Personal Reflection: Disrupting Ideology

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Race has become a conversation that Portland seems unwilling to meaningfully engage in. Nothing makes this city an anomaly; we follow in the footsteps of our fellow Americans-- we are unable to discuss race and race relations effectively.

Being black in Portland is a mythical, abstract concept. To inhabit a space that constitutionally outlawed your presence within its borders, is a bold and unmatched state of being. Three generations later, not only has my grandfather, mother and I lived here, but we have thrived. Even given this city’s perception of being a liberal utopia, we thrived. We are Oregonians through and through. But, we are black Oregonians. A rare combination that was never meant to exist.

There comes a time in the teenage life where one begins to contemplate their identity-- not only of themselves but of the world around them. Up until this point, they have been shaped and molded in the likeness of their parent’s or guardian’s values, perspective,and ideals. Coupled with the circumstances of one’s environment, there is a constant strife to carve out a place for yourself, in thought, action, belief or character. Seemingly, there is either a deviation from the ideology garnered from these varied influences, or a complete submission to become a product of the lessons or examples presented from these influences.  Ultimately the two options of life choices, creates an opportunity to subjectively choose the needed aspects of parental influence and environmental influence, whether it be positive or negative. This is the reality of teenage contemplation-- a decision to be or not to be, or to sometimes be.

While I lie at this cross section--of trying to figure out who I am, how much of my identity is my own or a reflection of what I have been taught--my identity as a black person is the most challenged. My entire life has been a constant quest to understand my relation to the continual statement, “you are so white.” From the inception of my minute understanding of race, social conditioning and stereotypes, I quickly made it clear to myself I would not be what I was told I should be. Within my own family, there is such a richness in the display and embodiment of the black identity. Professionals, criminals, doctors, lawyers, 7-Eleven clerks, drug addicts, single parents, business owners, two parent households, a family of people from all walks of life. A spectrum of color, career, language, experience, gender roles, class and sexuality. All ways, types and kinds of black were within my immediate reach. To have an identity and background that is not monolithic or connected to one generalized stigmatized archetype is a rarity in minority communities.

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Yet, as I left and even remained within the confines of familial interaction, I was told that the way I was black, somehow was incorrect. The ‘white’ things of shopping at organic grocery stores, running cross country, listening to alternative music-- everything blacks are told is not for them. Somehow these actions and characteristics were unblack. Despite my strength in myself, I found that insecurity began to form, constructing barriers between myself and myself. Again I was presented with this contemplation of further removing myself from toxic black stereotypes or giving fully into the pressure of both whites and blacks to act accordingly to a black that was more palatable for society.

Growing up in Portland establishes early on, very few ways to exist as a black person. Therefore, young black boys like me don’t see people who look like me on City Council, on the local news, at the grocery store, walking down the street. How can one aspire to be something, they can’t see? Black families are further behind white families and black families nationally, in regards to employment, high school graduation rates and health. There aren’t that many blacks here for a reason. Blacks are imprisoned more in Oregon than the national average, with the black population of Oregon at only 1.8%, one and 21 black men are in prison. This year’s stabbing of two men on the city’s, Metropolitan Area Xpress light rail. Throughout most of the 1900s, black people got loans at ⅙ the rate of all loans. This is no coincidence. The systems that exist in this state, have since the inception of this territory entering the Union, have been specifically created to exclude and outright ignore the existence of blacks.

Given this history, how could any black person find their identity, living in a city that presents a community of few to none blacks, who have largely fallen victim to policies set in place to institutionalize their bodies. The concept of being black in Portland holds a substantial take in defying every aspect of Oregon history. Being black in Portland is much deeper than being one of the 1.8% of blacks who live in the state, it is recognizing the root of that statistic. Realizing, our place here was never meant to be. That our identity and who we are is valid in every, simply because we are here.

We own homes in neighborhoods outlined to never have a black face within them. We own businesses. We are funny. We are reflective. We are tired of demanding our rights. We are tired of being targeted. We are humans.  We come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, careers-- we are black and white, black and asian, black and…

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It seems there is truly no hope for finding my identity. Hopelessly scrambling to pick myself up left and right, it seems impossible to be black in this city, this state, this region, this country. Black people are not given the opportunity to even have an identity or contemplate what it means to be this or that, because we are trying to figure out what it means to be alive. I am black, black in its usage of a word to describe a movement-- black power, young, gifted and black, black feminism. It is a word that I can attribute to myself. It has a meaning, a strength and when you hear it, you will remember it. In complete contrast, the word that is made synonymous with black is African-American. African-American is a dichotomy. Two things that can never coexist. An identity I can never claim.  Politicians that protect these impossibilities. Policies that created this impossibility. Police that enforce this impossibility. Media that conditions these impossibilities. People who believe this impossibility.

