Can you name something about your attitudes towards race and/or identity that has evolved since you were interviewed?
Living in Portland, Oregon, for 24 years has made me more conscious about race than when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reading my previous interview, I see that my awareness and attitude about work in Portland has changed over the past 20 years. Thirteen years ago I made a conscious career change away from the environmental field into working with government agencies that were doing projects in communities of color. I realized that I was out of touch with what was going on with black people in Portland, because my work peers and neighbors were predominantly white. In the racially diverse state of California, it wasn’t something I had to consciously choose. Living in a city with relatively few professionals of color has made me feel like more of an anomaly. Jobs are more difficult to come by, because most white professionals in Portland simply can’t visualize people of color in certain occupations. They keep hiring people who look like themselves, because they have no experience working with people of color as professional peers. Things are said and done that just wouldn’t occur in more diverse and metropolitan cities.
At the same time, there has been a huge conversation about race, diversity, equity and inclusion over the past ten years in Portland. This has resulted in public agencies developing recruitment and retention strategies, and hiring equity and inclusion directors and managers to develop new policies. These are promising signs, but for the most part these are conversations ad nauseum and big changes are yet to occur.
My large extended group of white friends that proliferated in the early-to-late 1990s has decentralized due to folks having children. One of my closest friends moved to Canada; two other good friends remain. Professionally, and with some social spin-offs, I have spent much more time with people of color, and I am happy about that. I founded an organization in 2005 called the African American Outdoor Association. It has helped me to bridge the racial/environmental gap that I mentioned 20 years ago. Bringing black people into the natural environment has been very satisfying for me.
In the book I said that I didn’t have much hope of marrying a woman of color if I remained in Portland. That prophecy has come to pass. I married in 1996, and now have two children who are genetically more white than black. I’ve taken time with my son, age 14, to help him understand black history and race relations in America. Most of his close friends are white, and he seems comfortable with his biracial identity. My daughter, age 11, also has predominantly white friends and I don’t think she thinks about race very much. However, they are both kids of color and not “passing” for anything else. It will be interesting to see how they identify and associate as they get older.
In the book I also talk about how intra-racial prejudice had influenced me growing up and as a young adult. Now, most of those folks have either passed on or don’t talk about their racial prejudice any more. They’ve seen their kids and grandkids grow up with close friends and relationships of all races, and the generation of my nieces and nephews has helped to turn those prejudices into historic family artifacts.
Something that’s stayed the same?
Twenty years ago I wrote: “I’ve partly become a product of my environment here, even though I’m a person of color.” I was writing about feeling disconnected from black people in Portland, and even uncomfortable at times. I was saying that the peculiar race relations in Portland seemed to be changing me. That feeling still occurs, but as I said earlier, I have many good relationships with black folks in Portland. Part of it stems from the appreciation that I receive for my efforts to increase the health and wellness of black people by actively engaging them outdoors. They associate me with my organization, and they are relating to very strong values that I have. That is a good feeling of connectedness that I didn’t have during my first 15 years in Portland.
Have you seen our society evolve in terms of attitudes about mixed race people over the past 20 years?
It has been surprising how many white people I’ve talked with who have a mixed-race grandchild, or great nieces or nephews of mixed race. Their children or sibling’s children chose to marry someone of a different race, and they came to accept that person and are crazy about their grandkids. I’ve seen a gradually increasing awareness that people of color will be the majority in this country in less than 30 years. More and more people will simply marry people they fall in love with, and race will become less important. I’ve seen more mixed-race people self-identify with both of their racial heritages, rather than succumbing to pressure to go fully one direction or another. When I was born, mixed-race children were an aberration and were still thought by many as something to be either shunned or pitied. For the most part, today’s children have an easier time with their mixed-race identities.
Did anything significant happen as a result of participating in the book?
I did have some people contact me who identified with my story and wanted to talk about their specific racial situations. As I look back at some of the things I said, I am surprised with my frankness and the vulnerability that I allowed to show. At the same time it was very liberating. The irony is that I had shared those feelings with very few people in my lifetime. Then I put them in a book, and shared them with thousands of people I would never know.
Any general comments about the book?
I still feel that, 20 years later, the book is a landmark piece because it addresses the feeling of real everyday people about race. It is very personal, yet many people can identify with these stories. I believe it was influential in spurring a wave of books by biracial authors. I’ve read and appreciated them, but have not felt the impact of those books that I felt with Black, White, Other.