(Delivered at UUSF on February 24, 2019. See a video here or listen to the audio here.)
The US as a whole is almost 13% black. Portland, Oregon is below 6% black, similar to San Francisco. The small Oregon town I grew up in was 2 hundredths of a percent black. Given the town's population, that means two people in the whole town.
I went to high school in Eugene, which is a little more diverse, but I still only had one black teacher and one black friend. I was raised progressive and thought I knew everything about race, but I was very ignorant. And I still am.
And not just about people of color but about whiteness. The words I use. Why my society and city are structured how they are. How I socialize other folks into perpetuating something we need to take apart and remake.
It's not as though me and my family were innocent. Professor Robin DiAngelo, a trainer on issues of race, writes that "Of all racial groups, whites are the most likely to choose segregation and are the group most likely to be in the social and economic position to do so." When my parents were looking for a house, my mom was a doctor, and one of her patients was in real estate. He told my mom that a client wanted a low assessment on a piece of property so that one of his friends could get it cheap. And because my mom learned about that backroom deal, my parents were able to swoop in and get the house below market rate. They didn't go in with the intention of distancing themselves from people of color, but because of their social and economic position, they had a great opportunity for a house close to nature, and the result was that we continued to participate in a segregated system.
The impact of things like that can span generations. Because we owned our home, we had financial stability. When my mom died, that meant that my dad could spend a lot of time at home taking care of me rather than having to get an extra job to make ends meet, which helped me do well in school, get into a good college, and get a well-paying tech job. And having part ownership of my family home made it easier for me to do things like open a bank account and access credit. Based on my own experience, it's no surprise that discriminatory housing policies, both historically and today, are a big part of the current racial wealth gap.
But when we talk about housing, we don't usually bring in that context. Talking about housing support as welfare makes it seem like a handout even though white people got housing support that was denied to people of color. And terms like suburban seem neutral on face even though they're rooted in segregation, white flight, and redlining. De-centering whiteness in housing might involve changing how we think about concepts like those, changing how people get houses so they don't need to benefit from a personal "in" to get a good deal, and recognizing when we're living in segregated spaces.
But all of that is just what whiteness had to do with my parents' decision of where to live. I couldn't even begin to list all of the ways that privilege and whiteness factor into my life, not to mention the work it will take to de-center whiteness. It's work that will take a lifetime. And it's work that will also take a community. Work I’m only beginning to understand.