Being Black, Feminine-Identifying, and Affiliated With The Police in a Racist Utopia

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and police Chief Danielle Outlaw, during a post-protest news conference on Sat., Aug. 17, 2019, in Portland. Photo: The Oregonian.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and police Chief Danielle Outlaw, during a post-protest news conference on Sat., Aug. 17, 2019, in Portland. Photo: The Oregonian.

A few days ago an article surfaced on, the online home of The Oregonian newspaper, concerning Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler’s performance review for Portland Police Bureau Chief Danielle Outlaw. A snippet from the article, which you can find here:

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler rated Police Chief Danielle Outlaw as “superior” -- the top mark in the city’s performance reviews -- after her second year.

He wrote that she’s a “tremendous asset’’ to the city, an excellent public speaker, has good instincts, a “superb representative of the bureau and the city,’’ is willing to challenge the status quo, learn and adapt and use data to drive police enforcement.

His one recommendation: “This position is inherently political, not in a partisan manner, but in the sense that it is under public scrutiny and maintaining public trust is done in a political environment. You have good instincts and judgment already but learning more about political history and relationships in Portland is important to being successful in the position in the long term.’’

After the chief’s first year on the job, a staffer in the mayor’s office started a draft of an evaluation for Outlaw, but the mayor never reviewed it or completed it due to an oversight by his staff, according to the mayor’s office. In that one, the chief got a “commendable’’ mark, one step down from “superior.’’ The draft said the mayor knew he had made the right choice in selecting her for the job.

There’s a lot to unpack here: the delinquency of the original performance evaluation; the fact that a staffer was completing said evaluation and not the mayor himself; the inherent weakness of performance evaluations as a whole and the city’s slightly updated but antiquated approach to evaluations. But I want to focus on the two people at the center of this matter: Ted Wheeler and Danielle Outlaw; the former in a few sentences because, frankly, he’s an op-ed unto himself, and the latter in more detail because this performance review and Chief Outlaw’s actions as Police Chief bring up a lot of interesting things to examine about the way things often unfold for BIPOC folx when what resembles white cis hetero power and privilege is bestowed upon them by the white establishment.

Ted Wheeler giving people lower marks on their performance reviews for needing to "learn[ing] more about political history and relationships in Portland" is almost laughable. He should take his own advice STAT. He has mishandled so many aspects of understanding the citizenry that it's side-eye worthy. Ted Wheeler is in many respects the personification of the "woke" white cis male. He's "woke" right up until he needs to take a stance or take real legitimate action to address issues that are happening in the city of Portland to non-white and marginalized citizens. So as far as I'm concerned his assessment needs assessing. When is somebody gonna give Ted his "performance review"? Ugh.

As for Chief Outlaw? supremely iffy for me as a citizen of the city of Portland and a Black person living in a racist utopia like Oregon.

Look, I acknowledge that Chief Outlaw does not have an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. Being a Black feminine-identifying person in the role of Police Chief in a city as white, racist, and faux liberal and progressive as Portland is a heavy load to carry. And I will be the first person to say that it would be nice if more BIPOC folx who acquire roles like this (especially like this) utilized their platform to offer more support and awareness to the trauma and danger that Black and Brown citizens are facing. But I am also realistic enough to know that positions of power for persons of color always come with a large amount of "playing the game" and serving many leaders with differing agendas, often leaders that are all white and who have been in positions of power and privilege to some degree their whole lives. With that said, I can identify with and understand how some Black folx in the city of Portland aren't thrilled with the way Chief Outlaw has handled her position.

I've had the opportunity to hear Chief Outlaw speak twice at a couple of events in the city of Portland. I didn't want to feel this way about her but upon hearing her speeches at those events I felt that both were littered with the "things you're supposed to say". There was more politeness than a realness to her words, a restraint on the way even the most minor talking points were articulated, an unwillingness to be as realistically candid as she could be given the nature of her position. The few interviews she's done since she became Police Chief read the same way. Here’s the thing, though: it's not entirely her fault. In all honesty, these are the pitfalls of being a woman of color in a bureaucratic position of power tasked with being a public face for a historically oppressive structure steeped in white supremacy. Frankly?

She's in a horrible position. She will never be able to please even remotely half of everyone. This task is doubly daunting to undertake in a predominantly white city where the vast majority of its white citizens are openly vocal about their views and often discount and gaslight the views and experiences of BIPOC folx around them. If you’re a person of color I can almost guarantee that if you live in Portland long enough you’ll have had enough “liberal and well-meaning” white people negate your experience, commodify your existence and culture, and/or be blatantly racist to you that you’ll be exhausted by whiteness. If that’s my experience as a Black cis male in Portland who spends their professional career in white spaces I can only imagine what Chief Outlaw has had to navigate as the head of the Portland Police Bureau.

