The insidious function of covert racism in Eugene’s liberal white utopia
Walking along Broadway downtown on a Saturday night, you see a black man approaching from the opposite direction. You feel nervous — a split second of fear. Your instinct is to nonchalantly cross the street, but you know you can’t, because you don’t want him, or anyone else, to think you’re racist.
You’re not, right? Nah, you can’t be. You live in Eugene. You voted for Obama, twice. You care about social issues, evidenced by the cool photo you Instagramed from the Women’s March. Hillary Clinton’s description of young African-American men as “super-predators” bothered you.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but your guilty conscience doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
When people think of racism, they usually think of overt racism: the word “nigger” scribbled on walls, hate crimes, hooded clansmen. But covert racism harms people of color, too. This more insidious form of racism functions through false notions of “color blindness” and the assertion that we live in a “post-racial” society.
Covert racism lives in the margins and manifests itself in knee-jerk reactions, like staring at person of color a little longer than you would someone else, or in the kind of overcompensating friendliness that’s meant to prove you’re not racist.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to think racism doesn’t exist here; it only happens in small, rural communities or in the South. But bias exists in everyone. It’s the way society is structured.
In many ways covert racism is more damaging to people of color because of how subtle and ambiguous — and therefore more socially acceptable — it is. As an African-American woman who was born and raised in Eugene, I can tell you that people here perpetrate this type of racism frequently. It’s something I deal with every day.
There are groups in Eugene actively combating this undercover racism, such as the University of Oregon’s Black Student Task Force, our local chapter of the NAACP and the city’s Human Rights Commission. But because covert racism is not as visible or detectable as overt racism, it tends to get overlooked and discounted by those who aren’t directly affected by it.
Those affected are mostly African-Americans, according to Eugene’s 2015 “Hate and Bias Report.” Of the 25 race-related hate crimes reported to the Eugene Police Department in 2015, 20 were committed against African-American community members. Since African-Americans make up a mere 1.4 percent of Eugene’s total population, the smallest minority population next to Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s clear there’s a serious disconnect here.
For a place that’s 85.8 percent white, according to 2010 census data, Eugene is a city that prides itself for including everyone. Its many “Diversity” bumper stickers and T-shirts love reminding you that you’re welcome here, no matter the color of your skin. In EW’s latest Best of Eugene issue from this past November, readers even voted “Diversity” as the third-best thing about Eugene.
So why, then, do people of color experience a drastically different reality?
Most people associate overt racism with Southern states like Alabama, Texas and Louisiana, while Northern states — specifically those in the Pacific Northwest — are assumed to be largely free of Confederate-flag toting “good ol’ boy” discrimination.
But for Candice King, a black graduate student at the University of Oregon, this is a misconception.
King moved to Eugene this past June and is working on a master’s degree in the UO’s Department of International Studies. She calls Wichita, Kansas, home but has lived and traveled all over the U.S., including Kentucky and states in the Deep South.
King says racism functions differently in the South, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“Kentucky, shit, either they like you or they don’t, and they’re not afraid to tell you that,” King says. “I mean, Kentucky’s not quite the South, but in other parts of the South it’s the same way. You know who’s with you and who’s not.”
In Eugene, however, King says racism functions “extremely covertly” and “passive aggressively.” She says she’s always felt like she’s had to prove herself regardless of where she’s lived, but here, it’s different.
“For instance, in Kentucky, it’s been because I’m new in town and, if they don’t know you, you gotta prove yourself,” King says. “In Kansas I felt I had to prove myself because I was a woman.”
She adds: “But here, I feel like I have to prove that I know anything. I have to prove that I’m not some stereotype. I think it’s because of lack of proximity to a diverse array of people of color which makes it hard for people here to adjust to the idea that people of color aren’t just one kind of people.”
Diamante Jamison, a 25-year-old black man, agrees. He says being in Eugene was “basically like living in Whoville.”
“You can come to Eugene and people look at you like they’ve never seen a black person before,” he says.
Jamison is a recent UO graduate and a founding member of the UO Black Student Task Force — the group that brought forth a list of a dozen demands to university administration in an attempt to improve black student life. Notably this included the recommendation of renaming racist-associated campus buildings Dunn and Deady.
Dunn Hall, a dorm named after UO Latin professor and KKK leader Frederick Dunn, was denamed. Deady Hall, named after UO founder Matthew Deady, kept its name after the school decided his earlier racism was balanced by his later support of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which extended civil and legal protections to former slaves.
