Public Displays of Racism & White Privilege

Recently I witnessed possible discrimination happening between two different customers at a restaurant. The person alleging discrimination was Black. What bothered me most was how the hostess apologized to the White couple after she left and then proceeded to apologize to me after I questioned her about what had happened. Our waitress did the same. This woman couldn’t defend herself now that she had left. I asked our server and the hostess if she felt that she was being discriminated against and they confirmed this but denied that any discrimination happened, “Oh that’s not what was going on. I don’t know why she thought that.”

Here’s some truth for you: it probably was happening. I saw that White couple, I saw how they were looking at her. Both the server and the hostess were White. The complaining customer was Black. We’re in Portland It’s quite damn possible that she was being discriminated against.

About a month later I went back to this venue and again noticed that with the same hostess, there were two different couples with Black members and they had been sat in the back, away from the windows or by the kitchen entrance. There were many other seating options closer to other customers that were noticeably unoccupied. This really made me consider the incident I witnessed before and whether or not I was going to patronize this establishment. I once was a friend with a person who worked for that restaurant and he had some decidedly racist and classist things to say when complaining about customers. In this environment I am sadly unsurprised racism could be going down.

The waitress and hostess’ incredulity about what took place is familiar to me. I find that White folks balk at the mention of racism and rush to defend themselves or a situation away from it. I even have friends who will do this. They are quick to try to explain away the person’s actions. My own partner is guilty of it. It’s very frustrating for us to be told that our experience is somehow blind or incorrect.

So what I took away from this, as a Latino, as a person of color, is that I really need White people, (and especially my White friends) to consider that racism does happen to us whether or not they witness or perceive it. That’s one of the “joys” of White privilege; you don’t have to experience racism. So please stow your apologies and explanations.


Give Us Back The City

Almost two years have passed since I first began writing and documenting the surge in Portland’s creeping gentrification and what the monoculture means for the rest of us. I barely recognize the city anymore. In my last article on gentrification I talked about the gay street I used to hang out on when I first moved here and how different it is. I could write an essay on every neighborhood here with similar content.

Our mainstream media has finally caught up and started writing about gentrification and the current housing crisis. It’s not without drama however, the latest being a Willamette Weekly contributor writing an arrogant op-ed about his apartment complex the Burnside 26 which created a lot of controversy with it’s promo video showing a very White Upper Middle Class heterosexual couple enjoying a leisurely lifestyle. It made a lot of people angry.

Some bullet points about the current issues at hand include us having the lowest vacancy rate in the country (12%), a recent exposé that provided documents showing City Hall officials had hidden high-rise development projects from the public, news that Google will be opening an office downtown and a recent report that Portland is the most gentrified city of the city.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

I’m terrified of being priced out; the signs are already there. The cost of food and transportation continues to rise as rents inflate. Looking at the housing market, homes that cost 300,000 in 2007 are now double that.

The city has changed so much. Along with the prices, the culture has changed. The people have changed. I don’t feel welcome in a city that was a sanctuary for me in my younger years. I am afraid I won’t be able to stay here in the long term.

Gentrification is breaking my heart.
I don’t have answers, I don’t have a solution.
I only have my slow boiling rage.

I’ve engaged in a lot of dialogue recently about gentrification, especially about those who are contributing to it such as tech companies and white collar suburbanites who are flocking to cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. I’m done being civil about it.

So I’m going to be frank.

This is a culture war. It’s a war for the soul of the city. Somewhere along the line Portland got popular and was put on the cultural map. What was weird is now gone and replaced by this monolith of White middle-class monoculture. So I say this to you, the gentrifiers: You are pushing us out! If you want to live in a family-friendly neighborhood, go live in the suburbs!
GO AWAY. Stay out of our communities! We didn’t build this for you.

As Seattle artist John Criscitello said:




Dear White Collar Scum,
Hey, oye, it’s me, the one you want to ignore
Do I make you uncomfortable?

Got that Shania Twain hook stuck in my head
No way man I don’t care about your new condo
Or how walkable it is here

White gurls in top buns
With social work degrees
Insist on stories of how awful homeless people are

“That don’t impress me much…”
This isn’t a game to us
It’s a fucking culture war

“Gay bashings up 12% in the city…”
Don’t bro me if you don’t know me
I really don’t know what to say

When you are murdering our city’s life
Our culture, our art, our breath
It’s a fucking culture war

Gentrifiers go home!
I’m not another casualty in the culture war
When giving up is not an option

Because we haven’t tasted the rainbow
Safe spaces for whom?
No, no están bienvenidos para acá.

Goodbye woo girls and dudebros
Don’t fucking look at me
I didn’t do this for you

Brown, queer, disabled, working classes
Hordes of beloved community
Where do we go?

