“Making it” as an artist, musician, or winemaker is challenging for anyone; the people of color in Portland, Oregon, are working overtime not only to achieve creative success, but to shed the labels that follow them to the top. Here, they share the challenges of creating in America’s original white cube.
Maya Vivas greets me in their converted garage studio in the Northeast neighborhood of Portland. Their partner is nearby, working a pottery wheel, and the walls are covered in ceramic works and tools. It all feels very “Portland”—if by “Portland” we mean the quirky, progressive facade that the rest of the world sees.
“I moved here five years ago, and I was fed that narrative of ‘Keep Portland Weird,’” says Vivas. “I think Portland brands itself very well as this liberal haven. And in some ways it is—like it’s really easy to get healthcare. But I was super naive about it.”
She adds, “To be a person of color, to be a black person specifically in Portland… It’s just a different experience.”
In general, people of color living in Portland speak, whether cautiously or in more blatant terms, about this duality of the city—a place that is an undeniable oasis for hipsters and oddballs, but was also built on explicit exclusion. When Oregon’s constitution was ratified in 1859, it forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there—and while other states in the Union were similarly exclusionary, Oregon was the only one to go so far as to write it down. It was illegal for black people to even move to the state until 1926. Native Americans have also faced legislative discrimination. The Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850 removed tribes and offered free land to white settlers, who claimed 2.5 million acres of tribal land—including all of what is now Portland.
Today, discrimination hasn’t just disappeared. Far-right groups like the Proud Boys have clashed with their far-left counterpart Antifa, in sometimes violent altercations. And yet, the city continues to attract artists, entrepreneurs, and foodies of all races, slowly building on an otherwise micro-population of POC compared to the rest of the country.
“Because of the body that I inhabit, it’s like everything that comes out of it is political.”
This imbalance makes creating in Portland frustrating for some people of color, like Vivas, who feel they are constantly battling modifiers. “Because of the body that I inhabit, it’s like everything that comes out of it is political, is threatening, is strange, is othered,” says Vivas. “[I’m] tired of being marginalized, tired of being tokenized. When I [get art] shows, it’s like, ‘The Black Show’ or ‘The Gay Show.’”
Vivas opened Ori Gallery at the beginning of 2018 with the goal of “redefining the white cube” by highlighting trans and queer artists of color. “I wanted to create a space where we could talk about our identities if we want to or not,” they say. “No matter what we produce as black, queer, indigenous, brown artists, it’s gonna be politicized.”
For Vivas, success means shedding those labels. For others, like Oregon’s first black winemaker, Bertony Faustin, it’s about owning them.
“Back in 2008, I knew I was the first black winemaker in Oregon, I just didn’t want to own that,” he says from his Abbey Creek Vineyard tasting room in North Plains, 30 minutes outside Portland. “I didn’t want to be anybody’s pioneer. But in 2015 I was like, you know what? I’m just going to own being this trailblazer.”
“I didn’t want to be anybody’s pioneer.”
Faustin has since developed his speaking career, become a brand ambassador for Carhartt, and made a documentary called Red, White & Black, about Oregon’s minority winemakers.
“A lot of people of color in professional settings are the first or the only and they’re upset that they always have to be the ones to talk about diversity,” he says. “And it is what it is. You know, it’s shitty. But, why don’t you take that opportunity to turn that around?”
Portland-born music producer Jonny Cool takes special issue with the performative nature of Portland’s liberal, progressive white crowd. “I say replace the Black Lives Matter signs with black people,” Cool says, who recently returned to the city after a stint in New York. “A sign doesn’t really help the situation—if they’re in trouble, can a black person run to your house? Can they knock on the door and talk to you? Are you a part of the conversation?”
“People will have Black Lives Matter signs, but at the same time, those people are in a gentrified neighborhood that used to be predominantly black.”
And he’s not the only person to remark on this behavior. Musician Katherine Paul, whose stage name is Black Belt Eagle Scout, agrees. “It’s definitely a bubble. Portland is really conscious about health and organic stuff, and they are super supportive of the outer layers of what is liberal and what is progressive,” she says. “People will have Black Lives Matter signs, but at the same time, those people are in a gentrified neighborhood that used to be predominantly black. There are good intentions but it’s also really problematic and I don’t think people are willing to dive in to and talk about that.”
What everyone seems to agree on is that, while Portland suffers occasional acts of violence (and those acts should be taken very seriously), Portland’s exclusion is, on the whole, much more subtle—and a similar thing could be said for almost every other “progressive” enclave in this country.
I was reminded of this when, on my first day in Portland, I had a text exchange with a white man I’m close to. He’s not from Portland; he lives in the Midwest. I told him I was working on a story about creatives in Portland, thinking he would find it interesting, and I used the term “POC.” His response surprised me when he said, somewhat defensively, “We just have people here,” referring to his hometown, where apparently race is not a factor in how people are judged or seen. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was jarring; instead of engaging further, he defaulted to the “color-blind” argument—one that, whether he intended it to or not, effectively erases and invalidates the lived experiences of people of color in this country.
And that small exchange was a reflection of something much larger, something that has touched the lives of all the people who spoke with me for this article.
“You can’t just be color-blind—I need you to see my color,” says Faustin. “I just need it to not affect you.”