I recently moved to Portland, Oregon. I am black, my husband is white, and we have a kid in elementary school. Since the summer of 2014, I have been heartsick—like so many people—over the stream of reports on black people being murdered at the hands of the police. I haven’t been much of an activist since college, when I participated in the 1980s divestment movement. But I feel compelled to channel my fury and despair into activism now. Recently, I was able to join a local chapter of Black Lives Matter. I have been deeply moved by the wisdom and self-awareness of these young activists.
I want to put up a Black Lives Matter sign in front of my house as a gesture of support for that movement. But I feel uncomfortable about it. It would embarrass my kids and make my husband feel awkward, and I would feel awkward too. We live in a neighborhood full of wealthy white people—mostly liberals—but the sign would still make our house stand out like a sore thumb. I’m also imagining awkward silences from the neighbors. Should I do it? Maybe it’s not worth the (perhaps imagined) loss of social capital, since what difference does putting up a sign in my front yard make anyway? Or is it cowardice to even think like that?
Dear Closet Radical,
As the mother of a 10-year-old, I understand not wanting to embarrass your elementary-school kid. My own kid, when I asked him, deemed your proposed sign “way too embarrassing. No one else on their street has a Black Lives Matter sign. Also, they are the only black people in the neighborhood? Mom! No—just no.” (Granted, my son is white and unlikely to be a victim of police violence.)
In your household, race magnifies this problem like crazy. Your family looks different from your neighbors’, but you don’t want to emphasize those differences. Making matters worse, Portland is 76 percent white, according to the US Census, and only 6.3 percent of your fellow Portlandians are black. Plus despite its present-day farm-to-table liberalism, Portland does not come by its whiteness innocently or accidentally: Oregon was founded as a kind of utopia for white supremacists, with its 1859 constitution banning black people from living, working, or owning property, as Gizmodo journalist Matt Novak wrote in a lengthy 2015 treatment of Portland’s history. In the 1920s, the city was home to 9,000 Ku Klux Klan members and frequent cross-burnings. White nationalists still have a presence throughout the state. That doesn’t mean you or your family need to be afraid of living in 21st-century Portland or of putting up a yard sign, simply that your perception of a very white environment is on the mark.