So folx who follow my work and exploits via this website or social media know that I spent the bulk of the afternoon of Saturday, June 22, 2019, in Lake Oswego, Oregon, at the 2019 Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts. I was invited by Andréa Gilroy and Katie Pryde, the awesome exhibit and content curators of this year’s event, to take part in a panel with five other comic creators and geek culture curators of color to discuss how our personal experiences and views align with the comic work that we create. The folx I sat in community with on that panel - Ben Passmore, Clara Emiliana, Nichole Robinson, Brian Parker, and Sean Wynn - are all incredible folx doing impactful work that I have considered friends and associates for some time now (make that a new friend and associate in Ben Passmore). In my humble opinion the panel itself was phenomenal (you can watch it in its entirety here); we all shared the space we were given with no hang-ups and had a robust discussion that touched on a myriad of topics while pulling no punches. I would like to thank Andréa and Katie for having me as a panelist, for putting together this panel, and allowing us the space to roll with it as we wanted. But I walked away from my afternoon in Lake Oswego with one firm understanding:
I ain’t never going back to Lake Oswego ever again.
You couldn’t pay me to go back to Lake Oswego.
Have you ever been somewhere that makes it expressly known that you and people like you are not welcome there? Or “supposed” to be there? And that you need to understand that, apologize, and swiftly make your way to the city limits and out of “their town”?
That was my experience in Lake Oswego.
Truth is in many respects I knew what I was getting into. I actually openly talked about it leading into the event. I had some trepidation. Lake Oswego’s history with racism and overt discrimination towards BIPOC folx is messy. Google “Lake Oswego Racism”. Dive in a little. Lake Oswego is a place where racism and classism hang out for lattes and high-end boutique shopping. The place is nicknamed, “Lake No Negro”. There are middle school and high school students who have done everything from passing racist notes to tagging buildings with racial slurs aimed at their BIPOC classmates. Did you know that there’s an apartment complex on the line between Lake Oswego and West Linn named The Orient that is touted as being one of the best spots to enjoy “Lake Oswego living”? Guess what street The Orient is on? Chow Mein Lane. You literally cannot make this stuff up, y’all. Lake Oswego has around 39,532 citizens, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled in 2018. Only 16% of those citizens are non-white. When compared to Portland, which is 30 minutes away and has around 653,111 citizens with 30% of its citizenry identifying as non-white, the imbalance in Lake Oswego’s population really does stand out. Think about it: if your city is known for being an affluent conservative suburb that is overwhelmingly white with an annual average median household income of $93,000 how many BIPOC folx do you think will legitimately feel comfortable in your city? And how welcoming are you as a community to non-white citizens?
Class dynamics and race are like peanut butter and jelly y’all. And not even good peanut butter and jelly.
Lake Oswego’s comfortable willingness with not addressing their history of racism hit a fork in the road in the summer of 2017, which led to the formation of a neighborhood organization called Respond to Racism Lake Oswego. A brief view of their mission, and the incident that led to their formation, taken from the Respond to Racism LO website:
“Respond to Racism formed in the summer of 2017 following a racist incident involving an off-duty Black police officer in Lake Oswego. Detective Nathan Sheppard told a story on his blog of a road rage dispute with a white man who called him a nigger, peppered him with familiar euphemisms such as, “You don’t look educated,” and questioned how he could live in LO because of his skin color. Several local news outlets picked up the story, which eventually sparked a debate on the social media network Nextdoor about the existence of racism in LO.
Inspired by those debates, resident Liberty Weaver reached out to others in the Nextdoor group to continue the conversation in person. Willie Poinsette, a longtime LO resident, was the only person to respond. The two met, shared their stories, talked about their experiences organizing around racism, and professed a mutual desire to affect change in the town. From there, they reached out to others and organized the first Respond to Racism meeting at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ on July 10, 2017.
The group now meets monthly, packing the LO UCC dining hall and bringing concerned citizens together with members of local government, news media, and the LO school district, among others, to tackle overt and systemic racism in the town.”
There’s…there’s a lot to unpack there. And it’s the kind of unpacking that sends my social justice arrogance into overdrive. I’m going to do my best to keep that in check as I write this next set of thoughts. Here it goes:
White folx are racist. To be white and to act like the predominantly white community you live in is not participating in and reinforcing racist actions and language and sending clearly defined messages to BIPOC folx who traverse through your community that you do not like “their kind” is to deny that white supremacy exists. More importantly, it is denying that you are routinely, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuating white supremacist ideologies and norms.
