What it Still Means to be Black

Karol Collymore

It's been awhile, my liberal friends. I'm back to stir up trouble about race on this fine day. George Bush spoke at the NAACP conference today. It only took about five years, but he got himself there. Some argue it was because of Katrina, I argue it's because Repubs need votes this year. As I've said before, my dad has gone to Mississippi and Louisiana three times to help rebuild, on his way again next month. George Bush has been there once. Who knows if any other elected official had lifted a hammer to rebuild a once impressive city. Originally, I couldn't muster any good thoughts to write about, even though I really wanted to address the fact that Dubya finally made a presence at the NAACP. But, today, I found it.

As GW said today, racism still does exist in America, even though it is not as clear as it was when Blacks were being segregated, hosed down, counted as less than human. I have an anecdote for racism in 2006, right in our fair city...

I have a fantastic hair stylist. Anyone who has a Black female friend, you know hair is an ordeal; D-R-A-M-A. The hair in the picture you see doesn't come cheap. It's at least two hours every six weeks and I've looked past many pairs of shoes for this hair.

I met my stylist Kenny a few weeks after I moved to Portland and I've been smitten ever since. He's tall, handsome, and wicked good at hair. His late mother's name was Carol Anne and he said it was a sign that the two of us had the same name thought different spellings. His clientele list include Black women - famous PDX people you've seen on TV - and women of different races whose hair is slightly easier to deal with. While I've been in Portland, Kenny's been at four different salons. No, he doesn't have a problem with salon committment - no, his salon owners have problems with his clients. I went to my hair appointment on Tuesday, and he was at different salon. The story was the same. The owner and other stylists said the same thing. Kenny needed to tell his clients to "tone it down," "be more reserved," or "they were unsettling to the other patrons."

Even though it took GW five years to address it, racism still exists in our country. My talented hair guy has to move salons because the other employees thought that the Blacks that come in to see him were scaring away the "other" customers. He's landed in North Portland, in a stereotypically Black salon. His entire careeer he's been trying to be in the forefront - in a predominently white salon downtown - but has finally been put in his place, in an "urban" salon.

My hair still looks good - actually it looks great - but I'm still offending people, just by the color of my skin in a high falutin' salon. Watch out if I laugh too loud, dance to the track I hear on the satellite radio, or speak in a little ebonics, I'm still not welcome in the White woman's salon.

Dubya was right, racism still exists in America, but its different. He's pandering to my people instead of us begging to be accepted. I can get into college, get a job, date a White man and write on this blog, but I can't get my bikini waxed at the same place as my friend Mary (yes, you my dear friend Mary from Eugene), because I'm scary, I might be loud, or - God forbid - sing along to the radio. I just wanted to make it known, that as much as we try to fight it, I'm still considered less than most of you who read this blog - but my hair looks good. Thanks Kenny.

  • Drew (unverified)

    I have to respectfully disagree with the thrust of your argument, Karol. NCAAP address aside [and put aside it was], you give a breif, albeit engaging episode of supposed discrimination at a salon. In most instances I'd be appreciative for a rather cursory explanation of what occurs inside a salon (you mention a brazilian, for example); but here I believe your vague anecdote and the broad conclusions you take from it cheapens the discusion on "what it means to be black".

    While your reading audience is obviously not privy to your expierence, the post asks us to accept the sequence of logic as it follows: A) Kenny has black clients, B) Kenny's clients are asked to "be more reserved", therefore C) the owners discriminate against Kenny's black clients. Luckily this syllogism coincides with the fact that Kenny has, for implied reasons, been forced to change from salon to salon due to his black clientele. I very much disliked connecting the dots so to speak in your post. Far from making me reflect on the racism and discrimination that still exists today and was il-addressed by GWB, your post simply lead me to choke on your last line, "I'm still considered less than most of you who read this blog". Who's stereotyping now?

  • (Show?)

    I argue it's because Repubs need votes this year.

    That's exactly right. The national GOP has suffered erosion within its base and can't afford the least bit of slippage anywhere, even outside its base. Bush goes where Rove sends him and his NAACP appearance reflects that, as does his fairly moderate positioning on immigration issues.

    I also agree with your larger complaint about racism thriving in this country, though there's pockets of broad acceptance around the nation. Though Oregon's progressive in many ways, it doesn't qualify yet on matters of race. Portland and Eugene are two of the most progressive cities in the US, yet I hear more racist talk in these two cities than other liberal areas I've lived in. And I hear even well-placed, educated, professional Black citizens make complaints like yours regularly. I don't get why some non-Black citizens try to counter with opinion, what our Black neighbors speak of from experience.