As I see my own family creating a sense of making the most of what they have been given, I realize my own inherent privilege. My entire life I have had the access to everything that I need and more. My own family is one of the longest residents of the newest wave of homebuyers in our northeast Portland neighborhood of Concordia. In the last 20 to 25 years, the faces that use to greet us--as we drove through our neighborhood, as I went on runs and when the sun made its occasional appearance-- have lost their tan, becoming whiter and whiter.  Yet, even in defying the socioeconomic stigmas and limitations perceived among black families, my mother’s own success has been challenged or constrained to her identity as a black woman, in a position and field dominated by her white counterparts. My father is forced to navigate work environments threatened by his large, black presence. In every area of American life, there is no true way to escape the constant bombardment of racialized oppression. Being black is not acceptable in any form. Claims that economic prosperity would end racism are truly false, no matter the amount of money, a black person earns, they still face immense racism and discrimination.

Clearly, it becomes the responsibility of the oppressed to fix the conditions created by the oppressor. There is nothing even remotely fair about this situation, but it is the most realistic of any options available. That is why, given the intentionality, and small success, of destroying the black community, black people universally must come together to form a network that transcended any influence or border. A network that worked relentlessly and in unison to combat racism on all levels of the social sphere. With leadership within our country and the spread of white nationalism creating fear, the time to act is more necessary than ever. My own identity as a black man has caused an increasing amount of fear about my safety, which is nothing new in this city, simply by just being black and alive.

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This is not a complaint, this is history. I am sharing my experience and the experiences of hundreds or thousands of people of color in this state. This is an opportunity to actively work to combat and discuss these issues. Nothing can change unless we listen.

When time has passed and the present crosses to the future, what will be said of your contribution to making your immediate surroundings, more receptive to black and brown bodies?

How will you disrupt racist ideology?

 

Profiles: Understanding Whiteness

Profiles is an ongoing series, seeking to create spaces of affinity, where similarly identified folks have a space to talk about the perceptions, nuances and actualities of their identity.  

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WHITE LIKENESS

Within American society, historically and currently, economic, political and social power has been largely dominated by white individuals. As our country and world becomes more and more colorful, the experiences of white people are boldly modulating with time. This shift in white perception, fragility and racial competence has come by the way of our ever integrating society. We sat down with two young white men, who have spent a majority of their lives in radically diverse settings. A complete shift in power and influence has been made in the spaces they constantly inhabit. These two offer up their experiences as the perceived epitome of American privilege-- straight, white males. 

Owen O, 17

WHEN DID YOU FIRST COME TO UNDERSTAND YOU WERE WHITE? 

I was in the 7th grade, really fully understanding it. I joined the Roosevelt Youth Football team and that was the most diversity I had ever really seen. I had never really thought about race as much as I did, until I joined that football team. 

WHEN DID THE CONCEPT OF RACE ENTER YOUR CONSCIOUSNESS? 

My mom had always raised me and taught me things about race. She never really go too far in to it. I don't think she really knew how to tell me certain things or how the world works. But she taught me know so that if I was ever in a situation, I would not let race effect it. Just treat everyone the same way.  

HOW HAVE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAD CONVERSATIONS AROUND RACE? 

Say me and my black friends are in an altercation with the cops, even if I feel like I have to stand up for them, I cannot really do anything because that puts them in a worse position than me. Trying to stand up for them in a situation with police brutality, its not going to effect me or hurt me. So she [my mom] has told me things like that.

WHAT DOES BEING WHITE MEAN TO YOU? 

I don't know. I don't think being white means that much to me. If I identify with anything, like I'm still white, but I like to identify more with my culture, being Greek and being Irish. I identify with those more than anything. But I don't think being white is super important, like I have anything to prove. It is just a matter of living out my life and looking back and being happy with what I have done. Going back to the question, it is more about identifying with my culture instead of race. I feel like the racial element, brings in more of the white supremacy and inequality. 