If you’re a white person reading this, I hope that you’re still with me. My statement is meant to be honest, not accusatory. But honestly, white people? Y’all are racist. It just is what it is. As a white person the values and structures of white privilege is ingrained in you from birth; it’s a part of your surroundings, your upbringing, the way your family connected with non-white folx in your communities. It’s often very openly visible to BIPOC when racism is on full display – and the white citizens of Lake Oswego are openly seen by folx in Oregon as racist.
Whiteness is a set of narratives, norms, and structures that are not ill-defined and are understood by most persons of color. And while the vast majority of white folx tend to lean toward the concept of being white and all that comes with it as a nebulous notion? Many BIPOC folx understand what whiteness is, and its impact, on a personal level. Many of us understand that whiteness operates in a bubble that allows it to deny, question, and/or be oblivious to the racism that its denizens perpetuate every day of their lives. So while I want to be mad and yell at the white folx of Lake Oswego for falling into the familiar white trope of “suddenly realizing racism is happening around you” I…I cannot. I cannot yell at them about their lack of awareness of the trappings of whiteness because I have to accept that they really do not know. Besides, all that yellin’ and carryin’ all ain’t gonna do nothin’ but get my blood pressure all up, and high blood pressure kills so many Black folx, and I don’t wanna contribute to those numbers! What I look like, dyin’ of high blood pressure due to White-a-betes?
But I digress.
When the conversations that Respond to Racism Lake Oswego are referring to in their mission statement started happening in 2017 the white folx of Lake Oswego didn’t know racism was a rampant and persistent part of their community’s culture. Why? Because, frankly, they have had no reason to know, or to even care, that they have been racist and are racist. Of course, it was a revelation to the citizens of this city that a litany of racist incidents, incidents that were akin to incidents that had been happening in the city for decades, were starting to become headline news in and outside of their city. It is these moments where whiteness intersects with obliviousness due to lack of experiential connection. I suppose it is a good thing to see that a litany of racist incidents in what amounts to a small city prompted conversation from a portion of the citizenry realizing that a community-based problem exists and needs to be addressed. With that said, while I am sure many of the citizens of Lake Oswego were oblivious to the culture of racism in their city a much larger contingent of white folx in Lake Oswego definitely knew it was “a thing”. I would argue not only did they know it was a “thing” - they were OK with the racist undercurrent of their city. This acceptance of racism is another aspect of whiteness: white fragility. You see, whiteness works within a realm of obliviousness. But it also operates in a comfortable structure of power and privilege that feeds the aforementioned obliviousness while catering to a sense of righteousness and conviction that excludes others. That’s a shaky gray area to dive into, even for many white folx.
At this point in time Lake Oswego has been having these conversations through events coordinated by Respond to Racism and trying to move race relations in their community forward for around two years. And while two years is in many respects a very short time to see if this discourse in the city is making a real difference of any kind there have been some notable moves that have been attempted to move Lake Oswego in a less racist direction. During the last two years the city has adopted a resolution affirming Lake Oswego as a welcoming and inclusive city. Recently their Mayor and city council even agreed to create a diversity task force to tackle the inequities in their community. The latter has been mired in controversy, with that Mayor and councilors, who are predominantly white (note: the only person of color on the Lake Oswego city council was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict so his vote and views were not counted), appointing a predominantly white team to combat issues with diversity in the city. And the former? Well I can attest to the fact that the former is lip service on the highest level. I can confirm that after spending an…interesting afternoon/early evening in Lake Oswego, and engaging in discourse with other BIPOC folx who were panelists, artists with work on display at the festival, and event volunteers about their experience in the city, that Lake Oswego is not welcoming and inclusive. If anything I would argue that Lake Oswego has a massive amount of white fragility it needs to address before it’s a safer space for any person of color to spend time in their city. And that white fragility plays out in microaggressions, stern looks, “woke” white “allies”, and a general understanding that Lake Oswego is not the place to buy your next summer home if you’re a melanated person.
My personal experience during my visit to Lake Oswego? I’ll whittle it down to one word: unease.
I caught a rideshare to the Festival of the Arts. The driver dropped me off in the same drop off zone as everyone else for the event, yet as soon as I stepped out of the car I instantly had at least a dozen white folx looking at me. I am not exaggerating. I know how many white folx were looking in my general direction with curiosity because, like many people of color, I operate in a realm of constant awareness of my surroundings. I am always assessing areas for exits and dangerous elements to ensure I know my best options for survival and escape if somethin’ pops off. I call it my “negro sense”, mainly because I’m a comic geek who loves Spider-Man but more-so because it minimizes in my head and heart that I move through life with an abnormal level of vigilance for any human being to possess just because I live in a country that is not a safe place for me. I wish this perpetual state on no one. I would legitimately rather get bit by a spider than live this way but it’s a necessary evil.