    Btw, will you tell us where Kenny works? My hair's so easy to cut, I could go anywhere. I visit Portland often enough that I could schedule my hair appointments up there, and maybe if enough white people like me go to salons employing Kenny and others who provide good services to Blacks and Latinos, we can chip away at the problem business by business.

  • Michael Wilson (unverified)

    Karol you're on the right track. Racism does still exist in America and even in Portland. Occupational licensing laws have their roots firmly planted in the post Civil War Black Codes, but no one wishes to deal with that issue, because occupational licensing laws protect the well to do.
    Then there is the transportation business which does a poor job of connecting low income neighborhoods to job and services. A classic example is the lack of service between North Portland and the nearby Rivergate Industrial Park which might just provide many people in north Portland with some decent jobs.

  • plaza drifter (unverified)

    I'm puzzled too....

    You seem to imply that you (and your fellow black customers) are indeed more boisterous than other customers, and that this may indeed be a cultural difference.

    If that is an accurate reading of what you are saying, is it really discrimination for a salon owner to worry about such behavior's affect on other customers?

    I apologize if I am misreading you here. That is, you might not be acknowledging that black salon customers tend to be more disruptive.

    But my larger point is this: there are certainly different behavioral norms for different ethnic, racial and cultural groups. Is it really racism if a person shuns a behavior that is common to an ethnic group?

    Is he snumming the behavior, or the group?

  • red (unverified)

    I agree with Drew. You say that your stylist has moved salons and therefore people are racist. My stylist has moved three times. That doesn't make her racist. I promise.

    You say that you were trying to address Bush's appearance at the NAACP...but I don't quite think you got there.

    Nice try though.

  • karol (unverified)

    Hi all, I probabaly didn't get there. I should stop writing at 1130 at night.
    1. Kenny's great and is now at a Salon on N. Killingsworth.

    1. I do think that at the previous places he worked, the staff was uncomfortable with his clients. Did they turn the waiting room into a dance party? Doubt it. But, I think many times discrimination is based on perception, not actual action, ie. grabbing your handbag when a group of men of color walk by...something I'm guilty of. Under the watchful eye of some receptionists, I know the look of uncertainty on the face of someone who doesn't know if I'm going to steal something, speak ebonics, or cause a ruckus.

    2. The tie into GW at the NAACP - while not smooth by any means - was him confirming my feelings about the subtle racism that still exists, though not as outward as it once was.

    3. This is was pretty random post when I was feeling particulary bugged by the situation and admiring my great haircut...

    Thanks for the patience and the comments.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I find it amazing that some people will deny what is right in front of the faces - but it happens every day.

    For those that don't believe in racism, and live in Portland - I offer to you the following test -

    Go to the Lloyd Center. Go stand in the food court area and wait. Look for the most affluent looking person of African descent you can see - pick someone over the age of 25. Then, stalk them for the next 20 minutes into various stores. About 50% of the time, you will then see a security person who just happens to be right behind your person of African descent.

    I grew up in North Portland and went to Jefferson HS. I have seen in person severe racism here in Oregon. It hasn't gone away with the passage of time. I'm not saying that things haven't gotten better since December of 1969 when Jefferson HS was in the State football quarter finals in Medford - and had people lining the streets shouting racist crap at our school buses - Things have gotten better. But better doesn't mean that White Privilege doesn't exist, and fear of color doesn't exist. Both still exist.

    And you can see it if you just look.

    In fact, Michael Wilson provided an excellent example of how White Privilege works right here - right under our noses --

    "But my larger point is this: there are certainly different behavioral norms for different ethnic, racial and cultural groups. Is it really racism if a person shuns a behavior that is common to an ethnic group?"

    No, but it is White Privilege to think that the one norm should overrule the other.

  • (Show?)

    White men should be careful when they comment on posts titled "What it means to be black." I will avoid all danger, however, and talk instead about another white man who seemed to get off a little easy in this post. As you mention, Bush speaking in front of the NAACP provides us an opportunity to talk about racism. Since it was Bush doing the speaking, I think it's worth mentioning his own checkered history.

    In 2000, when it looked like Bush might not get the nomination, Karl Rove famously conducted a push poll to scare racist Southern voters by asking if it would change their vote to know John McCain had illegitimately fathered a black child. During the South Carolina push, Bush also spoke at Bob Jones University, which at the time had a ban on interracial dating. Bush's use of the "Southern Strategy"--appealing to racist southern whites through coded behavior, helped him win South Carolina and effectively ended McCain's insurgency.