Jamison grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and agrees that the South gets an unfairly bad rap from the North. “I think Eugene, and the Pacific Northwest, has a very interesting perception of their progressiveness towards race,” Jamison says. “The South is actually way more progressive in terms of race, because they’re honest.”
While people may be outwardly racist in Southern states, Jamison says, at least the racist individuals themselves are the obvious ones to blame. In Eugene and the Pacific Northwest, covert forms of racism tend to dig deeper and can affect marginalized groups, mentally and emotionally.
“They do this thing where they act like they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong,” Jamison says. “So as a person receiving that racism, you internalize it and think it’s you that’s wrong.”
Societal institutions like colleges are havens of covert racism — especially in an environment like the UO’s, which just this past fall term had only 493 African-American students out of its total 23,634 students.
There is often a belief that access to education is supposed to make people more open-minded and less likely to act out racist tendencies. In the same vein, there’s also the belief that newer generations are more liberal and accepting than older ones, and that Millennials are supposed to be especially tolerant.
Therefore, college campuses should be sanctuaries for underrepresented groups, but that doesn’t always bear out in reality.
A 2015 report from PBS Newshour states that young white people agree with racist ideologies at similar rates to older generations. For example, “the youngest whites (17-34) are only modestly less likely than the oldest (65+) to say that blacks are lazy (3.6 point difference) or unintelligent (1.5 point difference).”
Jamison, King and I can attest that racism on campus tends to manifest itself in less obvious, in-your-face events and more chronic, subtle interactions. For me, this happens near daily in continuous stares when walking to class — and I mean the kind of awkward stares where you make eye contact with the person in a questioning way and they still continue to stare, unabashedly.
A 2015 study from the Harvard University Voices of Diversity project found that even though the ethnic diversity of college campuses has increased statistically, students of color still face continuous discrimination and prejudice. The study states that discrimination on campuses usually shows itself through subtleties called micro-aggressions that create “unwelcoming environments and can be detrimental to academic performance.”
Micro-aggressions are usually well meaning but ignorant phrases that unintentionally bring negative and harmful connotations to one’s marginalized group — sort of like a backhanded compliment towards one’s identity. Regular ones I got growing up here were: “You’re not like a real black person; you seem so white; you’re like an Oreo!” and “Your hair looks so much better when it’s straightened.”
From my own experience, although such comments may seem harmless, they build up over time, and the accumulation of indirect jabs starts to take a toll on your psyche; it’s hard not to accept them as actual compliments since they’re coming from your close friends and acquaintances.
Jamison says this form of racism was a major experience of his time in Eugene as well. As a black student, such continuing interactions were so frequent to him that, after a while, they all started to blend together.
“I think in order to survive in that environment, I had to numb myself to it, so I lost count,” Jamison says.
Although covert racism comprises a lot of intangible characteristics like micro-aggressions, there are clearer effects outside campus, such as the fact that there aren’t really any cohesive communities for people of color in Eugene. One of the first things King realized about Eugene was that there were no ethnic neighborhoods. “There’s not a Mexican neighborhood,” she says. “Where’s the neighborhoods?”
She also found that there was no community for black people outside of the church. “For black folks in Eugene who aren’t religious, there’s no solidarity network and I feel like that sort of depresses a lot of our blackness,” King says. “I want to have a community connection with other black folks, but I don’t want to have to go to church to get it.”
She adds: “Other places where I’ve lived, black folks, we generally are happy people, enjoying life. Even if we’re struggling, we have a community. I don’t feel that here.”
Eric Richardson is the president of the Eugene chapter of the NAACP. As a person who also isn’t religious, Richardson agrees that there is “no place to hang out with black folks on a regular basis” outside of church.
Frankly, the community members who inhabit the welcoming, idealistic version of Eugene so often put forth are the ones this town was built for — the white people who benefited from exclusionary property rights and sundown laws that literally banned people of color from living in Eugene, and Oregon as a whole, for decades.
Stanford educator Walidah Imarisha’s conversation project, “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History,” addresses this history directly. Imarisha has taught at Portland State University and Oregon State University in the past, and still tours Oregon regularly for lectures and town hall series, speaking about Oregonian black history, especially in rural communities.
“The founding idea of Oregon itself, and the entire Northwest, was as a racist white utopia,” Imarisha says. “When we look at demographics in the Northwest and Oregon, it’s not a coincidence that it’s overly white; it’s by design.”
She adds: “The fact that there are any black communities in Oregon in general is amazing.”
