Being Black in Portland Oregon

At the tender age of four years old, my Mom and I were at the Portland Children’s Museum for a painting art class. The instructor directed all of the children to be sure to clean off their brushes after using each color, dipping them in water after each use and not to mix the colors or else we would end up with a yucky brown color. I remember looking at my mother and saying, “Mommy, me and you are brown.” My Mom immediately went and told the instructor that she and her daughter were the undesirable “yucky brown” color that she had described.

As a high school senior, I was driving to my north Portland home late at night after attending a state championship basketball game at the University of Portland. I dropped my cousins off at home and, just a few short blocks from my home, I was stopped by two white Portland Police officers. When I saw the flashing lights behind me, I pulled to the side of the road and felt my body tense up. As I saw the officer approaching the car, the rules that I had been taught by my parents began to race through my head and I even felt them whispering from my lips – keep your hands on the steering wheel, do not make any sudden movements, answer “yes, sir,” “no, sir” and “thank you, sir,”.

I was told to roll down my window and then asked if I knew why I had been pulled over. I answered “No sir.” I was then told that I had run a yellow light. I did not question or argue the point. When the officer asked for my license and registration, I replied that my license was in my wallet inside of my purse and that the registration was in the glove compartment. I asked if I could retrieve them and was told yes. As I leaned over to open the glove compartment, I was terrified when I saw a gun pressed up against the passenger side window. I froze! I did not move and quietly but audibly said to the officer at the driver’s side window, “Can you please tell him to stop pointing his gun at me?” The officer quickly told his partner to put his gun away also telling him that I was female. The officer then said to me that they thought that I was a male. It was late, dark and I was wearing a baseball hat with my hair was pulled back in a ponytail. What that officer was really telling me was that they had pulled me over with no just cause because they thought that I was a Black man. I was released with a warning.

Two years ago, my husband Mike and our two sons, Michael and Tyson, were driving in downtown Portland heading to an event where I was on the program to speak. All dressed up and excited on a warm summer night, we approached an intersection proceeding through the green light, when a white man approached the passenger side window, where my husband sat with the window rolled down. As we drove by the man spit into our vehicle, yelled the “N word” and sprinted away.I share these stories with you, and there are many more, to give you a glimpse into my life as a Black woman, a Black person in Portland, in Oregon in the United States of America. Some forms of racism are blunt and in-your-face and others are subtle but no less disgusting, hurtful and impactful.

Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer over 50 years ago famously stated, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I say, Ms. Hamer, I hear you and I, too, am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd along with the countless Black men and women who have been senselessly killed by white police officers and white people over the years are nothing new to my community. The only difference now is that these brutal murders are being recorded and televised for all of the world to see.

When I watched the horrific video of Ahmaud Arbery gunned down while jogging, I immediately thought, he is someone’s baby who is not going to make it home safely tonight. And when I watched the agonizing nearly nine-minute video of that former police officer with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, I watched the life seep out of his body. Hearing him call for his mother, my heart broke and I was speechless, I could not find my voice. The only voices that I could hear were the voices of my sons, Michael and Tyson. Just like when those officers stopped me back in high school because they thought that I was a Black man, the reality hit me again that Black men in America are hunted.

Know that when parents often say boys are easier than girls to raise, that is not a sentiment felt in the Black community. Raising a Black boy into a man in the United States is really hard. My babies may be seen as cute now but soon they will grow up and they will be feared. The job of my husband and I is to raise them by building them up, encouraging them, giving them the tools that they need to be successful, presenting them with every advantage available and telling them each and every day that they can be whoever they want to be in this life! But at the same time, it is our responsibility to prepare them for a world who does not feel that way about them. We must teach them to love a country that will not love them back. This is exactly how my parents raised me and this is the talk that Black parents routinely have with their Black children.

Again, yes, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. But I have to say, I am hopeful. This time, today, I am hopeful. This time, it feels different. My friends and family of all ages, some who marched with Dr. King, participated in the Million Man March, all agree. This time, this one is hitting a bit differently.

Finally, more than just the Black community has become outraged and our pain, anguish, desperation and call for change has become a unifying force.

Allyship is needed from all non-Black people and it is caring to understand the cause of our pain, by acknowledging your privilege, by holding yourself accountable, by getting and staying informed and engaged, and by activating learnings.

– Do not resent the term “white privilege.” It does not mean that your life has not been hard. It means that the color of your skin is not one of the things making it harder.

– Be more than “not racist” but actively be “anti-racist.” Know that children are not born racist, racism is taught

– Understand that Black Lives Matter is not a hateful statement. Know that all lives matter is offensive to Black people because no one else’s lives are being stolen except for ours. 

– Know that systemic racism exists at every level of society. 

– Confront racial injustices even when it is uncomfortable. When you hear a racist joke, even if it’s a family member who says it, call them out! Step out of your comfort zone.

– Contribute to and volunteer with organizations that fight racism and oppression. They are out there…ask me, I will connect you.

The difference between me and George Floyd is that I made it home safely. My husband Mike, my boys, Michael and Tyson, my fathers, my brothers, my uncles, my cousins, my friends and all Black men deserve to make it home safely, too.
In Solidarity!

— Karis Stoudamire-Phillips
Corporate Social Responsibility Director, Moda Health
Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington Board Chair