    It's also worth mentioning the abuses in 2000 and 2004 GOP leaders in Florida, Ohio, and other states perpetrated to keep black voters away from the polls, depriving them of their essential right as citizens. Bush may not be directly responsible for these actions, but it certainly gives us cause to be deeply suspicious of his commitment to non-white citizens. (His commitment to non-rich and non-Christian voters is more amply documented.)

    Bush may have spoken in front of the NAACP. He has a lot more to do to earn my trust.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, I have to say, don't worry about being a White guy talking about this post. I know it was in jest, but I want to address it. The worst feeling for me is to make a broad post about whiteness and blackness and assume no one can call me on it because of offending my (or our) race sensibility.

    Ditto on Bush's bollocks. There are many, many affluent Blacks at the NAACP meetings, but Bush was never going to get their votes or their cash.

  • (Show?)

    I don't necessarily want to comment on what Kenny's vagabondism means for the state of race relations in Portland, but what struck me about Karol's post is that the hairdo for her head shot picture--which really DOES look good--appears to be the result of straightening and relaxing...ie, making it look more like a white woman's hair. I'm reminded of the discussions on the racial ideology of hair in the movie Malcolm X. Malcolm Little goes to great lengths to straighten out his conk, burning his head with lye and greasing it back so that at worst it looks wavy rather than curly. What his early Muslim mentor explains to him is that Little is trying to cover up or reject his blackness--buying into racist perceptions of inferiority by seeking to make his hair look more "white," at least.

    None of which is to suggest that Karol secretly hates herself and wants to look more like white ladies--but to me it illustrates how difficult it can be for white folks to truly understand how much the notion of race still permeates society, down to the most mundane things as how you cut your hair. Not only does it affect who cuts her hair and where, but even the how! And don't get me started on nails....!

  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    All I’m taking away from yet another tired conversation about racism is what an effective tool the “race card” is for putting someone on the defensive in an argument. Unfortunately it only works on progressives who feel guilt-ridden about their ethnic heritage and buy nonsensical charges of “white privilege”.

    Conservatives on the other hand have accepted racism as a fact of life and moved past having to defend themselves from the accusation. An important factor in the success of their agenda.

  • (Show?)

    I suspect "conservatives have accepted racism as a fact of life" because they typically don't ever have to deal with it. I went cherry picking in the Hood River Fruit Loop a couple weekends ago, and they had a box of the "Black Republican" variety. I asked, "I guess that variety is really rare, huh?" She didn't get the joke.

    It's pretty easy for me to accept floods as a fact of life and move on. I live off the 100 yr flood plain. If I made my home in Bangladesh, somehow I don't think I'd be quite so blase' when it rains.

  • EStillwell (unverified)

    I think we need to be careful not to project racism into every scenario we encounter. I can see bunny rabbits in cloud formations, swans in star patterns, and the face of the man in the moon -- but that doesn't mean they are really there. It's easy to see the things we expect to see, even if they aren't there. Which isn't to suggest that racism doesn't exist. But it is possible that things which have the potential to appear racist on the surface and not always racist in fact.

    I've had a hair stylist in Eugene who has worked at more than 4 different salons since I've known her. Now she owns her own. I've even recommended her to my friend Mary (yes, the same dear friend Mary of yours).

    When Mary and I both lived in Los Angeles, I had a hair stylist who was gay and mostly had gay clients. During the time I knew him, he worked in at least 3 different salons, and for a time out of his own apartment. But I don't think it had anything to do with him or most of his clients being gay. All the salons were in West Hollywood.

    I'm pretty certain that if you came down to Eugene, you and Mary could both get a bikini wax at the same place.

    As far as I'm concerned, you're more than equal to anyone who reads or posts on this blog, and it really serves no purpose to suggest otherwise.

  • Joy Adors (unverified)

    I am an African-American female, native Oregonian who has worked tirelessly over three decades to make this state as progressive as the illusion.

    I applaud Karol for choosing 'hair tales' to share her perspective on racism. I found her story telling, one that didn't appear to be offered for affirmation or critique, but to enlarge our understanding of the facts of racism, based on her authentic experiences.

    As a long-time advocate and activist for racial justice, which includes dismantling racism and promoting equity, I am interested in, but not surprised, at the almost knee-jerk necessity exhibited by too many of my white peers to interject, deny, attempt to justify, even debunk, aspects of racism that continue to permeate our society.

    They are alive and well in Portland and Eugene, supposed bastions of progressiveness.