HOW DO YOU SEE STEREOTYPES IMPACT WHITE PEOPLE? 

The whole thing with stereotypes has gotten really weird on social media. I don't get mad when people make fun of white people. But I get so mad, because I don't get what the point is.What do you get from this? In a country, where we are trying to progress for human equality this is setting us back, giving everyone a bad rep. Me personally, I am all about this country moving past, so don't make it even harder. 

 

Indiana C, 16

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE WHITE? 

To me, being white is just the color of skin I was born with. The difference is that, being white makes me realize that I don't have to explain my self or what I'm doing in most circumstances. It doesn't mean I am more or less then anyone else. It's just the color Of skin I happen to live in. Spiritually we are all the same. I feel blessed by those around me no matter what color skin they live in . I see the beauty in all flowers of humanity.

 

HOW HAS BEING IN DIVERSE SETTING SHAPED YOUR PERSONALITY?

Growing up in an ethnically diverse setting allowed me to realize the similarity'sare much greater then the differences. I was able to grow up in the best possible situation where I saw the equality in my friends and my neighborhood. It shaped me in to a much more well devolved and up to speed and focused person. The family's of my friends are strong and loving like my own. Doesn't matter what culture or religion you are. It's always you're inner self that shows who you truly are. Growing up in diverse places takes the fear out of the world. It's something money can't buy.

 

 

 

Profiles: Discovering What it Means to be Black

Profiles is an ongoing series, seeking to create spaces of affinity, where similarly identified folks have a space to talk about the perceptions, nuances and actualities of their identity.  

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BLACK AFFINITY 

The concept of black identity has been one fraught with a single narrative and stigma of what it means to be black in America. With diverse images and stories beginning to show and develop in mainstream society, there have become more ways to express blackness. Blacks are now left with the job of taking on their own understanding of being black, without adhering to what society tells them they must be or how they should act or who they can be. This is their world, this is who they are, who they deserve to be and will never fall victim to being anything but themselves. 

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TRIBE, The Real Inseparable Black Experience, is the name of our affinity group here at Catlin.

Being black, African-American, Afro-American African, a ‘Negro’ as they use to say, back in the day just means being a part of such a rich culture and history. Now, what is black culture, is an entirely different conversation on its own. Being able to connect with people who look like you on that level. It’s like being exposed to an entirely different world.
— Juma S, 17
Being black means having to live in a society where you were set up to fail from the beginning. Being black is being followed around in a store, and being afraid for your life when you get pulled over by the police. Being black is having your culture constantly mocked, but also having it, while other minorities try to mimic.
— Jordanos L, 18
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I just really think being black, means to be beautiful and strong and powerful and resilient. If I had to pick one word to describe black women, it would be RESILIENT.
— Aaliyah J, 17
What does it mean to be black? I think it means being whoever you are. Thats how I answer that. There are so many different variations of skin tone, personalities and jobs and the way people speak. I think whoever you are as a black person, is what it means to be black.
— Damien G, 34

Profiles: The Beauty, Love and Passion of Islam

Profiles is an ongoing series, seeking to create spaces of affinity, where similarly identified folks have a space to talk about the perceptions, nuances and actualities of their identity.  

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MUSLIM AFFINITY 

The fear of Islam and Muslim believers has become overwhelmingly socially acceptable. Critics of Islam, who blame the faith for the actions of radical, fundamentalist terrorists have misjudged the religion that well over a billion people worldwide have found salvation in. The hypocrisy that persists is one that does not apply this same standard to Christianity, a faith that saw the enslavement, mass genocide and centuries of war throughout time, internationally. Despite this all, Muslims within the U.S. are staying truth to their identity. Amidst the rhetoric, young Muslim-American men and women are challenging their fellow citizens and communities to solve the myriad of social injustices that permeate our society, with the teachings and principles of Islam. 

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Ibrahim , 17

on Living as a Muslim in America 

"I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas… We lived in a neighborhood, our car would get egged and someone put needles under our cars and we would get hate messages… Ever since then, we moved out of that neighborhood and I have gotten any physical abuse for my religion. I would walk with my sister and people would look, because my sister wears the hijab… Part of the Muslim experience is not abuse, it kind of undermines what American means to you… It kind of amuses me the lack of ignorance of what people think Islam is and what isn’t."

