Portland is notorious for its attractions, people, and one of a kind traditions such as the annual naked bike ride, where thousands of Portlanders take to the streets in the nude. However, along with this renowned reputation, false identities and misleading conceptions about the city can often emerge. At the core, this begins with truth that Portland is predominantly white, which is a reality some are very aware of while others give it little thought. According a 2019 census, the demographic shows that 76.1 percent of Portland residents identify as white. It is safe to say that the city that builds itself up on its unique identity and embrace of diversity is actually, quite frankly, homogenous.
Though not the only group involved, it can seem that these white Portlanders make up a disproportionately large part of those who stand at the forefront of protests, riots, and rallies. The irony is that these protests are usually rooted in an age-old fight against racism and inequality. It is great that this new generation of people is willing to fight for minority groups, but they stand thousands strong crying out about a struggle that many of them have never directly experienced themselves. It begs the question, are those directly experiencing these struggles afforded enough time and space to speak on these issues for themselves. In many protests, the majority of protesters, though not all, are people serving more as performative allies rather than activists; some of them may be participating in the outcry of injustice simply to say that they were there. Before going any further it should be noted that Portland is home to some of the most passionate activists and liberals when it comes toward wanting equality, and that is one of the reasons this city is special. However, could it be said for some that activism has become less about the cause itself and more about engaging in a cultural activity? Is it too far off to believe there would be more of a public uproar and protest if Powell’s was scheduled to be torn down?
Even while groups of passionate protesters aim to take to the streets, in the later half of 2018 Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed laws giving him the power to control the duration and location of protest. These laws are an attempt to limit the violence on the streets of Portland and attempt to prevent that violence from affecting bystanders nearby, but is it right to limit a protest about violence out of fear of violence? Is it right to limit the duration of protest at all? Can Portland say it is really trying to address the concerns of the oppressed if the expression of these concerns are only allowed in controlled, limited bursts? Furthermore, activist groups have been met with the harsh hand of metal and pepper spray, such as the Black Lives Matter protest in 2016; the protest ended with citizens getting arrested and forced out of city hall for protesting a new Police Union contract. Even if the participants in these protests are genuine and are really trying to create change, the city reacts by limiting them regardless of the methods the protesters use. Even when the citizens of Portland are aware and are actively trying to create change, the city reacts in a manner that restricts the amount of change that can happen. These protests are met with harsh parameters and heavy-handed police force to ensure that there is no violence, but violence is often the thing being opposed in the first place. It could be argued that Portland’s government likes to have protests to show that they care, but only when it is convenient for the city and big corporations whose reputations are really at stake.
Not to say that the city isn’t amazing, because it is. Portland is clean, is green, has the Willamette river running through the middle, and has many little nooks and alleys full of art, good books, and great food. Additionally, Portland earned its title as a city of activism for a reason, but economic growth has put the city’s businesses and beliefs into new hands that aren’t as giving.
One only needs to go as far as Voodoo Doughnuts to see how Portland’s great qualities often get overshadowed by the city’s growth. Though Voodoo may have started out as a unique oddity for passing residents, it has now become a company built on the idea of Portland’s weirdness and how to commodify it by putting random toppings on donuts and selling it as something new; and this isn’t necessarily the companies fault. Shows like Portlandia showcase all the aspects of Portland that make it different from other cities and turns it into more of a fandom which exploits the unique identity the city had in the first place. Voodoo in particular started off in Portland whereas now there are eight locations spanning across the country and the once rare vegan doughnut is now used as a niche to attract customers. This idea has only capitalized more on itself by the looks of a line so long it has to be guided with colorful rails and chains like a glorified soup kitchen.
Portland remains weird though, and that is something that should still ring true as there are a lot of little attributes that other metropolitan cities don’t have. But Portland is also on a rapid path of renovation that consequently makes the housing too expensive for the individuals that made it weird and attractive in the first place. Just as Voodoo was once part of the city’s weird culture, so too were the surrounding properties. As the brand got bigger, the property surrounding the shop maximized as well, setting Voodoo on the same path of rapid economic growth that is hurting long-term residents. The problem is that the old city is being built over by new businesses operating with the intent only to gain profit and cash from the residents being fooled into thinking they are buying into a more stable and defined Portland.
Realistically, however, the city isn’t, or arguably never was, this bubble of liberalism, diversity, and hipsters riding their bikes around to the nearest Stumptown to drink bottled cold brew. It is also an empire made up of economic capitalism, gentrification, and racism. Black individuals were not even legally allowed to live in the Oregon region between 1844–1859, due to various exclusionary laws, some of which called for the monthly whipping of Black residents. Once Black individuals began migrating to Oregon in large numbers, like during the Great Migration occurring less than 100 years ago, they were met with harsh redlining; often their only options for living were crammed and overcrowded lower class suburbs, or neglected towns such as the post-WWII Vanport community. It should be noted that though Oregon was one of the earlier states to abolish slavery, the state nonetheless has an incredibly racist and segregated history. During the 19th century, if black individuals did decide to settle in Oregon they were often beaten, whipped, and forced to pay fines periodically just to continuing living. The remainder of this discriminatory language was not even removed from the Oregon constitution until 2002. Oregon also followed Sundown Laws, which mandated that Black individuals could enter a town but must depart before nightfall. These specific laws were never officially constituted, which allowed
them to remain well into the first half of the 20th century through word of mouth. These are just a few examples of Oregon’s horrific past. And not to blame everything on racial inequality, but a city stays this white for a reason. Homogeneous culture doesn’t have to be looked down upon, but one that actively discriminates against minority groups is detrimental to societal growth and inclusion. Can Portland really live up to the identity it claims to be without acknowledging its past? Not that everyone who lives here is rich and racist, I’d say quite the opposite, but these consequences of past discrimination are still influencing the present.
So, what does any of this mean?
What makes Portland weird and different from other places has benefited the city in a lot of ways. It provided a canvas for those who wished to paint, it gave musicians a platform to perform, and it created a space for new ideas, food, and a community that valued a life lived for art. This value has since been lost as now weirdness has transformed into more of a factor in marketing to drive the city economically. It’s more complicated than a city simply being too white, but one thing for sure is that Portland isn’t unique in the way that it is driven toward expansion and commercialism. When push comes to shove, the city is going to do what it must in order to ensure the dominant demographic remains happy and willing to invest in the future of the city because without economic stability and support, there will be no future at all.
If we are as progressive and politically correct as we claim to be, this all should be an easy conversation to incorporate into the discourse of the community. Portland is a unique place to live and to be a part of, but with this comes the pressure to grow and expand, the pressure to look forward and ignore the past. It is no wonder we have fallen victim to systematic institutions that have taken hold of our identity and turned it into something to be sold. It is also no mystery as to why the city is so white, given its history; but becoming cognizant of these issues is the first step to changing them. We can’t stop Portland from evolving and developing, but we can change the manner in which it is done and what we choose to value and support as a community striving towards diversity. Weirdness doesn’t need to be so white.