    To my way of thinking, it isn't necessary for there to be believability evident to convince whites that racism exists. Those who jump to protest such claims have usually not walked the hundreds of years or miles in our shoes.

    To my way of thinking, it isn't necessary to respond to, refute, or otherwise engage in attempts to explain ourselves and our thinking, that is informed by a critical and personal awareness of racism, for it to be a fact of life in America. It just is.

    Those who would question our perceptions, honed by years and years of insults, slights, disrespectful slaps at our dignity from teachers and principals with low expectations, store owners, checkout clerks, gas station attendants who are 'confused' at which customer is next - when we were the only customer waiting for service; or waitresses, even fast food workers - who forget 'who's next,' the list is endless - apparently haven't experienced being perceived as someone you're not, when the only explanation is based entirely on your race or color.

    So to the questioner, the jokester, the deniability commenter, the trickster, I challenge you to get a reality check and then get busy dismantling the sytem that continues to tilt toward and favor whiteness over everything else; that continues to unfairly target people of color, especially those who are African-American, and come join us for the hard work of creating a world that is more inclusive, safe and accessible to all, including me!

    Yeah, I'm daring you to try on Karol's story for size, as a truth that doesn't require you to accept or deny it, but to serve as a lesson in subtle and overt racism. Then, tell your white friends, and any salon owners you know in downtown Portland, about Kenny and his customer base.

  • RuthAlice Anderson (unverified)

    Why do we white folks always work harder to pick apart and deny examples like this of everyday racism and how it plays out in large and small ways in people's lives than we work at understanding what this says about how our community doesn't work for black Portlanders? It's more comfortable to define racsim as solely the province of the Klan, Neo-Nazis and skinheads, but that's only racism's most malign manifestation. Racism is also accepting white social mores as the only appropriate guide to public behavior and exiling people whose cultural upbringing varies from that.

    WE seem to have a kneejerk insistence on denying the validity of black experience -- although how much more racist can you be than to be a white person telling a black person what is and is not racist?

    Karol is not projecting or imagining why Kenny has moved from salon to salon. He told her that the salon owners explicitly objected to the customers he brought in - that they were unsettling to the other customers. Firing a hair stylist because his customers 'unsettle" the other customers is incredibly blatant, and yet folks are oblivious to the clear message that white salon customers didn't like being in a salon with black customers and used their privilege to get rid of those customers by getting rid of the stylist. They knew they had the privilege to do so and they asserted it deliberately. They weren't wearing hoods but they still got rid of the black people. While the black customers may have talked louder or somesuch, it's also highly likely that they were overly scrutinized. I know that more than once when I have been to lunch with black colleagues or friends that our table gets extraordinary attention from other customers -- and not because we are louder.

    As to the idea that "Conservatives on the other hand have accepted racism as a fact of life and moved past having to defend themselves from the accusation. An important factor in the success of their agenda," I would submit that, indeed, racism is a fact of life, but that obliges us to struggle against it instead of shaking hands with it.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    An anecdote about the “loud and black” concept….

    Last night I took my 10-year-old daughter to swim at Grant Pool here in NE Portland, 6 blocks from my home of 14 years. Hey, 104 degrees F yesterday, swimming was the obvious thing to do, and my daughter and I swim about 4-5 days a week in summer. Last night a group of about two dozen 15-16 year olds was carrying on in a way one rarely sees at Grant Pool: (1) zinging balls around at high speed seemingly without regard for bystanders (one narrowly missed my head as I read on a lounge chair)—and ignoring requests from lifeguards to avoid this behavior. (2) Throwing or pushing each other into the pool—and ignoring requests from lifeguards to avoid this behavior. (3) Shouting obscenities—and ignoring….

    This morning I described what had transpired to my spouse, whose first question was, were the kids African-American? I remarked that, yes, they were, that I had the sense that the lifeguards were intimidated by the sheer size of the unruly crowd, and that there was probably a racial aspect to the whole business. (I know of one African-American lifeguard at Grant Pool this summer, but she wasn’t on duty.) Were the lifeguards intimidated by the size of the group? Afraid of a racial confrontation? I don’t know.

    My wife’s next question was whether any adults there with kids—such as myself—had asked the unruly kids to change their behavior. Well, no, I said, I hadn’t, and neither had any other adults as far as I know. My wife’s next comment was this: if the kids had been white and their behavior had been as I’d described, they would have had adults all over them to shape up; for adults to observe a bunch of black kids misbehaving and stand by was a sort of racist act of omission. I’ve been mulling these comments over all day and still don’t know what I think. What if there had been any black adults at the pool (there weren’t)? Would that have changed the dynamics?