Danielle Outlaw’s hiring was a prime example of a "big deal" diversity hire for a company that isn't equitable or inclusive in any way. I see it in my work every day; it's the kind of hiring that companies do when they wanna prove they're nailing diversity. When Wheeler hired Outlaw back in 2017 it was with a great deal of hoopla, a decision that was meant to show how progressive Portland was. From my personal and professional experience, I can tell you these kinds of high-profile diversity hires are always tumultuous experiences for the person of color hired. Add the intersectionality of being Black, feminine-identifying, and cis female and you have an Everest-sized mountain to conquer. Think about it: Outlaw was not and has not been given anywhere near the support and resources she's needed to get policies, outreach and training-related initiatives done with the Portland Police Bureau on a macro or micro level. Ted Wheeler’s support of her work has been up and down at best, at times appearing to not be willing to be on the same page with her in any way. She inherited a mess of racism and ableism problems, and a great deal of distrust in the Portland Police as a whole because of it, in her role, both pertinent issues that have yet to be addressed. And in some respects, Chief Outlaw is scapegoated by the city and the mayor when things aren't "progressing" as fast as the higher-ups want them to progress.

Could she be better as the Chief of Police? Of course.

Could she work harder to be viewed as a possible ally of BIPOC folx? Of Black and Brown folx? Most definitely.

Does she have my trust? Sadly no.

This situation isn't Danielle Outlaw’s fault. It was like this before her appointment as Chief and it will be that way upon her exit. But let’s be real here. She could legitimately do better. She could be a lot more vocal and push for a lot more equity in policing in the city of Portland. She could hammer home the importance of matters like officers having ongoing training and discourse on understanding mental health outside of the Portland Police Bureau patting themselves on the back for “being in “substantial compliance’’ with every paragraph of the agreement” that was the fallout of the 2014 Federal Justice Department investigation that found Portland Police officers had a pattern of using excessive force against citizens with mental illness. And don’t get me started on more ongoing training and discourse on cultural competency, bias, racism, and authority, and power, all of which are practically non-existent on the Portland Police Bureau’s ‘to-do’ list. But she is in a position where she has to “play the game”, so many of these matters will be touched upon just enough to satisfy the brass, just enough for the Portland Police Bureau and the higher-ups to congratulate themselves for the hard work and not consider these community matters issues anymore.

That is often the saddest part of being in positions of power as a person of color.

You can mean well. You can always mean well. You can want to be better, to make the system better. But you’re only one person, a person hired into a position of power that really has little to no power because you’re a BIPOC person being given an opportunity in a white system where often all you can do is try to stop things from being worse for you and yours. And in those cases, you begin to mull over whether it was better to just leave these roles to white people or to try and break the chains oppressing yourself and others and fight for real systemic change with all you have in you. I’m not sure where Danielle Outlaw is on this spectrum. I am not in her head; all I can do is read between the lines of her words and actions. All I can do is hope that she is somewhere closer to the former and not the latter end of said spectrum. But when I read statements like the following, taken from a recent Oregonian interview, knowing her background and experiences growing up in Oakland, California, I wonder if Danielle Outlaw could articulate for you and I or even herself where she lands on this spectrum:

“I would love to see more public positive commentary about the work that’s being done. It’s kind of like a competition of wokeness. How woke are you? It’s like you’re not woke if you show police support, but you can do both,” Outlaw said. “You can support the police and hold us accountable at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive.’’

There’s some truth there. But there’s also PR there. The “right words” are there. There’s a lot of assumptions and picture-painting around the concept that to “be woke” is to not support the police. It negates the Black and Brown experience with policing, which has nothing to do with being “woke” while aiming at white critics and amplifying their views over marginalized citizens. It cuts Black and Brown folx out of the equation completely. In essence, Chief Danielle Outlaw is doing and saying the same things her white contemporaries have been doing and saying for countless decades when they were in her current role. I can only assume that wherever Chief Outlaw is on the aforementioned spectrum that she is caught somewhere between honesty and years of bureaucratic jousting to make her way to the top. To Black folx? She’s one of us. But she’s also one of “them”, for lack of a better term. And she will never be completely comfortable, comforted, or welcome in either world because of historical context out of her control and the racism and classism her position perpetuates.

And I think that might be what it means to be the Black woman hired to be the Portland Police Bureau Chief in a nutshell.

Sounds like something that can’t be summed up in a performance review.