It is a matter of making sure I do my best to get home every day in one piece.
Anyway, my “negro sense” was on fire. I looked around for a moment, smiling and greeting white folx I did not know from Tom, Dick, and Harry, hoping to slightly defuse the situation. This did not work. The citizens of Lake Oswego saw me and they needed to figure me out. I watched as some of them peered at me with measured yet concerned looks on their faces; others seemed perturbed that I had just stepped out of a car and was walking into their space. The two volunteers who were helping direct patrons to the main parking areas near the Festival did not acknowledge my existence as I walked past them, even after I smiled at both of them and greeted them from a place of warmth. Like I said earlier, I understood not even five minutes into being in Lake Oswego that “me and my kind” were not welcome there.
This feeling did not go away.
The confused looks; the obvious signs of annoyance on the faces of white locals as I walked by them or talked to a friend or colleague in their vicinity. It was apparent that many of the citizens of Lake Oswego were not comfortable with BIPOC folx being around them. There were a few instances where white folx went out of their way to not smile or even look at me. I grabbed some sushi after the “Comics Activism” panel with a few of my fellow panelists at the sushi restaurant across the street from the Lakewood Center for the Arts, the venue that hosted a bulk of the Festival. A white couple came in around five minutes after our party took their seats and began eating and conversing. As I ate calamari with chopsticks, gleefully splashing squid parts in a loose paste of low sodium soy sauce and wasabi, my gaze landed on the aforementioned couple, who were seated in a booth slightly to the right of our party. That’s when I realized that one member of the couple was looking straight ahead, akin to a horse with blinders on. And it hit me.
They didn’t want to look at us.
This person’s seat in the booth placed them in a spot where myself and a couple of the members of our party were in their line of sight. And I watched them as it settled into my psyche that this person did not want to look at us. Neither member of the couple talked much during their visit to the restaurant outside of ordering food. They ate their food and left in, I would estimate, around 15 minutes. Here we were, a group of Black and Brown folx in a sushi restaurant owned by an Asian gentleman yet the Black and Brown folx were the ones making this couple (or at least “horse blinders”) uncomfortable.
I will never fully understand the caste system of racism, y’all. All I know is that Black and Brown folx will always be at the bottom of that system. If you can be comfortable going into an Asian-run restaurant but not be comfortable with the clientele being Black and Brown then your understanding of the caste system is better than mine. Please enlighten me.
Anyway, my colleagues and I dispersed after commiserating over vittles, going our separate ways. I had a conversation outside of the sushi restaurant with Ben Passmore as I waited for my rideshare home. Ben was telling me about his time in Lake Oswego, having flown into Oregon on Thursday of that week. He told me about the general unease that he was feeling, the looks, the body language of white folx as he navigated their city (he was staying in a hotel in Lake Oswego). While Ben and I were having this conversation multiple white citizens walked through us and around us, with facial expressions and eyes unable to combat visibly shouting out how they felt about us “inconveniencing” their forward progress down the street. Funny thing is we were not in their way; in fact we were easy to walk by without issue. We were not blocking the entrance to the restaurant or even the sidewalk around the restaurant. At one point Ben and I found ourselves edged off of the sidewalk and basically standing in the parking lot to continue our chat. And somehow, even then, we were still “in the way” and we still had people walk by us like we were pinning them against a jagged wall. It was surreal. It was somewhat infuriating. I honestly wanted to say something. But “negro sense” doesn’t play. And “negro sense” kept reminding me of the danger that publicly pointing out a racist incident in real time as a Black man in a uber-white city is one of the quickest ways to end up dealing with the police and maybe even making it onto the top stories list on the 6 o’clock news. So I let it go. I walked away. I got in my rideshare and I went home.
I had had my fill of white supremacy for the day. Lake Oswego made sure my cup had runneth over.
