Diversity is Not Skin-Deep


My parents met at the famous Max’s Kansas City bar in Manhattan, in 1966. A couple of privileged white kids. Him from an affluent family, spending his whole childhood in the town where the Great Gatsby took place. Her, on a full NYU scholarship, hailing from the Bay Area, the daughter of scientists.

They actually weren’t that privileged. Dad is Jewish and, during that privileged childhood, a global war broke out over ethnic cleansing of his race. There isn’t a lot of white privilege in being nine years old and hearing on the radio that Hitler wants to kill you.

And Mom, aside from being a child of divorce in the 1950s when that was still scandalous, was also born in Salt Lake City, descendent from the original founders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – one of America’s original religions. Her grandfathers escaped the assassinations that took their brethren. Illinois, 1844… when white people lynched white people.

But in spite of that troubled history, knowing both sides of my family are descendent from people who escaped targeted extermination, I still get to go through my day without fear, as do my children. From cops to store clerks, we just look like white people, trusted by default. And we live in Portland, Oregon. Oregon, founded on racism, the preferred destination of ex-Confederate pioneers, the bastion of white supremacy in the North.

Between a smart choice of schools, some good luck, and just having awesome children, I’ve managed to pull off raising two kids who are about as tolerant and inclusive as a mom could ask of white kids from Portland. Now in their early 20’s, their friendship circles entail a glorious mix of ethnicities and LGBTQ identities, and they have both gone to the mat as advocates for the underserved.

But it is through their eyes that I have come to challenge the idea that Portland is not “diverse.”

Back to my parents in 1966… when they met, and to this day, they identified as something they call “counter-culture.” If you’re not familiar with that, it’s Hippies and before that it’s Beatnicks and before that it’s Bohemians. It kids against the world. It’s why my family left New York City and why we eventually landed here in Oregon. Because somewhere along the way, Oregon the land of white supremacy became the land of counter culture.

It’s questioning of the establishment. It’s personal choices, about diet and healthcare and clothing and housing and fitness and spiritual practice. It’s the very idea that there IS no one idea. And this town is built on it.

If you grow up, as my kids did, in North/Northeast Portland, you encounter a variety of cultures that is different from house to house. Whether you enter through the front or the back door? Do you knock first? Do you keep your shoes on? Are the parents “Miranda’s mom” or “Catherine” or “Mrs. Tiestort”? How does dinner work? Do you sit down together? Is there prayer? Is there a Sabbath? Is there meat? This is a place where everything is on the table, ready to be discussed, debated, diverged.

Portland is a town where you can openly share that you are an atheist, vegan, cannabis-friendly, alternative-medicine-practicing, home-schooling, or even a Republican. (Honestly, lately, the Republican thing is the one most likely to get you in a little trouble.)

But it also is still very, very white. I’m thrilled at how many people of color continue to move here – we can’t shift the ratio without you. I love the diversity within our people-of-color population – Latino, black, Asian, indigenous, and so very many mixed-race folks. We have the first openly bi-sexual governor. Oregon can not let itself off the hook for our outsized population of whites, or our racist history. But we can give ourselves a little credit for how diverse we are in thought.

And it is my belief, descendent from secretly-marginalized white people and open counter-culturalists, that diversity in thought is what’s forever. That, if we ever aspire to the ideal of MLKJ, judging the content of character and not the color of skin, then open-mindedness to new ideas and counterpoints will become what character entails.

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