no wonder they love it so much here in Portland. what if portland was only 7 percent white? would they love it as much? i dont think they would. would portland be the same city if it were only 7 percent white? i'll have to get back to you on that one.


Sebastian said...

Portland's weird. I'm white, from california, and I can say it's a weird certainty that everyone's invisible here. No one gets hello smiles and very little conversation among strangers here.

By contrast, go to a city like Boston or Philly and you're going to get greetings and likely conversations in stores, bars and restaurants. I dunno what it is it at work here.

Anonymous said...

I've lived lots of places -- 10 different states -- and everywhere people think that people who live in their town are unfriendly and that people who live elsewhere are friendlier. Everywhere. People are pretty much the same all over and you get back what you put into it.

Anna said...

I think Portland harbors a lot of white guilt and I'm certain those people on Hawthorne saw you. I know they did. But for fear of, I don't know, being caught staring at a black family, uptight white people just pretend they don't see you at all, thereby effectively nullifying one's existence. Gosh, that sounded harsh. And I'm white, too, so probably I've done the same thing. You bring up a very thought provoking point. Thanks for posting.

Born in Portland said...

The Hawthorne district caters to middle class, politically liberal, Portlanders, most of whom are white. Because most of Portland is white. I love Hawthorne, but then again I'm one of those brown-eyed, brown-haired, olive-skinned people who get put into every category under the sun, and usually not in the one to which I actually belong.
I digress.
I encourage people to see Portland outside the trendy shopping areas, which will always undoubtedly be predominantly white. (Let the conversation about capitalism begin here.) Instead, travel to a less trendy area--say 82nd Ave. and Powell--and you'll literally see signs of a large and growing Asian community. Or take a longer journey to 181st Ave., where you'll find a large Hispanic community. Go into the stores and see something new. Talk to someone who speaks with an accent. There are places in Portland that thrive with diversity, but these places aren't on the Official Portland Hot Spot list. One might, however, actually have to be around some poor people, which some folks--regardless of race--find very uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

I can understand you feeling that way. I hope you don't take offense at the comparison but the only way I relate is when I was the only (white) woman manager in a nearly all-male company. Its such an outsider feeling and nobody was rude, really. It just sort of sucks feeling so different. I think that if I was the only white person in an all-black city it would be rough. It really doesn't matter how open-minded people are if everyone looks the same. It still feels bad to the one that looks different (in my opinion.) I hope my saying this doesn't seem ignorant as I am white. I just imagine how it would feel to me in the reverse.

Anonymous said...

I cannot fully relate either, but then I am a White Devil. But seriously, I was a Guinea pig in an integration experiment back in the mid 70's. The city of Denver thought it would be a good idea to bus us white kids to the inner city to attend school and the black kids were transported to our Leave It To Beaveresque hood. Must admit, it was a bit scary at first to a young kid and seemed like a waste of time and resources, but it wasnt too bad. I was obviously in the minority and learned a little about racism- hadnt been called "honky" or "whitey" before then, but I generally got along just fine and managed to make some new friends. Can't say I really enjoyed chitlins, soul food or funk, but it was interesting learning how other folks lived and pick up some new lingo. Years later, I lived in a town that was roughly 70% hispanic, which was not a difficult adjustment either. In my 20's, I served in the military, which is also rather integrated. All tolled, I'm probably better for the experiences. I could be wrong, but I don't believe most of the white folks I know are inherently racist. Sure, a few are but the vast majority of we humans can act kinda weird when we encounter someone or something that is unfamiliar or appears different to what we are conditioned to. Then prejudices can take over. Think about it. If one seldom saw or interacted with a black person, what does their default subconscious programming conjure up? Criminal, rapper/entertainer, athlete? What else do they have to go on?

Clearly I'm no sociologist or expert on race relations, so I'll shut up now. Just thought I'd share some of my random thoughts on the subject.

Lev said...

Interesting note about Atlanta. It reminds me of how I felt, as a Jew, visiting Israel - a sudden lifting of that sense of alien-ness, replaced by an easy feeling of belonging.

Kevin said...

Hi...I like your blog, but I've never commented before.

I moved to PDX from New Orleans in April. I'm white. Maybe it's because I'm so used to seeing black folk everywhere (NOLA is about 27% white), but I feel that same disconnect in much of Portland.

I don't think the people in PDX are racist, just clueless about a lot of issues relating to different people, period. And it comes out in weird ways, like the city's complete obsession with "diversity." If you have to go across town to find someone who doesn't look just like you, it ain't diverse. (And don't get me started on the people here who crack nervous jokes trying to show how down they are with this or that.)

Can't imagine what it would be like to be black in Portland - not that people would be hating on you all the time, just the feeling of being as you described so well: somewhat invisible, just another piece of the urban furniture.

Thanks for writing so well - you mind if I link to you on my blog?

Anonymous said...

