Black lives don't matter in Portland.
I know, I know—controversial statement. You ask the "average" white or non-white Portlander that lives a life replete with white privilege (in a city that, according to 2019's US Census population estimates, is 77 percent white and less than 6 percent Black) if Black lives matter and they'll undoubtedly say "yes." They'll likely share some anecdotal evidence of how many Black friends they have and how many Black causes they support. They'll share with you how recently they read the works of Ijeoma Oluo and Ibram X. Kendi and felt them in their soul.
Some will outline how progressive they believe Portland is. They'll push back if you inform them that the number of Black people living in Portland has been on the decline for the past twenty years. There is never an acknowledgment of the historical and ongoing oppression of Black people in the city of Portland and the state of Oregon. Instead, most white or non-white Portlanders with white privilege will counter with how today's Portland is more progressive than ever. They'll tell you that the things impacting Black people in the city are also affecting them and everyone else in the same way. Sure, they'll be lying to themselves and you when saying this, but that's how white supremacy operates: It insulates those who benefit from it from having to face uncomfortable truths, even if those truths are coming from the mouths of Black people themselves.
Right now, the idea that Black lives in Portland don't matter is a hard topic to breach with many white Portlanders. Portland has become a national conversation unto itself amid the wave of nationwide protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd. Protests have consistently been going strong here for over 75 days, with Portlanders battling local and federal police officers, tear gas, and less-lethal munitions, supposedly in the name of Black lives mattering. Judging the situation from its surface, one would think that maybe Black lives might finally matter in Portland. Many of my white friends and colleagues were quick to say that these protests were a sign of change—that both white and non-white non-Black Portlanders were showing that they believe that Black lives matter and are worth protecting. They said to me these protests proved that Portland cares.
Then a white-passing person of color that white protesters in Portland dubbed "Naked Athena" went viral across every form of social media imaginable and was lauded as a hero.
Then the fabled Wall of Moms fell apart after the movement's founder, a Mexican American woman named Bev Barnum, quietly filed paperwork to turn the gathering of mothers into a nonprofit. Barnum made this move while multiple accounts from protestors and community members began to surface that accused her of leaving Black mothers unprotected on the front lines of the protests.
Then Black activists and organizers across Portland began speaking out as they saw their voices get increasingly drowned out in the sea of white protesters, fearing that the message that Black lives matter is in danger of being dropped from the conversation entirely.
The thing is, their fears are well-founded. The message is lost. And it's not surprising that it's lost. "Naked Athena." Wall of Moms. The silencing of Black voices. These are all symptoms of a deeper problem: In Portland, Black lives don't matter unless there's some form of compensation involved. Notoriety? Kudos? Bragging rights? That's what it's all about. That's what matters, even if it means the Black lives they claim they care about are diminished in the process. Why?
Performative allyship is Portland's preferred form of racism.
For months, I've watched white Portlanders pat themselves on the back, making sure they tell everyone that they're out every night protesting. I've listened as Black people have been told by white Portlanders how we should be protesting. I've heard from white Portlanders that Black people shouldn't question their motives and to be grateful that they are protesting "for us." I've sighed as white-passing persons of color take off their clothes and get national praise. I've shaken my head in disappointment as non-Black persons of color create national spotlights off the backs of Black bodies that they've spun into their latest income stream. And well, white Portlanders' caring for Black lives looks a whole lot like hollow gestures that lack empathy but expect emotional capitulation from Black people. Non-white Portlanders' care for Black lives sure does look like their wants and needs mean more than Black lives.
Portland's care for Black lives looks a lot like white supremacy to me.
White and non-Black Portlanders need to understand that you can't care about Black lives if you're not willing to address and unpack your white supremacy. And until you start and maintain the lifelong work of dismantling your lifetime of benefiting from white supremacy? Your performative attempts at allyship will do more harm than good.
Pharoah Bolding is the (self-proclaimed) world’s greatest comic drawin’ HR professional, a pop culture and pro wrestling geek, a race equity consultant, and a public speaker. You can find out more about Pharoah and his work at pharoahbolding.com.