Facing the Reality of Southern Oregon
He chain smokes tobacco the way Oregonian hippies (famously) chain smoke weed, which is some of the cheapest in the nation. $4 or $5 a gram? Standing on his porch as I walked up the steps, my third roommate since moving to the Rogue Valley smiled and shared with me his good deed for the day.
Luke* is an older white man, almost 60, exploring the role of retired Elder. He grew up while the Civil Rights Movement was transforming American society and interrupting the legally-sanctioned practices of segregation, lynching and housing discrimination.
Giving grace that he was a child, Luke affrims the movement “affected” him, meaning, he knew, as a little boy - intellectually - something significant was happening.
At this time, Luke’s father was openly racist, quickly countering any judgment he is making inside himself (or inside of me,) he follows the comment with a short argument about the times people lived in. His father was a product of the Great Depression. America was racist, then. Look at John Wayne’s statement in Playboy.
Yet, when speaking on current events, Luke presents himself as a victim of societal forces. He agrees with Black people, or People of Color. Racism persists, against the will of good people who just want to live in peace.
How? The crushing power of class. Luke views himself as a little person in a clog. He feels powerless to improve society. The People will not listen to him. Who is he?
In relationship to me, Luke is glad just not be rejected. As a young man, he joined the military. Integration granted him the opportunity to supervise men and women from so-called minority groups. For a “white man,” military service exposed Luke to persons his social position in late segregated 1970s America would not have. He developed a sensitivity he doesn’t see reflected in the (other) white persons he argues with daily on Facebook and Twitter.
Deployment to foreign lands helped broaden his perspective and give him the rare experience of being other-ed. It hurt not being able to belong, despite all of Luke’s efforts to conform to customs inside Asian theatres. Luke was always the outsider: the yankee or White American. The history of what previous generations of white bodied persons did in Asia, to borrow a term from Resmaa Menakem, fell on his shoulders. The personality of Asian theatre is so collective, Luke’s appeal to individualism did not find purchase in them to land.
Once out the military, the solider joined a domestic army, the Los Angeles Police Department, or LAPD. Luke stood out from the other white officers - or, in his mind, he stood out - due to his “other-ing” within the LAPD ranks.
Far from stupid, Luke clearly saw the social forces acting against the Black and Brown men and women in the neighborhoods he patrolled. In his mind, he framed criminal activity as a result of poverty, i.e. through the thought lens of class. Consequently, dehabilitating levels of drug usage is the result of anxiety from unmet physical, emotional and psychological needs.
From his perspective, Luke became a police officer because he wanted to help. What he encountered was a hostile reception based on LAPD history. He internalized the neighborhood he patrolled hated him and wanted to kill him. It did not matter that he was trying to help, they wanted to kill him!
All Black and Brown Los Angeles residents could see was his white skin and his blue uniform. And, this was wrong. It was race to see him as a white man - generic - not an individual, constantly evolving personality. He was not Luke. He was no different than all the other white men who wore the LAPD uniform, past and present.
Nothing he did, nothing he said changed the reception. He was forced into a box not of his own making and under none of his control to break out of. It echoed what he heard the Black people in the neighborhood say when they discussed their social position. So, he adopted the language. The Black people were being racist towards him.
Luke internalized the neighborhood’s refusal to accept him differently than he did the Asian’s theatre’s inability to accept him. The boundaries of being on foreign soil are so strong, the white body identity is challenged into growth. Not so here, in America. Luke possessed the expectation of individualism’s full acceptance.
The positive story of race relations Luke excitedly told me happened on a December 2018 day. It began with him in the role of Elder, educating a younger white man. Public space is sparse in Ashland, so this epic meeting happened while Elder and younger stood in the parking lot of the 7/11 across from Southern Oregon University campus.
Luke beamed telling me how the young man was so engaged, he pulled out pen and paper to write Luke’s life advice and insights down. Luke felt like a college professor, with street cred.
This Sunday morning Socrates and Plato moment was interrupted by a carload of college-aged Black women driving up. One woman nervously exited the car and approached Luke. She asked him, in a shaking voice, where a locksmith was. She lost her car key at a party last night. Luke asked a few more questions, noticing how the younger Black woman did not calm down despite his calm demeanor.
Following his training in community policing strategies, Luke decided to become a public servant again. He asked the women to follow him in their car to the only locksmith store he knew. Because it was Sunday, the locksmith was closed when they got there. Luke got out of the car and apologized to the Black woman.
Interestingly enough, her behavior totally changed. She ran out of the car, gave Luke a huge hug and smile and thanked him for his generosity. It was okay this was a dead end. Her and her friends were encouraged by Luke’s generous offer to guide them to the store.