 

on the Meaning of Islam 

"‘A Muslim is not a Muslim if he knows his neighbor is hungry and goes to sleep full.’ And so Islam is helping people and keeping your connection with God." 

Semerdin, 16

on Perceptions of Muslims

"The media kind of portrays this idea of Islam totally differently. Islam is one of the largest religions in the US… It is really surprising how many different people have that basic idea of Islam and twist it to their own imagination. That takes a larger effect on Muslim individuals."

 

on Islamic Values

“Islam is a religion that means you have to help yourself and help others, keeping up with good deed, that’s what Islam is all about… Islam provides a sense of interdependence that all people should value."

In Conversation with Youth from Brazil About Identity

The perceptions we adopt of the people and places we are unfamiliar with can be quite dangerous. To assume and project the ideas or messages we receive from the world to the unknown, creates an us v. them complex. This complex allows us to feel a sense of security in finding our own perceptions and ideologies as good or just, and those of the ‘other’ as not.

I noticed this most during the Olympics this past summer, when reports of the Brazilian government forcing people out of their homes, and wrongly mistreating the subsequent protests, to build the infrastructure for the Olympics. When speaking to others, they seemed to find the actions of the Brazil as an anomaly, a special case, an outlier amongst world governments. None of that is true. The basis of some of this city's foremost problems lie within forced removals of people experience poverty from their homes and those experiencing houselessness from finding safe spaces to sleep at night. The homes that people have lived in almost their whole lives, have just been destroyed to make room for more desired attractions. What is more desirable than home? Rio de Janeiro and Portland, share qualities that are one in the same.

 

Yet, that is not the perception that I have seen portrayed. So often I see, stories of Brazil that focus that are reflective of few things-- soccer, Carnival, beautiful beaches, the deforested Amazon, favelas, crime, corruption and violence--almost as if they separate from society, or removed from the larger social systems in place. Rampant poverty and crime takes on a different face and medium here, but it still exists. However, in that very statement, the skewed and biased perceptions of an entire nation is summed up. How often do we see the regularity and simplicity of day-to-day life portray in Brazil? How many movies have you seen set in the sequestered favelas, ridden with gang violence and no order? Often. If not, frequently.

My perceptions were completely changed when 12, racially, ethnically, sexually and culturally diverse Brazilian students, spoke with me about their stories. With big smiles, big hair and big personalities these 12 individuals dive deep into this open space. These youth Brazilian Ambassadors from all over Brazil, visiting with the World Affairs Council and the US State Department, were the brightest, optimistic and realistic people of their communities. They were overrun with this desire to share their experiences. To create their own platforms, to stand, with full attention and relay the entirety of their respective lives.

It is almost ethereal when people from completely different worlds come together to discuss their worlds. It is so subtle and beautiful and simple, that is almost seems divine. The impact of two hours on the lives of thirteen individuals, including myself, is not conscious in the moment. Rather it builds. Going from topics about water accessibility to opportunities to better our lives, every point struck a chord with each of us. Initially, I functioned as the facilitator. But, soon found myself looking upon this moment, outside of my own self, looking on, as these people transcended their  geographical, political and social barriers to instinctively connect as human beings. To not argue. To have each and every one of our stories validated by one another.

Truly, I began to see the parallels of our country’s horrific racist pasts, playing out in being followed around at the mall or treated differently when we were with a darker parent, rather than the other. I began to see the purposeful limitations and barriers established to stop, thoughtful, engaged and intelligent young people from changing the systems that provide profit for those in power. I began to see that the objectification of the female body and the degradation of the female spirit as an ugly universal reality. I began to see my own privilege of being born in a place where aspiring to be better was not just a dream but a potential reality. I began to see my own privilege in never having to worry about having water, but instead drowning in a wasteful abundance. I was beginning.

To begin is where all progress starts. Forcing ourselves to challenge our perceptions, to empathetically address the plight of people universally, to acknowledge our blindspots, to connect. The power of connection can fortify and destroy the largest and most minute perceptions we adopt. Allowing our perceptions to persist, even though we know no one of those we are perceiving is beyond ignorant-- it is an active decision to discriminate.

Begin to interrogate your understanding of everything you know or perceive to know. In doing that, I have 12 new friends and a redeemable invitation to a place just as racist, corrupt and unconcerned as my home now. Only difference, is the people there more authentic and human.