Bring your comfiest sweaters and prepare to grow some thick skin. Portland may have a reputation for being a punch line—a place full of hipsters and hippies, bearded men, and unshaved women—but it’s more complicated than that. Portland can be a deeply complex vortex for people of color to call home. It’s rich with moments that soothe the soul and sprinkled with moments that cut deep into the most tender places we know, and it seems to trap people here in a love-hate embrace.
I’ve lived in this gorgeous white city my entire life and can count on one hand my encounters with overt racism. Portland’s brand of racism tends to take the shape of passive remarks, fetishization, and “color blindness.” It becomes extremely exhausting having to educate ignorant, well-meaning folks about how to appropriately interact with people who don’t look like them. This reluctant and inescapable role as “ethnic ambassador” can drive people of color away. I understand the aversion, but Portland has another side to it.
We’ve all heard countless times that Portland is very white, but most people don’t know that communities of color have endured so much in just the past 50 years alone. Once residency for African Americans in Oregon was legalized in 1926, Black people were practically only allowed to live in North Portland, an area forsaken by city government. They learned to make the best of what they were given, and eventually North Portland was home to a thriving, self-sufficient community of Black and Brown folks. On Williams Avenue there were successful jazz joints, pharmacies, barber shops, and clinics almost exclusively owned and patronized by Black people. The expansion of Emanuel Hospital that lead to the eviction of thousands of families in the area was the first of many strikes that broke this community down, divided its people, and condemned many Black families to the east side of town. Many of the Black families who remain in inner Portland have survived against all odds.
I’ve lived in this gorgeous white city my entire life and can count on one hand my encounters with overt racism.
Now that people of color in Portland are scattered, we make it a point to gather and support one another. We understand how isolating it can be to exist as a person of color in this town, and that’s why we create safe spaces to sing, cry, write, read, meditate, dance, and just be with one another at events hosted by art collective DUG or at a dance night hosted by YGB. I’ve found that no matter who you are or what you’re into, you’re going to find people here who will help you hand-paint your very own freak flag—and throw a five-person parade with you to celebrate it. We are passionate and confident about what moves us.
The first thing you’ll want to do here is find your people. Create a family. Because our communities of color are so intertwined, one friend you make may be able to connect you to a broader community of others who are into exactly what you’re into! If you like to dance, attend a random dance party. If you like to play music, find an open jam to attend. With a smile and a few words, you could find yourself making connections that will keep you afloat in rainy Portland.
The second is to buckle up for the roller coaster of fetishization, racism, and admiration that you’ll be riding as a woman of color. Chances are the people you’ll meet here are allies, but far too many do not know the appropriate ways to convey that alliance. For instance: calling my hair beautiful does not give you the right to stick your hand in it. You may want to have some lines prepared to tactfully tell off a thoughtless yet well-meaning person. You also reserve the right to be without tact.
Lastly, take a big, fat chill pill. Prepare for a slower pace of life; prepare to wait in line an extra minute at the grocery store because the clerk and customer are old friends. Get ready to stop at every second intersection for pedestrians because it’s the law. Be careful while you share narrow roads with bicyclists. Learn how to recycle and compost. Leave your umbrellas at home; Pacific Northwest natives will judge you. Welcome to the vortex.