The Black woman jumped back into the vehicle with her friends and drove off. Luke was very proud the women did not view him as a chavanistic old prick. They did not reject him.
My analysis hurt his feelings. “Wow. That’s interesting. Let me start here: What do Black people (in general) think of Southern Oregon?”
Luke went quiet. He took a long drag off his cigarette. “It is rumored to be racist,” he answered carefully.
“Exactly,” I quickly affirmed. My nonchanlant mood when discussing race seemed to unnerve him, no matter how many conversations were had about race.
“Remember the Green Book?” I asked. Questions are a strategy for maintaining low tension during race talks with White persons processing white racial trauma for the first time. “It’s not just a movie, or entertainment. It was a real book. So, the Black women, we can assume are from California? Right?”
“Oakland, or that is what she said to me,” Luke answered.
“Makes sense. I can see how the little sister who approached you wasn’t nervous; she was scared.,” I said. “In her mind, she was approaching someone who could potentially hurt her. When you showed and proved yourself to be a human being and not a white man, she rewarded you with a hug. We need more good white people. We have enough bad white people.”
I saw pain play across his face. He appeared to be doing his best to control his emotions. My tone was too matter of fact; too accepting; too based in the reality of my lived experience.
“Well,” Luke said, “I hope from their interaction with me, their minds shift just a little and they don’t think all White people are the same.”
I have to admit I spoke a little harsh. “Why? They have been Black all of their lives. How many millions of White people have they survived -” I retorted.
“Survived?” Luke interrupted me. “You make it sound like I am a threat, or something.”
Yes! I thought, “Exactly!” I chose not to hold back and just let the truth flow from my mouth. I know it stung. I do not feel bad for my little investment in the emotional reaction to my words.
“This is Southern Oregon,” I exclaimed. “Ashland was a sundown town until the year I was born. We are one generation away from this being openly Ku Klux Klan country. I know there hasn’t been outward approval of KKK activity for 75 years, but stating that fact, as if the sundown laws were not being enforced half that time, or as if segregation did not affect white people as much as it did Black people, is intellectual dishonesty.
“If there are four generations alive at any given time that means we are technically not that far away from segregation. Like only Dr. King is dead: the rest of his team is still alive. Andrew Young is still alive. Jesse Jackson is still alive. Harry Belafonte, who funded the Civil Rights Movement is still alive. Donald Trump who was nine when the Civil Rights Movement started is alive. The only one dead is Dr. King!
“I asked the older persons who grew up here about their memories of the Civil Rights Movement. They say the Civil Rights Movement never came to Oregon. They watched it on tv. Meaning, Luke, your generation, which had the Civil Rights Movement as its childhood, in Southern Oregon the children of your generation never had the experiences you did.
“There were no Black people to sleep over with because Black people knew to leave after work and not be in town. This was an unspoken rule. It was enforced off the books. Why would the children of your generation think anything was off or wrong about Black people, who did not live here, leaving town at the end of the business day?
“Nowadays, there is a challenge. Black people live here. There is a contrast. Three generations of White persons in this area are stressed out. They do not have the skills you have. You went into the military; you lived in Los Angeles with so-called minorities, because you feel welcome in the presence of White people doesn’t mean person feels welcome, or even wants to learn how to feel welcome.”
Luke finished his cigarette and flicked the butt off the porch. He looked down at his feet and processed what I said. He never liked the idea of being unable to escape “whiteness.”
“If people of color are always being treated as if they are people of color, why would they not begin at some point to view every White person they encounter from this perspective?” I said. My words broke the awkward silence developing between us.
“That’s tribalism,” Luke said.
“That’s the news,” I retorted.
I failed to shift his perspective through months of these kinds of intense exchanges. Too much snark on my part, I guess. Or, maybe, in the end, I refused to agree with a worldview which makes sense to him - a worldview where he, Luke, bears no responsibility to (or for) the racial trauma America is swimming in. To his ears, I kept articulating a worldview where his skin tone prevents human connection - where he cannot belong.
Luke felt stress: the stress of feeling trapped inside a forced identity.
I am glad I survived the racial stress he experienced. You and I are socialized to permit the breaking of black and brown bodies whenever white bodies feel extreme emotional or psychological distress. (This is another Resmaa Menakem idea.) Police officers have this socialization ingrained even more than those of us who are traumatized vicariously by the news repeatedly broadcasting one-way racial violence.
The words collected here are an attempt by myself to point towards the healing which needs to occur within White America around race, racism and racial trauma. I am presenting them here in an attempt to “name” what is happening inside the psychological landscape of the dominant cultural frame. Why? Because, borrowing the words African America has found to describe itself and its American Experience is not sufficient. Such behavior projects race onto a person of color and continues to centralize whiteness as the standard of human behavior, instead of as a variation of human behavior.