Fuck you Dan Savage,
For telling us
That our artistic pain is for nought

We want this
Scheduled departure to white flight
Fuck your family values

No, that don’t impress me much…


Life Under Portlandia

I’ve struggled over the last few weeks with what to write in this essay, it’s really been haunting me. I feel embattled by culture and by my own feelings. I moved here when I was still a teenager. Portland was exciting, new and even a bit gritty. Things here were more rockabilly and less twee. I suppose it must have been before the era of the IPA and brunch. To me it is not a surprise that a recent national study found that Portland was the most gentrified city of the century.

During my first three years I saw our rent increase twice, which was not ideal but it hadn’t priced me out of the neighborhood. As time wore one though, I witnessed the distinct character of the Portland that I was enthralled by as a teenager and young adult change. I would say that the change has been more drastic than gradual.

In college I learned what gentrification is and I also learned about the historical (and perhaps continued) redlining of certain districts in Portland that systemically disenfranchised the Black community. I would point out the Mississippi, Alberta, Albina, and Irvington neighborhoods as specific and ongoing examples of this gentrification.

What is (perhaps to some) not surprising is that this is now happening to other neighborhoods all around the city, mostly in Southeast but also much of the Downtown area is becoming gentrified. I think gentrification is still a dirty word in Portland, I swear it’s a conversation to clear a room or get looked at like you dropped a couple of f-bombs.

However it seems like now people care about it a little more now (see the somewhat offensive “Le Tour de Gentrification” of last summer) and some recent articles in local and regional papers. Perhaps this is because it’s not just happening to the POC neighborhoods. Portland seems to be full of perennial White guilt and avoidance of race-based discussion. But then, we have “Oh no, not our food carts”.

Anyway, gentrification is happening all over the city to some extent as the city government tries to attract new companies and higher-earning citizens to come invest in Portland. Two examples of neighborhoods being gentrified that are personal to me are the Stark street area downtown and Division Street in Southeast.

The stretch of Stark Street from what is now a McMenamin’s Crystal Palace to Living Room Theatres was the gay street. It was colloquially known as Vaseline Alley or the Pink Triangle. It is still home to the Roxy but also hosted five gay establishments including the bathhouse that the McMenamin’s corporation turned into a hotel/restaurant.  There was also a wonderful goth night at the Fez Ballroom which is also now closed. The last gay bar on the street is Scandals, and there are rumors that it too will be closing its doors soon.

As a queer person, I used to hang out on this street. It felt like home. Sure it was a bit wild and sometimes nasty, but it was familiar and safe. Now I don’t recognize the street of pavement covered in bougie hipster coffee shops, eateries (one of which whose owner has some questionable ethics) and the Ace Hotel. These new places, they’re not built for my communities. They serve the influx of new residents who move from places where these kinds of businesses are an expected norm.

Now to Division Street, which is a growing example of this norm. This stretch of asphalt had been, for a long time, gritty and exciting but not so suburban. I remember walking its lengths many times, past the porn theatre and various dive bars. One of my favorite cafés was on Division. At this point the clientele has changed so much that I do not feel comfortable or welcome in there anymore.

Along with the demographic changes of the neighborhood, developers have lined lower Division with condominium complexes, all with the same boxy style to where it’s difficult to see where one ends and one begins. Parking has become an issue for residents as tourists and others flock to the neighborhood to stand in line for hours at the new Salt & Straw or browse the many pop-up boutiques.

The neighborhood is becoming unaffordable to long-time residents and the new businesses and living quarters that are being built are a harbinger of this.  The rents are ridiculous. Just take a look at the prices of meals at the new restaurants, look at the clothes people are selling or the cars lining the side streets. It’s not a working-class or artistic community area anymore.

Two things happened recently that really galvanized my desire to write this essay. I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who was from Portland. We both used to hang out at the same spots downtown when we were younger.

Talking with her got us both nostalgic and we discussed how all the places we used to frequent were either closed or were now so different that we didn’t recognize them anymore. Some of our old haunts and activities included going to the two underage clubs, smoking cigarettes in the back room of Anna Banana’s, staying up ‘til 2am at Portland Coffee House on Broadway and Alder, dancing to salsa and bachata at Andreas over on Belmont. Sadly, these are all fantasy of distant memory now. A sports pub has replaced Andreas, and Portland Coffee House is now called Public Domain, closing around 9pm and definitively no longer welcome to the previous community of assorted freaks, students, street kids and artistic types.

It is this culture shift that I see in the Red & Black Café closing, the other recent event that has contributed to this essay. While the owners of the café did not specify why they are closing up shop, they did say that business took a nosedive once the New Seasons market and Starbucks opened for business on the street.

