At a lecture in Portland last October, Isabel Wilkerson—the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote about the great migration of Black Americans from the south to the north—said that when people leave a place, it’s often a referendum on the very place they leave.
So then what does it mean when I, and other people of color (POC), walk away from Portland because we can no longer stomach its racism? What does it say about Portland and specifically, the failure of its liberalism?
I’ve been wrestling with these issues ever since I moved to Columbus, Ohio, in July. But before I left, I spent my last month in Portland traveling the city, asking POC how their experiences mirrored or differed from my own. What struck me was the very frank and seldom heard opinions by POC born and raised in Portland who are tired—understandably so—by new transplants like myself criticizing their city.
They have a point. Perhaps I was naïve in thinking I would like Portland. When my partner and I moved to Oregon in 2015 from Santa Barbara, California, I thought Portland might be the place for me. After all, it’s a literary city, a soccer city, a food lovers’ city, and a solidly Democratic city—four things central to my identity. But almost immediately after I arrived, I found myself eager to get out.
I quickly grew accustomed to being asked by white people about my ethnic heritage—whether at the grocery store, sports bar, or on TriMet—and learned to say that I’m Indian American in the first few minutes of practically every conversation, just to set them at ease. It never really worked. They specifically wanted to know about the “Mohamed” in my last name.
When I lived in other more diverse US cities, I didn’t feel such a pressing need to talk about race. But in Portland, I often felt forced to do so because of the daily slights I, and so many other POC, experienced. It was taxing and unfair—especially on my partner, who rightfully missed the days when I wasn’t so obsessed with the topic. And thanks to living in many other cities, I also know that racism doesn’t exist in only one locale (or in one economic/educational class). But part of what makes it so tricky to be a person of color in Portland is that the city is often in denial about its racism because it’s so liberal and progressive on other issues.
The thing is, I tried liking Portland. I even co-founded a podcast, Racist Sandwich—covering food, race, gender, and class—hoping it would make me feel at ease in Oregon. It never worked. Call me privileged, call me spoiled. Accuse me of taking up too much space in this city. These are all fair criticisms. In fact, I left last month with a heavy heart and many apologies to dole out, especially to the POC who were born and raised in Oregon, whose voices and experiences I fear I might have misrepresented or worse, muzzled.
But Portland was simply too much for me.
Despite all this, I’m conscious that my experience doesn’t speak for every person of color. I know many who thrive, and feel at ease in Portland. I also know those who, for various family or class reasons, didn’t have the option of leaving. And this makes me wonder: Do the new Portlanders of color—such as myself—do more harm with their talk of always wanting to leave? Do we not, perhaps, deserve some of the blame?
One Black woman I interviewed—who preferred to remain anonymous—regards new Portlanders of color like me to be just as annoying as the white gentrifiers who plant Black Lives Matter signs on their lawn while pushing out longtime Black residents.
“People use this term 'people of color’ as if we are one mass group, united, and experiencing the same thing,” she said. “But I’ve seen some of these new POC perpetuate the same anti-Black sentiments that white people have. Besides, I think white people would sooner listen to an Asian person like you talk about race than a Black person. And these new Portlanders of color who aren’t Black realize it. They exploit that.”
For her, leaving Portland is not a viable choice. Her kids are in school here; her in-laws live close by; her sister is across town. But there’s another reason, too.
“I’m like the only Black homeowner left in my area,” she said. “Or at least it feels like that. I’m not planning on giving that up.”
But others I interviewed, including some newer residents of color in Oregon, reminded me that while it’s difficult to be a person of color in Portland, it’s still better to be queer here than in many other US cities.
Marina Rose Martinez-Bateman, a Latina from Los Angeles, recently became a Portland homeowner. When I asked why she decided to plant roots here, she cited the still relatively affordable housing prices compared to California, as well as a host of other issues.
“Because of the racism and the deeply held commitment to inequity, people ask how I can stand to live here,” Martinez-Bateman said. “My answer is I traded one form of oppression for another. In Los Angeles, the sexism and classism is overwhelming. There’s more opportunity here for me as a queer woman who grew up in poverty than there ever was in majority Latino LA.”
Several echoed her comments. One told me that to be non-binary in Portland is easier than in most other major cites. A few spoke with appreciation about the relative abundance of gender-neutral bathrooms compared with other states. Many spoke about needing to stay for family reasons. Some said they were encouraged by the progress they’ve seen POC make, and wanted to continue that progress.
But Tabitha, a recent college graduate who asked that I not divulge her last name, had different reasons for remaining in Portland: It provides contrast to her devoutly religious Filipina family.
“I felt so frustrated and mad, I needed to go to the least religious region in the US,” Tabitha said. “I guess I don’t really know what belonging to some place looks like yet. Portland is where I’m at right now.”
In the suburbs of Hillsboro, I met Mohamed Alyajouri, the outreach coordinator at the Muslim Education Trust. Alyajouri is a Yemeni American who grew up in Corvallis, a city that’s about 86 percent white. (Portland, by contrast, is roughly 76 percent white.) Like everyone I interviewed, he wishes Portland were more diverse, but also recognizes that compared to where he used to live, it’s much better.
“Besides,” he added, “it’s diverse enough for my needs. I found community here. I’m happy. My kids are happy.”
The numbers, of course, point to the irrefutable fact that Portland—and all of Oregon—is becoming more diverse, especially on its outer edges. According to Metro, the regional agency that serves the urbanized portions of Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties, “communities of color saw their share of greater Portland’s population rise from barely 3 percent in 1960 to almost 26 percent in 2010.” While Latinx individuals were once the fastest growing group, today Asians and Asian Americans in Oregon are increasing at a greater rate.