TBG- Just sort of a random thought on belonging... My father is Mexican and my mother is east coast white. My brother, sister and I grew up with both cultures. Our experience has left us all with a permanent sensation of familiarity with both the American and Mexican cultures, but of not belonging entirely to either one. Throughout my life, I've gone back and forth, rejecting one side and embracing the other, hoping to some day feel comfortable on one side or the other. As you raise your boys, they may encounter the same conflicting feelings. They may feel that they are within that 7% no matter if that 7% is black or white. In the meantime, I'm looking for that city of full of 1/2 Mexican 1/2 American professionals.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute!! If you're Black in Portland you do get lots and lots of attention (and suspicious looks) from the shaved head gang of men in black: the Portland Police Bureau.

My kids and I were shocked two weekends ago at a Jack in the Box restaurant on MLK and NE Colubmia, where there was a swarm of nine (9) cop cars on the scene to stop one lone black teenage.

If you're a black man or teen, expect a WOLF PACK of cops to be on the scene in a hurry and remember not to make even the slightest move or you're DEAD.

Anonymous said...

I'm Chinese American - raised in the midwest (and don't speak much Chinese).

I think part of belonging is sharing the same "cultural context". In other words, I don't feel comfortable in L.A. (or other cities with a large Chinese population) because I'm not Chinese-American in the way "they" are Chinese-American. I'm a midwesterner - they are flaky LA types (joking! sorta...)

I also don't feel comfortable in HongKong or China because I can't interact with Chinese people in terms of language, socio-economic context, education, etc.

Even coming from the midwest (and having lived on the east-coast for a while), I laughingly find Portland *VERY* white. In some ways it is refreshing to NOT see *only* black/hispanics working the minimum wage service industry jobs. At other times, the whiteness is a little surreal even for my midwestern background.

But, like each person, each place comes with a historical background and context that defines what it is today.

Apparently it was only in 1926 when Oregon repealed its exclusion law (of blacks and other races???). Less than 100 years ago. Oregon (and Portland) is what it is. One wouldn't go to HongKong looking for greater racial diversity (where are all the Swedes???).

I guess, we (myself included) expect more diversity in such a *liberal* town in the U.S. but not enough time has passed to catch this city/state up with these expectations.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, I lived in Portland and my parents still experience was literally mixed. Having moved from an even whiter place (Havre MT), I went to different elementary schools (Woodstock area to Mt Tabor) and then all four years at Washington HS (class of 75). Since then, I've lived in places at least heavily influenced if not dominated by non-Anglos. My favorite places to live were in Albuquerque and San Antonio. SA is a good place and, for some reason, I like being in the minority. After 50 years, eight states and both coasts, I think it feels 'normal.' So, as I plan to visit Mom and Dad, I am a little apprehensive about seeing how PDX presents itself to me after 12 years of absence. Bet I won't be bored. Best to all--great blog!

Blkgrl said...

Hmmm, I know some black people who live in Portland because of Intel. Wonder if you know them? I live in Phoenix, Arizona and the way you do when I first arrived. A previous poster stated that you get out of it what you put into it and he/she is right. I'm from the south and lived in Atlanta for 9 years. Wonderful, wonderful place. I had to get over the fact that I'm not as noticeable and loved here and needed to move outside of my box. Once I did, I began meeting people of all backgrounds and finding new activities to enjoy. It has truly been an eye-opening experience and a blessing.

That being said, I don't see myself living here forever. I miss my people desperately. I DEFINITELY wouldn't raise children in this type of environment. I would rather they grow up around people who love and appreciate them. I want them to see beautiful, positive, educated African-Americans ALL the time. As a teacher out here, it's easy to see the impact it has on young people, NOT to see others who look like them; to randomly tell them they're beautiful, speak to them, dote on them. (No wonder I was the most popular teacher among the children of color, regardless of their grade level. They came to me for appreciation, hugs, ATTENTION.) It's very different from the confidence and self-awareness I see in my little cousins back home. It's pretty sad.

Just wondering, why do you choose to live in Portland? (My bad if you've blogged about it before. I just ran across your blog when I was doing a search for a t-shirt that reads, "I have good hair. I have African in my family." Isn't that FABULOUS! I love quotes and positive sayings. "Remove the kinks from your brain, not your hair." ~Marcus Garvey (another personal favorite.)

Anonymous said...