  • Dean (unverified)

    Karol, I'm reminded of an African-American female friend who was raised much of her childhood in Europe among whites. When she returned to this country her Black schoolmates criticized her for "acting White". Would she be more accepted in the hifalutin salon because of her manner? If so, then I wonder if this is about class as well as race, although it's hard to separate the two. I do trust your instincts about race relations since you've had a lot of practice being Black and I've had none. I REALLY know nothing about bikini waxing. I'm also reminded of a friend who died last year, an elderly Black woman. She was one of a handful of people I have known, both Black and White, who seem to have truly transcended race (and class too, for that matter) and could relate to anyone and everyone just as persons and talk about race openly, frankly, and comfortably. What a wonderful quality. As far as Bush and NAACP, I'm just grateful that so many Black Americans have stuck with the Democrats, have been our moral compass at times, and are helping get us through these surreal Bush years. (Saw a bumpersticker today: "Is it 2009 yet?") I voted for John Conyers way back when he was starting out, and I feel real good about that and safer just knowing he's in the Congress fighting the BS. I don't care if he acts white or acts black, I'm just glad he's there, and I trust his instincts too.

  • Mary (unverified)

    "... African-American female friend who was raised much of her childhood in Europe among whites. (snip) Would she be more accepted in the hifalutin salon because of her manner? If so, then I wonder if this is about class as well as race, although it's hard to separate the two."

    You did not say that the whites were of a different class (higher?) by I think that you implied it. (If not, then my bad).

    Is that a fair assumption? Does "raised by Euro whites" mean raised in a different class? What do you mean by class? Do you mean wealth and money? If so, then what about Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy? Are they of the same class as your "Euro whites"? I do bet that they would have different manners. Do manners equal class?

  • Jeremy (unverified)

    Why do people who want to make excuses for white racist behavior always point to black racist behavior, ie., "I'm reminded of an African American female friend......"?

    Two wrongs don't make a right. It is still two wrongs.

    Portland is the whitest major city in the US.

    Why do they call this blog BlueOregon, when they should call it WhiteOregon?

  • mconley (unverified)

    Karol: It's too hot for me to read through all these comments... but I must admit that you can't go to the same place I get waxed at because I'm too chicken for waxing. You wanna talk LOUD WOMEN? I'd scream so loud you could hear me all the way from Eugene. (Does that qualify as TMI - too much information - for Blue Oregon?)

    That said, I had a talk with a girlfriend this weekend about racism, since LTEs down here frequently talk about how hard it is to be black in Eugene. Being from DC, I can't deny racism. I've had enough black friends that I know - as closely as a white middle-class woman can - that it's different to wake up black every day in America and walk down the street. Now, in DC, there was racism on both ends. White women dating black men frequently got comments from black women to the effect of "don't you take our men away." My friend this weekend argued it's not about race, it's about class. I agree to the extent that different classes of society have different degrees of experience with people of other races and therefore different comfort levels and amounts of empathy.

    I'm not sure what the answer is except to keep trying to look beyond skin color and accept or reject people on "the content of their character," to quote a black American I'll never be as good as. White people have a lot to learn from people of all sorts of races. That's why I hate this b.s. immigration debate the R's having incited this year. We should all have the experience of being discriminated against at least once in our lifetimes so we can begin to understand.

    Your hair, by the way, I'm sure is fabulous.

  • Susan Abe (unverified)

    You know, when I go to the barber shop, I actually prefer to have everybody else carry on a nice loud conversation so I can just relax and enjoy it. So far nobody's started dancing to the radio when I'm in for a trim, but I'd love that. But I also know people who prefer to relax and enjoy hushed voices, soft music and the whisper of the scissors. They pay big bucks for hairdressing and use it as a chance to sit in peace.

    How does a business cater to customers like that without being racist? Perhaps by, like Kenny's salon owners did, encouraging the presence of quiet people. Note that they didn't ask for white customers, just quiet people.

    I don't see it as any more racist than a restaurant that tries to attract customers dressed for dinner (or a bar that tries to attract women willing to participate in wet t-shirt contests). They're selling an experience, and the rest of the clientele is part of the ambience.

  • torridjoe (unverified)

    "What do you mean by class? Do you mean wealth and money? If so, then what about Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy? Are they of the same class as your "Euro whites"?"

    Rock himself said something I laughed at, but took seriously as well: "None of y'all white people here would trade places with me...and I'm RICH."

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