Light for Ashland: The Racial State of the City

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

Yes, I know what I am doing and I am doing it on purpose. After 19 months, I am getting very good at it. I am pointing out the average Ashland resident’s blindspot. It is predictable.

“Don’t you get tired of talking about race all day long?” A variance of that question tumbles out of an Ashland resident’s mouth within 30 minutes of discussing life with me, unless prepared.

Demographic Isolation

19,000 white-bodied persons documented their residency in the municipality of Ashland, Oregon according to the most recent records I can find on an internet search. Approximately 2,079 residents record their ethnicity being something other than white-bodied. Of those 2,079 only 324 persons specifically identify themselvs as African American, or Black. Meaning, at any given time, I am surrounded by (at least) 50 White-bodied persons.

While this demographic fact is heard, it does not resonate. The white-bodied person I am speaking with see themselves reflected everywhere. They do not see a contrast to make what people of color observe plainly: the absence of people of color.

Southern Oregon University advertising student support groups

Due to its location, Case Coffee, on Siskiyou, across the Southern Oregon University, is an intergal part of my Ashland experience. It is a world-class coffeehouse in the most ethnically dense part of the city. Thanks to the university, students of color add to the physical number of Black and Brown bodies in Ashland. I spend the lion-share of my day in the three square blocks surrounding the University, for obvious reasons.

Naming the Thing

The anxiety – the reaction – to my casual discussion of the racial dynamic clearly evident in every interaction looks painful to the White person I am speaking with. When I say, painful, I mean, beyond disgust and revoltion. Those emotions surface early in the meeting, when discussing current events, whether those events be political or cultural. For example, like, Dave Chapelle’s new stand up routine. American life blurs the line between cultural and political until you cannot tell which is which. 

The anxiety is difficult to describe because scholars are still searching for the words to name the anxiety. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who is enjoying fame as the leading expert in discussing race with white-bodied persons, is trying to give us the words. Building on the work Peggy McIntosh did in the 1980s, DiAngelo coined the phrase: White Fragility. Her book by the same name is a year long bestseller.

But, that is not quite it. Fragility no longer covers it. Neither does the phrase white extinction anxiety, although, that phrase is a valiant effort at attempting to name the anxiety. At least, the phrase points to the breadth of the experience.

The anxiety I observe is a certain claustrophobia; a feeling of being trapped with no way escape route. By taking the abstract idea of demographics and making the impact of those numbers the flesh of my lived experience, my story travels from the head into the hearts of my new white friends. Race ceases to be an intellectual exercise of data manipulated in the imagination. The idea is in the room. It is alive, between the white-bodied person and myself.

And, it is a barrier the white-bodied person does not possess the skills to navigate.

The Dawning of Racial Identity

The anxiety appears to be a reaction to the realization that I view “them” as a white-bodied person, not as an individual personality, like “they” view themselves. And, nothing “they” say is going to stop me from seeing them first and foremost through the collective lens of whiteness. Just like I am seen by 19,000 white-bodied persons through the lens of my Blackness.

This level of equality is new. It is not lived. It is thought! It is read about on the internet in articles which happen far, far away. Like Portland. 

Inside Case Coffe, I can comically discuss the refusal of Oregonian lawmakers to received diversity training. The statements of the poor white-bodied legislatures, squirming under the attention of their skin color, do not resonate in the ears of Ashland’s progressive-minded souls. Viewing themselves not beholden to any prejudice, the resident laughs.

He or she is not beholden only intellectually – in their consciousness. He or she is unaware of their blindspots. Thanks to the demographics in Ashland, the 19,000 are untested. Numerically, a population of persons of color, who are secure in themselves enough to share in a vulnerable manner, has never existed in Ashland to test how progressive Ashland truly is.

Sign found in an upscale Ashland condo association building

Dr. DiAngelo names speaking openly about race breaks one of the rules which upholds white supremacy. Race is for the “other.” This idea that race means other is embedded into everything American. It is inside of our novels, songs, jokes, movies, advertisements – all intellectual property. So, is the unwritten rule: to get along within mainstream society, you cannot speak to the race of an individual. You must point to something objective.

So, I do. I state something objective, like, imagining Superman, a fictional character, would be light-skinned. However, considering how the character is built, with his powers coming from a yellow sun, he would be purple Black, like someone who lives in Nubia, or the Sudan. Or, to be objective: black like a solar panel.

The controversy generated by the announcement of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid being played by a Black woman gives you a glimpse of the anxiety I am pointing towards. Changing the skin tone of the fictional character makes race real in a way it was assumed to not exist inside the mind of the white-bodied person. Refusing to discuss the character in a non-racialized way, creates a psychological collapse.

Yet, I, a Black man, can hear for over eight years how Barack Obama is the first Black President of the United States of America. I will hear him referred to in this way for the remainder of my life.

Now, imagine the reaction suggesting how Elizabeth Warren, upon winning, would be the first White woman President of the United States of America. The demand to non-racialize Warren and make her just a “woman” would be fast and furious. The idea that she, in her body, does not automatically represent the womanhood of Michelle Obama lands as an offense.

The ideation that Michelle’s experience with womanhood is different than Elizabeth’s is an anathema, an unholy contradiction. Yet, it is true. Warren, so reflects the dominant culture back to itself, she has to prove her ethnicity through a genetic test. Michelle’s ethnicity is beyond question.

When the moment comes, I attempt to help the white-bodied person breathe through their anxiety. They feel the claustrophobia. I see them become overwhelmed and their brains stop generating – anything. “They” do not know themselves as “white.” They do not know what that feels like. They have to generate the feeling. Or, this is what I imagine is happening. 

I try to walk through what it is really like to live in Ashland for a person of color, not a white person. 

Reminder: Christinia Clark, an OSF actress, who, in describing the verbal assault against her life, exposed the depth of racial animosity remaining in Ashland. Circa Juneteenth 2016.

Reminder: Kamilah Long, a leading personality within the Ashland community, sought office on the Ashland School Board following racial abuse towards her son inside the Ashland High School environment. Circa 2017.

Reminder: The KKK did a recruitment drive through the Rogue Valley and Grants Pass, distributing literature on the Rogue Community College campus and Ray’s grocery store. Spring 2018.

Reminder: A Nazi flag flew outside a house on a popular Ashland intersection, causing a local business called Brotherhood Painting to distance themselves from the job of painting the house. Circa Winter 2018

Reminder: A 20 year old man named Melchisdek Shalom was wrongfully arrested with no effective defense for him. For his own safety, the young man departed Ashland. Circa Winter 2018

Reminder: Cave Junction woke up to KKK-inspired graffitti on several cars and buildings. Circa Winter 2018.

Reminder: At a Hate Crime listening tour staged by the State Attorney General, a local self-identified Nazi used the N-word four times in official testimony. Circa Winter 2018.

Reminder: Partially in response to all of this racialized activity, Black Student Unions were formed inside of the Ashland School District, at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Circa Spring 2019.

When I state the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies Ashland, Oregon as a hate city, the anxiety rises to a feverish pitch and the white-bodied person wants to leave my presence. This cannot all be true. After all, if it were true, the white-bodied person would see the racism, right?

Like the racism of six white-bodied Nazis I had to manage inside of my email inbox for a week, Monday September 9 – 13, 2019. Now, because all of their comments happened nicely inside of an email, which I can easily handle, then, of course, it is not racism. It is an interpersonal problem,

It is that blindspot which is the problem. 

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