I have lived somewhere in the Pacific Northwest for pretty much my entire life. I’ve travelled here and there and spent some time as a voluntourist in western Kenya but for the most part, I’ve lived in the mostly rainy and overcast upper left of the United States. For the most part, I love it here but it’s not without its faults.
We like to pride ourselves for being progressive and liberal here in the Pacific Northwest. Portlandia takes the liberal hipster ways of Oregon’s largest city slightly farther in its episodes, joking about feminist bookstores, local and organic food, and weird art. Pemco Insurance’s commercials of quirky stuff we do here is spot on. As a child, I learned to distance myself from my family in the South, learned to identify as a good white person.
But the reality is that racism and white supremacy is alive and well in the northern states of the US just as it is in the south. Some of it looks different, other parts of it looks exactly the same. But it’s still here and it’s really important that the white people here (myself included) not only recognize race and the racism here but we need to talk about it all and work to end it. My own experience limits me to the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t mean that other northern states are exempt.
Most of the Pacific Northwest is super white – Washington state’s population is roughly 80% white people and Oregon is significantly whiter. And that’s not by accident – there have been laws and riots that made residency in this part of the world very difficult if you were a person of color. Oregon, like I’ve written about before, was founded as a white supremacist utopia and the state’s constitution prohibited black people from living there until 1926. Portland may pride itself on being progressive and diverse but it’s still one of the whitest places in the country.
All of that is to say that while we may think this place is diverse, reality shows that most of the Pacific Northwest is actually very white and that’s not an accident. I’ve mentioned time and time again that the racist past of Portland and the entire state of Oregon that legally prohibited black folks from living there but there are other examples as well. The 1907 riot in Bellingham, Washington was one of the most visible manifestation of anti-immigrant and racist mentalities (focused primarily on the growing Asian communities) held by the local white people in the early 20th century. This riot essentially ran out most of the Asian community in the town and the impact lasted for decades. There are many Washington cities, like Bellingham, that have a similar history of race riots and running the Asian populations out of town.
Washington was and continues to be home to the Ku Klux Klan, with the organization initially taking a foothold here in the 1920s. A class at the University of Washington actually studied that history a few years ago and really helped to shed light on it. Plus, just recently, a white man stabbed a black man in Olympia, Washington as retaliation for the Black Lives Matter protests. On a related note, Lawrence Lanahan wrote about racism in the north, focusing primarily on Maryland but also on how racism in the north is often clever and more subtle than the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan:
That kind of white supremacy is furtive, not fiery. It happens behind desks, not under hoods. It is maintained by bureaucracy, not violent threat. The story of our two Americas, that is to say, is bigger than bigots. It’s also about African-Americans being denied opportunities even when there are no so-called bad guys. Racial inequality is often reinforced by organizational practices and government policies, such as exclusionary zoning, that lack discriminatory intent or at least provide plausible deniability for it.
To be really honest, all of this was really uncomfortable to learn more about. I had always held onto the notion that the northern part of the United States was safer than the south for people of color, particularly black folks. But that’s not really the case and my own whiteness along with the overwhelming whiteness of my peers and community meant that I never really had to challenge that before. We’re more likely to be surrounded by people like us and significantly less likely to post about race online.
It’s easy to distance oneself from the “real racist” – the ones who have confederate flags, who don’t want black people to frequent their businesses, who actively built legislation preventing people of color (especially black people) from owning homes in some neighborhoods. But there are so many different ways in which racism persists and it’s time that we as white people, especially those in the north, acknowledge that and actively work to change it.