Blackness in Oregon
The recent case of Amy Cooper, a White woman in New York City’s Central Park, who threatened to call the police on Christian Cooper, a black man, to say he was “threatening” her and her dog, despite video evidence to the contrary is a constant reminder to my personal story as a black man in Portland, Oregon. I learned at the young age of 10 that my blackness was a social threat to whiteness. I recall greeting a young white elementary age girl in a local department store and she responded, “I don’t talk to black people”. Her mother replied to her daughter, “that’s not nice to say” as if to save face.
Dealing with the racialized “threat” factor has shaped me as a man, husband, father, and nonprofit leader. Over my lifetime I’ve had to navigate the reality that our public institutions of power were never designed for the success of people who look like me. I learned over the years as a black man that I needed a unique skill set that embodied the ability to cope with subtle microaggressions, and the need to legitimize the relevance of my professionalism and expertise.
My education and lived experiences have taught me that the legacy of white supremacy has suffocated black lives for decades. Mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, disproportionate student discipline, lack of economic investment in the black community, and biased pedagogy are mere symbols of a system that has had its “knee on the neck” of black lives without genuine remorse. And now, the cry of black men in this country symbolized by sounds of George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”, rings in our ears. This not only defines the reality of the black experience in Portland but it shows up across our entire nation. To that end, like so many other black men, I’ve learned how to live and lead with constricted breath, while still holding out hope that the next generation of black lives will exist in a world that is not numb to racial injustice.
It is my experience as a black man that keeps the pressing issues of the black community in the front of my mind. And it is as a black leader in the nonprofit world that I send this message:
Philanthropy has to reconcile the generational disinvestment in the black community that has stunted our movement and perpetuated a legacy of white privilege.
Black/Black-led organizations need white allies to hold our institutions of power accountable and to help champion systemic change. Data systems need to be disaggregated by race to truly understand the impact of policies that impede the growth and success of black the community. This is a great opportunity for philanthropy to prioritize investments that address the disinvestment in the black community while also removing the oppressive, deficit content that frame grant proposal guidelines. These arbitrary frameworks cause applicants to adopt language in their written narratives are not always consistent with our cultural norms and perpetuate a devalued image of black people as being constantly “at-risk”.
But there are things that we can do to change this narrative. Intentional efforts by philanthropic leaders to employ black men as Program Officers and Executive-level staff is low hanging fruit and represents an opportunity to create a thread between philanthropy and the people who personally understand the needs of the communities that receive funding. And I would encourage philanthropy to make a commitment to learning from black authors, researchers, and educators who can better shape and inform our individual and collective narratives. These commitments are the beginnings of a set of shared values which translates into making the investment in black people a priority.