An Oregonian’s Experience with Race

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pioneer contributor Neal Lemery shares his “words of wisdom” with readers, and often will send commentary from other writers that is relevant to current happenings. Several days ago, he sent me a link to this article by a “local boy” that poignantly portrays how our white-washed experiences formed from a lack of diversity contribute to a lack of understanding or empathy for people of color. Greg Swartzentruber describes an upbringing that many can relate to, and note it was written four years ago. There is so much work that we have to do …
I love my native state. I was born in Oregon in 1964. I have always considered my childhood as idyllic. But now as I look back, the lens of history allows me to see things I didn’t notice back then and reframe my memories in a (hopefully) more full light.

I can’t remember my first contact with persons of color in my youth. I am certain that I had some. I knew that there were persons of color. We had TV. Mostly I knew “them” as athletes and entertainers beamed into our home through television waves. My evangelical upbringing had me singing “Red, brown, yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight.” I recall some furtive references to the fact that my mother had been kicked out of her private Mennonite High School for sneaking off campus to date boys and that some of them had been black. That is still a part of her history that I have never addressed directly with her. I knew black people existed. But I do not recall knowing any or being in close contact with any black people until I was twelve years old.
It was in 1976 that we moved to Tillamook Oregon. There I met the first black person that I ever dealt with on a first hand basis. I joined the Little League and my coach was (I am pretty sure) the only black person living in Tillamook at the time. I can’t remember his name clearly but some vague memory wants me to call him Jimmy. My only clear memory of him is that he had what I would now call a skin tag on his hand that was pointy shaped and stuck out like one of those rubber between-the-teeth cleaners that hangs off the back end of some toothbrushes still to this day. I remember him reaching out to shake my hand and me wondering if it would feel weird to touch it, but that was not a racist thing at all… just the general aversion we have at that age to things that are different from what we know… It was the skin tag that I was wondering about… not his skin color. As far as I know, Jimmy moved away before the next summer and there were no other persons of color in Tillamook through my graduation in 1982. However, while in High School, I had learned from perusing “old” yearbooks that there had been a black family (the Wilsons?) that had lived in Tillamook in the early 70s.
The basic fact is that while I never felt any particular pressure to be racist, bigoted or discriminatory, I simply had almost no experience with persons of color until college. And even then, there were only a handful of “Black” students at my vanilla evangelical college. By then though, I had taken a “missionary” trip to the Caribbean and had worked there for two weeks in a community of mostly black people. I was beginning to get some experience with persons of African descent. But most of it was of them being on the receiving end of some sort of charity from our white brothers and sisters. I simply didn’t know any black people in a close way until I moved to Philadelphia for Graduate school in 1986. And that’s a shame. Since moving to Philadelphia, I have been in many situations where I was the only or perhaps just one of a few white people in a community of blacks. I have felt the unease that came with that but that I know was totally unnecessary. And it is on that basis that I imagine what it must be like to have the situation reversed. I can empathize to a certain extent, but not quite in the same way. I can’t feel exactly the same as they do because the way I fear I may be looked at for being white at a black gathering or in a black community is NOT the same as a black person would feel in a white community or gathering. It is the difference between being a member of a family which has the history of being the bully amid a thousand of your family’s victims or being one of those victims amid the family of people that has bullied your family for years. We fail to recognize this difference at our own peril. I may have never acted in an overtly or aggressively racist way but I am still a member of the family of white folks that has a history of doing so.
Again, I don’t recall being particularly racist, certainly not aggressively so, but there was absolutely a sense of “them” being the “other.” They were not a part of my world. It is only recently that I have begun to learn why that is. I have begun to learn of the fact that Oregon was founded as a racist utopia. As some have pointed out, Oregon was certainly not the only place to lean in that direction, but we were the only State to codify it into our constitution. Oregon was founded with the notion that it was for whites mainly. Other less contrasting skin tones were generally tolerated (however they were certainly not encouraged to join white Oregon society) but there are notable exceptions to that tolerance as well. I was never taught the racist history of Oregon in school. I knew that Oregon was on the “good” side of the Civil War and therefore sort of assumed that it was generally against slavery but did not notice how utterly vanilla my world was or understand it until future travels and experiences would enlighten me. I knew of the catastrophic flood that destroyed Oregon’s second largest city – Vanport in 1948 but had no idea that the city was largely built to house an influx of Black shipyard workers who migrated to the city during World War II or that the reason the flood was so devastating was that the construction had been allowed to be substandard because the population was 40% black (unheard of at the time in Oregon). I never learned that while Oregon had ratified the 14th amendment in 1866, they rescinded that ratification in 1868 and actually never got around to re-ratifying it until after the civil rights movement of the 60s (1973 to be precise). I never learned that the racist part of its original constitution was never removed until the 1920s. My adult self is horrified at these things. My childhood was not, as I have noted, explicitly racist. But it was deplorably monochromatic. Even today Oregon is 83% white and only 1%black.
I recall that in Junior High, Mr. Hawkins assigned us to read “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. I didn’t read it. There were more important things to my 13 year old self at the time – like riding bikes and playing football. I didn’t feel any particular need to identify with the Black community. I knew nothing of it. It wasn’t a part of my world. But I can say that I have always remembered that the book existed and that the classroom discussions planted a seed that continues to grow to this day. I often ask myself if I would like to switch roles with persons of color today. While my answer is less adamant than it may have been 20 years ago, it is still answered negatively. I couldn’t imagine being forced to live in a world that is as hostile to me as ours is to black people. I don’t want to have to endure what they do on a daily basis. Yes things are better than they used to be. But I believe that until I can state that my life would be no different if I were black than it is now that I need to stay vigilant on helping to keep things moving in the right direction.
I can’t change my history or the larger geographical history that helped shape me. Those things are done. But I can help point out to some of fellow friends with whom I was raised that just because you are not actively, violently or aggressively racist does not mean you aren’t racist in a more subtle way. You will each have to decide that for yourselves. I do see it as mission of mine to atone for the sins of my region and that I need to work to exorcise as much of that subtle racism as I can from myself. It is not conscious, but it is there. Their problems are not mine, their culture is not mine, they are different – they are the “other.”
As long as any Caucasian cannot say that he or she would gladly trade places with any person of color and have no tinge of fear of from how his fellow Caucasians might react to him with dark skin we have work to do. I hear from many white people that we are no longer racist as a society and that it’s the blacks who are racists for still pointing out the differences. I understand where that is coming from. True, race should be a non-issue. And someday I hope it will be. But ignoring it is tantamount to pretending that if you can ignore an infection it will somehow go away on its own. It’s true… many infections do go away on their own … but some will kill you if not treated. We have decided that it is better to treat the infection than to simply leave it alone. And racism is our social infection that we cannot yet leave untreated. If you can’t agree to switch places with persons of color, then we still need treatment. It may resolve on its own without treatment given enough time, but we can rid ourselves of the infection more quickly and thoroughly with treatment. And there is still the chance that if left untreated, it may kill us.