The Red & Black café has served many of our alternative communities in Portland for a long time. I know them as a safe space away from bigotry and police violence as well as functioning as type of community center for like-minded citizens. I think what scares me the most about their closing is that to me, it signals a visible shift in the politics of the city.  I perceive Portland as becoming more conservative, a neoliberal kind of conservative to be sure but we’re definitely not as radical as we used to be.

It is because of this shift in both demographics and politics that I fear for the soul and character of this city. Many of us have lived here for so long and are invested in the long-term health of our communities here, but when things change so drastically and it becomes unwelcoming to us, especially for those of us who are minorities, where are we supposed to go? Seattle, Oakland, Austin and other similar areas aren’t much different.

This is why gentrification matters to me, and why I won’t stop criticizing the Portland city commission, the business commission or the mayor’s office. It’s why I involve myself in writing, organizing and trying to fight bad policy that affects our communities. I live here; this town raised me and taught me so much.  

Gentrifiers beware: We want our city back!


The Intersection of Street Harassment and the Commodification of Our Bodies

I’ve been sitting on this story for a few weeks now; still riding out the wave of the QSOCC conference and all the momentum it has given me. The night after the conference an incident happened to me, and that got me thinking about the commodification of my body. It happens to many of us, especially if we’re queer, fat or POC. I happen to be all three.

The night in question was spent dancing until two in the morning at Berbati’s with my cousins, my bf and other friends. We had a great time. However, after we left the club I was walking down the alley and this White woman started hollering at me, “OH MY GOD I LOVE YOUR HOODIE! I LOVE YOUR HOOPS” and THEN she grabbed at me. I didn’t even react; I kept walking.  It’s become so normalized to me.

The next day however, I started thinking about the incident and how used to that kind of interaction I have become. This woman saw me, a queer fat person (probably not brown because I pass) walking down the street and thought she had a right to touch me. I don’t care if she liked how I dressed, she had NO right to touch me and get into my personal space.

The commodification of our bodies is commonplace in U.S. culture: our fashion, our music, our androgyny, and our bodies. Everyone wants a piece when it’s popular and new. We become nonentities: the fat and sassy gay person, the exotic brown other. bell hooks called this, “eating the other”. We become exploitable by the majority.

This commodification becomes especially salient and dangerous when intersected by street harassment. When people start seeing us as nonentities available for their consumption our identities are erased and we are open to violence. This is a dangerous place to be, walking down the street, as we are navigating White space or heterosexual space.

Fabian Romero said that it is revolutionary to love our queer, fat, immigrant, brown, disabled, non-cisgendered bodies. I believe we should also take this revolution to the streets and push back against the commodification of our bodies. We ought to push back against street harassment. We are not the exotic object! We are PEOPLE. And we deserve our body sovereignty.


Decolonize Me

I am winding my way through crowded bodies
Rolling my eyes at you: Of course I speak Engleesh

No me llames papi
I'm not some south-of-the-border fantasy

My body lies beyond the sea
África se viene de mis ojos

Past lives, ancient legacies
Hablo en soltura, speaking in tongues

Francés, árabe, hebreo
Aiwa ya habibi, que no me entiendas

No me importa tu idioma
I'm not gonna fuck you

Sorry, I'm circumcised
Y mato a tus fantasias coloniales


More Fat Musings

So I was browsing Hari Kondabolu’s tumblr account because he has amazing politics and I have a crush on him. I was heartened to find his reblog of a short Salon.com article by Haley Morris-Cafiero documenting her photography project, Wait Watchers, where she turns the lens back on people that stare or give her dirty looks due to her weight. I had seen Morris-Cafiero’s work before and I was excited to share it again on my Facebook feed. I’d shared it before, but I don’t know why this time it just felt important. 
Hours later I noticed a Facebook friend of mine (not especially a friend persay) had shared my link without linking the full exhibition via Morris-Cafiero’s website and had proceeded to curate a conversation with her friends on her Facebook that consisted of breaking down Morris-Cafiero’s work and denying that the artist may experience oppression due to her size. The thing that made me angry the most was that all of these people commenting were thin. They were searching very hard to find other explanations for the subjects’ expressions around Morris-Cafiero. 
This all made me angry and a bit sad, but then I remember that this person who shared the link was the same person who proceeded to tell me and another friend about how horrible it was to be around fat people in the Houston airport, and how funny they looked using the tram because they were too fat to comfortably walk the distance. 
I admit I don’t understand this person very well. What I do understand though is that she does not see the people in the fat bodies. Fat people are an inconvenience to her. Fat people are subjects of jokes and derision. 
What it reiterates for me is that fat people are not worthy of humanity, and because I am fat that includes me. I'm sick of being dehumanized and watching others be dehumanized because our bodies are seen as invalid.

(Please check out Haley Morris-Cafiero's awesome work here)