News

Oregonian Opinion: How we can move from protests to real change
Author: Shirley Jackson
Posted: June 14, 2020

Read the original op-ed in The Oregonian. 

Jackson, who has a doctorate in sociology, is a professor in the black studies department at Portland State University. She lives in Beaverton.

For the past two weeks in Portland and cities across the country, we have seen daily protests, some accompanied by anger and others by the disbelief that we are seeing the killing of yet another black person by the police. There have been many conversations about the police but the racism we see extends beyond the violent treatment of unarmed black people by some members of law enforcement. African Americans have been protesting for a long time, but it has now emerged as a movement that has spread from big cities to small towns across the world.

Individual racism lives in the hearts and minds of individuals who believe they have a right to use their whiteness as an opportunity to keep African Americans oppressed. African Americans engaging in everyday activities have their lives placed at risk by individuals who use the threat of calling the police as a weapon. We have seen African Americans watching birds in a park, napping in a dorm, babysitting, selling bottles of water, trying to enter their place of residence or visiting a corner store are unable to engage in such routine activities without a white person calling for the police. Just two years ago in Oregon, Rep. Janelle Bynum had the police called on her as the Democratic legislator went door-to-door talking with constituents in a neighborhood in her Clackamas district.

For those who believe that we should all be color-blind, let’s get real. We do not live in a color-blind society and never have. As a society, we have segments that have been lulled into complacency by not discussing the existence of race and the impact of racism.

When I first moved to the Portland area more than four years ago, I was navigating a racial landscape different from other places I had lived. Even my short stint living in Maine had not prepared me for Portland, a predominantly white, seemingly progressive place where discussions about race are more rhetoric than real. I learned that while there are people interested in hearing my stories of experiencing racism and sexism in my workplace, no one was willing to do anything about it.

I had heard about the tendency for people to be “Portland nice” but it took a while for me to learn that this included discussions of race. I don’t mean discussions of unarmed African American men being killed by police, but those involving day-to-day experiences of African Americans. I learned quickly that I could talk about race, but only in the way those listening wanted me to. If I disagreed, I no longer fit into their narrative of how they wanted me to be. I found out the hard way that stereotypes about what I should think, say, and act meant that I needed to conform to local racial norms that were set by non-African Americans. Retelling the history of Oregon’s racist history is incomplete without acknowledging the current experiences of the state’s non-white residents.

I live and work in spaces where I am the only person who looks like me. In these spaces I am acutely aware of how others see me based on my race and gender and how stereotypes of African American women dominate the minds of those around me. If I have a difference of opinion, I am seen as argumentative or difficult. Instead of being viewed as educated, I am a know-it-all. I do not have the luxury of feeling hurt because I am only perceived as strong. I cannot be upset because I risk being perceived as the angry black woman. I should be more than a stereotype.

We all need to take stock of the thoughts and beliefs that lie within us to understand how they impact our actions. Let us not ignore how as a state we are moving towards educating students by requiring an ethnic studies curriculum for grades K-12. For others, exploring works like Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow are good places to start. Racism built on stereotypes can have very real consequences, some more deadly than others. As we go forward, let us embrace honest conversations leading to meaningful action that creates real and sustained change.