Essays

Seeing Past Portland’s Whiteness

by Alicia Eler on March 24, 2014

Screengrab from Julie Perini's video "The White Lady Diaries." Image via julieperini.org.

Still from Julie Perini’s video “The White Lady Diaries” (2013) (image via julieperini.org)

LOS ANGELES — In journalism, Betteridge’s law of headlines states that any headline ending in a question mark can be answered with the word “no.” Such is also the case for the Safe & Sound?, a video project by Portland-based artists, activists, and community organizers Julie Perini, Jodi Darby, Erin Yanke, Amelia Cates, and Christopher Hamann. The group’s one-hour documentary considers the relationship between police brutality and the criminal justice system in Portland, particularly as it impacts people who are not white, affluent, gender-conforming, or with a home. It’s one of two projects by Perini that investigate white privilege and critical race theory by turning the camera on whiteness in all of America, not just Portland.

"Safe & Sound" flier image designed by Jodi Darby via safesound.virb.com

“Safe & Sound” flier, designed by Jodi Darby (image via safesound.virb.com) (click to enlarge)

I didn’t mean for my trip to Portland to have such a focus on race. My initial Facebook status posts consisted of quips like, “Everyone is so attractive in Portland. How is this possible?” But upon making the observation, I quickly received responses from friends both in-person and online about the city’s overwhelming whiteness. Taken aback at first, I decided to pay close attention to how many non-white people I saw. As someone who reads as white, although I didn’t think of myself that way until recently — my father is an immigrant from Turkey and my mother is Jewish, so while I’m not “white” ethnically, I am understood as such by most people I encounter — it’s normal for me to coast on by in most situations without being questioned, hassled, harassed, or even noticed. This is one of the points that Safe & Sound? drives home.

“We fight for our right, and our rights are still not being taken care of,” says one woman’s voiceover in the film. Another woman explains the lash law, passed in 1844, which required that any black people in the state of Oregon, whether free or slave, be whipped every six months until they decided to “quit the territory.” The lash law was repealed the next year, but it wasn’t until 2001 that exclusionary racial language was removed from the state constitution. “The history of Oregon is really to be created as a white homeland, where white folks can come to get away from the issues of the day,” says writer/educator Walidah Imarisha in the film.

I was sitting safe and sound, sipping on a cup of rich coffee at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Southeast Portland, when I noticed myself surrounded by other white people. This was less the case in the Mississippi District, Portland’s historically black neighborhood that has since been gentrified. In the downtown area by NW Flanders, the street after which Portland native and Simpsons creator Matt Groening named his character Ned Flanders, I saw mostly whiteness and affluence. Was I looking for it, or was I just experiencing a heightened awareness of my own white privilege after a host of conversations on the subject?

Perini’s five-minute video “The White Lady Diaries”  discusses similar questions surrounding race, but with less of a focus on Portland. Drawing on her daily ritual of making Minute Movies about her life, Perini slices up moments of recognizing her own white privilege, overlaying them with broader observations. They range from noticing default whiteness in books about American culture to recognizing that it was once illegal for black people to live in Oregon (hence the lash law). She still doesn’t see many black people when she goes hiking.

At one point in the video, we see a shot out the airplane window into a blue sky high above the horizon, which is overlaid with the text: “I don’t get special attention from the TSA.” That’s not always true, I thought when I first watched the video, because on my flight from Chicago to Portland, a nice white girl like me did get a little attention from the TSA: I was asked to step to the side after security found something in my bag. The officer riffled through until she discovered what she was looking for: two scented candles. I explained that these were gifts for friends whom I was staying with in Portland. She sniffed them, smiled, and asked me where they came from. When I told her Kopi Café in Chicago, she asked me where that was. I replied Andersonville on the city’s north side, which is a predominantly white, historically Swedish neighborhood. She did not confiscate the candles; instead, she laughed and waved me through the gates.

The Safe & Sound Project will present at “Engaging in Resistance” at Lewis & Clark College on April 2, and at the “What is Documentary?” conference on April 25. The film Safe & Sound? premieres this fall at the Northwest Film Center in Portland. “The White Lady Diaries” are ongoing.

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