Portland in 2017: Confronting “The Whitest City in America”

Contributed by Maija Anderson, Host Committee Chair.

PittockJust a few days after I finished writing a cheerful Host Committee greeting for SAA’s on-site conference program, I heard the devastating news that three men had been stabbed – two of them fatally – by a white supremacist who was hurling racist invective at two young women of color. It all took place on a MAX light rail train near a busy transit center in Portland. My initial reaction was both shock and a familiar sorrow. Portland has a reputation as a progressive, prosperous city with a low violent crime rate. However, like anyone with even a passing knowledge of local history, I also registered the event as a frightening recurrence of racist violence, which is as much a part of Portland’s legacy as its rose gardens, bridges, and breweries.

The following week, the Host Committee recognized that some archivists were questioning whether Portland was a safe place to visit for the Annual Meeting. We saw calls for archivists to protect each other, and for SAA to issue an official statement, which was forthcoming. Initially, I felt defensive. Portland isn’t perfect – for example, I anticipated that colleagues who expected an urban utopia would be shocked by our highly visible houseless population – but I still thought of Portland as a safe city. At the same time, I felt the Host Committee should respond. All of us on the committee were well aware of Oregon’s history of white supremacy, and Portland’s status as “the whitest city in America.” Most of us on the committee are white women, and are aware that we have the privilege of feeling safe, and experiencing racially charged violence as a freak occurrence. We recognize the reality that women of color encounter disproportionately high rates of violence. We wanted to provide a safe and welcoming environment, and we were not in a position to tell our colleagues, especially our colleagues of color, that they have nothing to worry about.

Taking into account the reactions from our peers on social media, email lists, and via personal contact, we explored opportunities to respond. For a variety of reasons, we chose not to issue our own “official” statement in response to SAA’s. We agreed it would be more effective to focus on peer-to-peer communication and support.

Several of us independently came up with the idea of promoting Portland’s many cultural resources led by historically marginalized communities. We felt that national news coverage had inadequately represented communities who have demonstrated resistance and resilience in the face of white supremacy. Follow #saa17 on Twitter to learn about community-based cultural projects, institutions, and businesses in Portland. Consider coming to open houses at the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, where staff are generously opening their doors to attendees.

You can also expect the Host Committee to fully support SAA’s efforts, which will include “I’ll Walk With You” ribbons, active bystander resources, and more. Looking forward to the meeting, we welcome more feedback on how we, as your colleagues in Portland, can support you.

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