Imarisha says people tend to talk about racism in Oregon as if it were an isolated event that happened a long time ago, not a living legacy that thrives to this day. But that history is not so distant.
It wasn’t until 2002 that a ballot measure was passed removing discriminatory racial references from the Oregon Constitution, such as: “No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein.”
However, there has still been pushback to just let the past be the past, no matter how close in time our white supremacist tendencies can be traced. Here’s an example of a letter to the editor from last summer (errors kept intact):
Dear feedback to Eugene Weekly:
we are sick and tired of listening to all this bull shit about how racist Oregon was and is. And it doesn’t matter whether we get all this arrogant bull shit from white people or black people but it is coming from the Eugene weekly regularly.
If you guys at Eugene weekly insist on beating a dead horse, and continue to call Oregon a racist state, don’t be surprised if a large group with money, decides to sue you for libel and shut down your newspaper because it is libelous against the state, and all the people in it. I warned you. Go ahead and keep libeling the whole state of Oregon and everyone in it, and you will end up in court. [Signed “Oregonian”]
Just because Eugene isn’t a place that sees lynchings or burning crosses every week does not mean we’re a community that’s been liberated from racist ideologies and racist acts. It’s important to realize, though, that overt racism does still occur in our city.
Eugene saw a slightly more than 50 percent rise in race-related hate crimes from 2014 to 2015, according to the city’s 2015 “Hate and Bias Report.” It’s important to highlight that the report also states these crimes often go underreported. The report also says that race has consistently been the leading factor in bias crimes in Eugene for the past three years.
Paint it Black
Another more tangible example of covert racism in Eugene is the actions of well-meaning people who nonetheless remain a big part of the problem. One recent story in the spotlight is the blackface incident with UO law professor Nancy Shurtz this past October.
Shurtz, a former chair of the law school’s diversity committee, wore a costume to a Halloween party that included black face paint and an afro wig.
After cries of outrage from the community as well as from her colleagues in the law department, Shurtz released an apology stating that the costume was inspired by a book she’d read, Dr. Damon Tweedy’s memoir Black Man in a White Coat, about Tweedy’s experience as an African-American man working in the medical field.
“I intended to provoke a thoughtful discussion on racism in our society, in our educational institutions and in our professions. As part of my costume, I applied black makeup to my face and wore a white coat and stethoscope,” Shurtz says in her written apology.
She adds: “In retrospect, my decision to wear black makeup was wrong. It provoked a discussion of racism, but not as I intended … I intended to create a conversation about inequity, racism and our white blindness to them. Regrettably, I became an example of it. This has been a remarkable learning experience for me.”
It should be noted that Tweedy, whom Shurtz was portraying with her costume, has neither an afro nor pitch-black skin.
Richardson of the NAACP says culturally appropriative portrayals like these show just how deeply ingrained racist stereotypes are. “[There seems to be] no alternative image of black people,” Richardson says.
Although clearly not meaning harm in assuming a stance about race, Shurtz inevitably ignored the lengthy, painful history of blackface that is still extremely damaging to black people; as Richardson said, it shows there is only one version of African-Americans that people tend to acknowledge: an over-exaggerated, laughable, buffoonish dress-up caricature.
Although Shurtz says she admires Tweedy, she portrayed him as a clownish and offensive racial stereotype.
The act of blackface goes back to minstrel shows of the 19th century in which white actors painted their faces black, over-lined their lips red and pranced around a stage in a way to depict black people as animalistic and unintelligent.
Minstrelsy was the “first public commercial venue in which blacks — though of course, they’re not blacks — are represented on the theatrical or musical stage,” according to a PBS piece from 2001. It therefore held a lot of sway over how people viewed African-Americans.
This stylistic portrayal continued through advertisements, television, cartoons and other forms of media regularly in the U.S. and the world until it started to taper off in the 1960s, though some traditions of dressing up in blackface are still prevalent in some parts of the world today.
Shurtz’s Tweedy costume showcased the “post-racial” idea that, as open-minded, well-educated and cultured individuals we are far enough past racism to casually do things like blackface, presumably without expectation of consequences.
Shurtz’s actions highlight the faux-progressive or “fauxgressive” way Eugene tends to deal with race. Self-congratulatory fauxgressivism paves the way for liberal, intelligent people to either address race in unintentionally harmful ways or ignore it all together.
In a predominantly white city that praises diversity, race is just straightup uncomfortable to talk about. UO grad student King remembers a perfect example of a time race was made into an awkward subject in Eugene.