But the disparities are disconcerting. According to 2010 data, income for white Portlanders was about $62,000 per year. For Black Portlanders, it was $35,000—lower than the national average for Black Americans, which was $43,300.
These statistics, sadly, are the story of America. It always has been and Oregon is no exception. But residents of color told me that a bigger problem is that far too many white Portlanders are knowledgeable about these discrepancies, but remain complacent, even dismissive.
“The thing that trips me out about Portland is not that it’s so white. That’s just a numbers game that will change as the demographics shift,” said Robin Ye, a Chinese American recent graduate of the University of Chicago who is now once again in his native Portland. “The issue is that for many white people, they walk into an office meeting or classroom, see no people of color around, and feel like there’s nothing wrong about that.”
What makes matters worse, many told me, is the climate in Oregon post-election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oregon experienced the highest number of hate incidents per capita in the 10 days immediately following Donald Trump’s win. Some journalists, most of them white, wrote hot takes about those very numbers, claiming the issue is complicated and maybe even misreported. According to several POC I spoke with, it’s that “yeah, but” attitude and an overall dismissive tone that makes them feel unwelcome and trivialized.
This was the case for stand-up comedian Stephanie Patricio, an Indigenous person who moved to the Bay Area a week after the TriMet attacks in May.
“I’ve gotten pushed off of sidewalks. I’ve had my ass grabbed. Basically the Pacific Northwest is super toxic for people of color,” Patricio said. “As a stand-up comedian, it was very difficult to do my work, my craft. Being in the Bay Area I felt the tension release. Being away from Portland is kind of nice, though I miss my family and friends. I spent 20 years in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s been great to be around so many Black and brown folks in the Bay Area. All the time I think: 'Oh shit, I made it out.’”
Taz Loomans, an Indian American, also moved to the Bay Area from Portland.
“In Portland, the most painful experience was that my white friends and colleagues very much resisted and refuted the idea that it was a difficult place for people of color.”—Taz Loomans
“I’m not saying the Bay Area doesn’t have race problems, because it does,” Loomans said. “But Portland was the Twilight Zone of race. You knew something was off and it felt really weird there as a POC, even though on the face of it everyone ‘means well and doesn’t have a racist bone in their body.’ Living in Portland made me hate white people! I came from Phoenix, which is a very diverse city, and I hardly ever thought about race there. In [San Francisco] I feel normal again cause I see people like me around everywhere. In Portland the most painful experience was that my white friends and colleagues very much resisted and refuted the idea that it was a difficult place for people of color.”
Others I interviewed expressed a desire to leave, but decided to stay because of the relatively cheaper housing costs versus, say, Chicago. One woman, who is Black and declined to be named, said she disliked being in Portland, but her fix for enduring the city was to “avoid white people at all costs.” She’s survived, she said, because she made adjustments.
“I don’t ride my bike at night,” she said. “No way. I’m Black. Even Black people are shocked to see Black people ride their bikes here.”
On the other hand, Jen Tam, a graphic artist and stand-up comedian, is torn about Portland, as were many other people of color I interviewed.
“Portland is racist and it’s hurting my career and spirit,” Tam said originally. But a few days later, she messaged me again to say, “I really love parts of the music and comedy scene here—especially our people of color groups. So in a very special and specific way, Portland has still fed me.”
Two words that kept coming up repeatedly in my interviews were “erasure” and “privilege.” Some POC—especially those born and raised in Oregon—told me that new Portlanders of color often speak so loudly and frequently about race that they ignore and even trample over those who have been having these conversations for decades. Others reminded me, correctly so, of how privileged I am to even have these conversations. For my friend Pam Phan, who was born and raised in Portland, home isn’t about liking a place. It’s about feeling stable—something that was engrained in her as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees.
And it’s true—Portland did give me a lot. I gained amazing friends, a keener understanding of LGBTQ issues, and the importance of asking a person for their pronouns of choice. But Portland also forced me to revisit parts of my childhood that I would rather put behind me, like episodes in my life when I was the only non-white person in the room, something I don’t have to deal with as often in Columbus.
Before we moved, my partner and I decided to treat ourselves to a dinner at a new critically acclaimed Portland restaurant that serves Middle Eastern food.
The décor was perfect, as was the service. I couldn’t, though, get past the fact that the tasting menu was called a “magic carpet ride.” Growing up in California, sometimes kids would come over and, after seeing my mother’s prayer Muslim mat in our house, tease me because they thought I carried a “magic carpet” like the characters in the Disney film Aladdin.
When I pushed back and said I was more than that, they responded I was being too sensitive, I had an attitude problem, and that maybe they might hear me if only my tone were “right.”
It hurt. It still does.
Shame can cause so much harm, of course—but sometimes it can be a force for good, for accountability. I sometimes wonder what Portland would be if it were more critical of itself, if a restaurant owner had thought, perhaps, that a person—especially a person of color—might walk into their restaurant and have a different history and a different association with a term like “magic carpet.”
I ordered a cocktail that night—a delicious but insensitively named “Eastern Maid.” When the waiter asked how everything was going, I did what I learned to do so often in Portland in nearly all-white spaces. I lied and said I was content.
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-host of Racist Sandwich, a podcast about food, race, gender, and class. In August, Saveur magazine nominated Racist Sandwich as one of America’s best food podcasts. He is now based in Columbus, Ohio. Follow him @raceandfood on Twitter.