*laughter* Blkgrl, LOVED THE COMMENT and I need the t-shirt. *chuckle* I don't think being a minority is fun for anyone. You will be either ignored (out of ignorance or fear) or an object of fascination (out of ignorance or a desire to learn.) I remember asking a white friend to pick up my inhaler from my hairdresser. I didn't think to tell her it was a black salon b/c it never crossed my mind. I felt comfortable there and had no reason to think some else wouldn't. When she returned my inhaler she said she felt funny. I asked why and she proceed to tell me some people looked at her like what are you doing in here. I asked my hairdress about the situation and she says, your girl just stopped like she was lost in "never-never land." This is a which came first the chicken or the egg situation. Fast forward a few months, I leave a book, another friend who is Japanese (she is from Japan) drives with me to the shop to pick it up. Before I can stop her, she jumps out of the car and runs into the same shop. When she gets back into the car I apologize for letting her go in there,etc. She gives me a look like I'm crazy and asks me what the hell I'm talking about, she was fine. I ask her what she means, she says I go in the door they're playing some nice music, I smile and ask for your hairdress and I get the book, I say bye on the way out,some folks say bye back. They were nice. Reminded me of the salons back home. What is different, I not sure, but I thought about this for a while. Then a few years ago, I taught in a predominately white school (2% minority,) I tried loving all the kids in my class. I must admit I had a special connection with a little black girl and a girl from South Africa within minutes of our introducton. Both reminded me of myself when I was a little girl, they had braids and their hair smelled like coconut or something tropical, they were lotioned (skin gleamed *chuckle*), they wore colorful clothing, and they behaved as I was taught to behave. As the year went on this connection grew to the point I prayed any children I had would be like them. The catch, the girl is a white South African. It's taken me years to explain this to myself and still haven't. I think maybe we all gravitate to things that look familiar. Familiar places, personalities, and things aren't threatening. If it is a new situation/person, but reminds you of something familiar, you think you know what you're getting (especially if it is a positive memory.) The truth is nothing for sure. Maybe were are creatures of habit.

Anonymous said...

What a terrific blog. Fell into it trying to learn and understand why black men insist on being called Mr. I can understand the respect thing, but I've worked in business around the country and business is casual and on a first name basis at very high levels so I don't understand. I introduce myself by my first name but have found some Ohio black men, tell me their first name and then when they realize I'm white it's the last name and they start calling themselves Mr.? WUWT? I'm a mature (read old!) white lady.
Like many bloggers here, I've lived a lot of places around the country and I agree it's what you put into it, but I also agree there are differences in regions. THE PNW and Portland is interesting and people in general are very decent but there's this big deal about being multi-generational Oregonian and they are not originally friendly but so warm eventually. LA is so superficial and takes so long to make friends there. FL ......I didn't speak fluent Spanish.....Chicago - diverse interesting. Cleveland? So segregated it's stunning and appalling. Slovacs live in certain areas, as do Jews, Russians, Blacks, Irish, Italians. Middle & upper class whites escape to the outer suburbs. There are some exceptions, of course, but that's the overview.
I can only imagine how wonderful Atlanta felt to you.There is a movement of Black Professionals in Cleveland moving back downtown into original East Side neighborhoods and buying and improving homes and investing in their neighborhoods.
As an older white woman I can tell you that women become invisible as we age. I can tell you that being invisible is very common if you're white in a mostly black group - unless it's an artistic crowd for some reason.
Beautiful honest blog.........thank you.

anjiebaby said...

I'm black and an Atlanta native. I credit Atlanta as the reason I never felt like an outcast or an actual minority growing up. I attended an 95% black high school and don't remember ever being told I was "acting white" for speaking properly, raising my hand in class/answering questions, or applying myself in school. I was never bullied (I'm 5'1), never felt afraid/threatened at school and had a wonderful childhood with plenty of role models (working professionals).

I actually made a conscious decision to go to a majority-institution because I hadn't seen white people (or much of anyone else ) in many years! Because I know the rest of the world is not like Atlanta, I wanted some diversity!

I have noticed a difference in the African-Americans that I meet from other areas where they are a significant minority in city and/or the black community doesn't have widespread economic success and/or political involvement. College was the first time a black student made an "acting white" comment (actually made to a friend of mine b/c she was on the swim team and tennis team) and I thought of how ignorant that statement sounds knowing that she hadn't seen or been around any white people during childhood either; as though black couldn't possibly swim or play tennis! It does appall me that these kinds of statements are made and people actually think this way.

Being a native Atlanta, it does affect self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-pride just knowing that I'm far from a "unique" case by having graduated college and pursued graduate studies. I feel like we (people who come from a strong, thriving community of their 'own kind') have a strong base that supports, nurtures, and reflects who you are (and your culture). Not that Atlanta is all perfect, but you see the complete spectrum of African-American existence in this great country and not some played-out stereotypical caricature OR what the media would have you believe of us. Case in point: Every year Morehouse College in Atlanta graduates hundreds of college educated, upstanding black men. But more people can cite some 'round about' figure of black male crime rates than can truly say they've ever heard of this school. We have the full spectrum operating as a community, different socio-economic levels, different levels of education, various faiths/religions, various professions, Caribean/African immigrants, a little bit of everybody AND that's in addition to the rest of the diversity in Atlanta (hispanics, whites, Asians, other immigrant populations).

Having lived in 3 different states and abroad, nothing feels quite like Atlanta. Yes, it is home for me, but I do think that while being there, black people feel how white people feel in most places across the country as the majority.