“I took my son to the hospital […] and the lady who checked us in asked me if it was OK to write that we’re African-American,” King says. “I was like, ‘Well, I’d hate to be called that,’” she laughs at having to massage yet another person’s hesitant attempts to not come off as racist. If she were Asian-American, say, she doubts the woman would’ve asked for permission to write down her race, King says.
But race isn’t something to be ignored or forcibly blind to. Nor can it be rationalized and condensed into a one-sided idea or character. Race is a core part of a person’s identity. Interactions like the one King describes happen frequently in Eugene.
“Until there’s a push to be inclusive in our history and culture, we’ll always have these problems,” Richardson says.
Attempts at Improvement
There are active attempts to come to grips with these problems in our community. Bonnie Souza is a commissioner with Eugene’s Human Rights Commission (HRC). Souza co-chairs an anti-discrimination work group with the commission. “Our aim is to make Eugene feel like a safe and welcoming place for everyone who lives here,” Souza says, and currently “some people don’t feel as welcome as others.”
This year, Souza and the HRC are working to bring together focus groups of people of color and other marginalized communities to discuss experiences of discrimination and biases in Eugene. With feedback from the groups, the HRC will then pass on recommendations to the Eugene City Council suggesting ways to take action to make Eugene a better place for underrepresented people.
“The purpose of the focus groups is to sort of take the temperature of different communities and what their experience is of living in Eugene right now,” says Souza.
There are nine focus groups total: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Muslims, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, two in the Latino community (a general group and one for families with children in schools) and two in the LGBTQ community — with a separated transgender group.
The commission is still in the process of meeting with all the focus groups, and Souza says she isn’t yet sure what the specific recommendations to the City Council will be.
“It’s an opportunity to work together — a strength in numbers,” Souza says. “I see progress.”
Though she feels positively about the headway the Human Rights Commission is making, Souza says she still feels the weight of racism and discrimination in Eugene, especially as a white woman with a black daughter. “When I think about my daughter I think more about the micro-aggressions or the blatant racism that she lives with everyday,” Souza says.
She also says covert racism and the fauxgressiveness of liberal Eugeneans is something she has discussed with friends who are in other fields of social-justice work. “People I know who have worked on these kind of issues have said things to me like, ‘Really, the toughest people to reach are the people who are very much on the right and the folks who consider themselves to be enlightened on the left — particularly white folks,’” Souza says.
Souza says our society is built on a foundation of racism and “it’s in the air that we breathe and none of us can escape it.” To pretend otherwise is a privilege.
You might think Eugene, being a mostly white city that claims to value diversity, would be the perfect place for speeding the end of white supremacy. But, in fact, that might be its downfall.
Eugene’s whole “accepting” university-town climate makes the problem even more intractable because we can’t even agree that we have a problem, Souza says: “[There are] a lot more people that are open-minded and consider themselves to be more progressive and so there’s just that much more opportunity to butt up against that ‘not seeing color’ and ‘not seeing race’ when in my life experience I find that to be a ridiculous statement,” Souza says. “Maybe that can be true if you’re blind.”
Stanford educator Imarisha says that although racism, covert and overt, directly affects people of color, it’s up to white people to recognize their place of power and take a stand. “I think that ending white supremacy is something that folks of color have to be engaged in ,but ultimately it’s white people’s responsibility because they’re benefiting,” Imarisha says.
Ultimately, covert racism won’t be demolished by dismantling the KKK or confronting Neo-Nazis in the street. Traditional forms of activism may fail because the missing piece is self-criticism. The good news is, change can have a much simpler start: treating people of color like people. Not in the “we’re all from Africa,” “All Lives Matter,” colorblind way, but like real people, with individual thoughts, emotions and depth, outside of the stereotypes associated with their race.
UO Black Student Task Force founding member Jamison says, “You can’t educate a person. A person has to desire information.”
If you do want to take the plunge into being more involved in and aware of race issues, don’t make the mistake of thinking you, now enlightened, have the power to educate people of color about their own experience, and dismantle their opinions with common arguments like “racism is over” or “blackface isn’t racist.” You can never know the harmful effects of racism solely from education. Without real-life experience, you will never fully understand it. And part of being a reliable ally to people of color is being humble about that fact.
Lastly, let’s not ignore the bounds forward we have made against outward racism. We have made a lot of progress addressing intentional and overt racism in our society, frowning upon ideologies that endorse it openly. But sharing a post on Facebook about social justice, or reposting news stories about race-based hate crime, are hollow gestures if you still, even unknowingly, perpetrate acts of covert racism and bigotry.