I took the time over the last few weeks to mull over my experience in Lake Oswego. In all honesty it was nowhere near the worse racism I’ve ever faced. It was uncomfortable, yes, but not life-altering. I thought about if it was worth sharing my thoughts on my time in Lake Oswego. I sat down, wrote a little, deleted a lot, added the deleted bits back, deleted them again. Rinse and repeat for weeks. This article sat on my home computer, staring at me in 20-minute intervals as I would open the word document, type a line or two, then close it and walk away from it for a day. Truth is I felt that maybe it wasn’t worth talking my afternoon in Lake Oswego. I waxed and waned on whether I should talk about because my discomfort, even if it was something that was palpable in the air throughout the city, because maybe it wasn’t severe enough to elicit a write-up. But then I started talking to my BIPOC friends and colleagues who were not on the panel with me. And they shared their experiences in Lake Oswego. One of them told me about a white person in the audience at their panel asking them their thoughts and personal usage of the word nigger - and just said nigger, casually, with no qualms. Another friend of mine and their spouse were asked by a white audience member at their panel inappropriate questions about being oriental, from, you know, “The Orient”. And this person evidently did not want to take in that maybe she could just call Asian citizens Asian, East Asian, or Southeast Asian. Nope. Definitely oriental. Two other friends of mine told me about incidents where white people asked them where they were from. You know, not where in the United States they might be from but what Mexican country they were from. I even heard from one of the organizers of the event that many of the patrons of the Festival of the Arts - around half - were not pleased with the more inclusive lens used to curate this year’s event and were vocal about it as they “critiqued” the art exhibits and their content. All of these testimonials, all of them came with the added weight of the feelings of discomfort I was grappling with after my sojourn to Lake Oswego. And that all helped solidify my decision to write this, to dump my thoughts online for the world to digest, because I realized it wasn’t about me. And it wasn’t necessarily about my personal experience either.
It was about racism being racism.
Racism doesn’t come in flavors. There’s no gluten free, or low sodium, or dairy free version of racism. Racism is racism, regardless of how insidious, unconscious, or overt it may be. To not address racism, to not talk about the systemic racism that is rampant in an area like Lake Oswego, is to allow it to stay normalized. If we act like racist incidents like all of the aforementioned are par for the course then we continue to allow cities like Lake Oswego and its citizenry to not be responsible for their inequity, lack of diversity, and exclusion of those who don’t fit their criteria (read: white). I talk about racism in some capacity every day of my life, both personally and professionally. I talk about it with comfort, with ease. I understand how it plays out and its reverberating effects. But sometimes I forget that I, like many persons of color, at times compartmentalize and rationalize racist things that happen to us and those around us to get through a day, to not stir the pot, to not get upset and frustrated at the world. It’s a coping mechanism; it’s part of the “Being BIPOC in the United States” starter kit that comes bundled with a whole lot of uneven ways to traverse racism and inequity and that “negro sense” I spoke about earlier (or “[insert your race here] sense”; no one starter kit is the same).
I realized I had spent too much time oscillating between anger and shock and teetering on the precipice of whether it was worth addressing because I thought the racism I experienced in Lake Oswego was bad but it wasn’t “that bad”. That realization reiterated for me that regardless of the circumstance or perceived level of the offense racism is always bad. There are no exceptions. The fact that we, BIPOC and white folx, are collectively conditioned by white supremacy and white cultural and societal norms to look at racism through a lens of “only bad folx are racist” is one of the primary hurdles to talking about how casual racism actually is. In Lake Oswego? Racism is super casual. It’s business casual. It’s “weekend at the summer home” casual. And it’s easy. It’s easy like Sunday morning. And that is a scary level of racism that no one should have to be subjected to.
Many of the citizens in Lake Oswego don’t realize how immersed in white supremacy they are; others do, to varying degrees. No matter which way you cut it Lake Oswego is not a place for persons of color. And I want it to be known for those in the back during all of the wonderful panels that took place at this year’s Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts that we know you’re racist. We see you. We know you really don’t want us in your city. And guess what, Lake Oswego?
You’re not gonna get what you want.
I am going to come back to Lake Oswego.
I will be reaching out to Respond to Racism Lake Oswego and sharing my thoughts on the “wonderful city” y’all have cultivated. I want to be a part of your discussions. I want to come facilitate trainings in your town. I want to make you uncomfortable the way you made me and my friends and colleagues uncomfortable when all we wanted to do was share some arts, culture, and lived experiences with your community. And even if the vast majority of Lake Oswego’s citizens do not want to hear or digest what I have to say? That’s too bad. We’re going to talk about it and unpack your white supremacy anyway. You’ve earned this, Lake Oswego. There are BIPOC trainers, discussion leaders, and facilitators from across the Pacific Northwest being brought in by groups like Respond to Racism to address these huge issues in the city and I want in.
Looks like Lake Oswego has earned themselves a new friend.
Let’s meet for coffee sometime soon.