Getting beyond 'UP is so white'

By The Beacon | February 6, 2014 3:08am

This school is so white.

Probably everyone at UP has said this sentence, followed up by a good-natured, self-deprecating joke about just how white we are. And there is nothing wrong with joking about UP’s whiteness. If we didn’t, we’d be kidding ourselves.

Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with UP’s student body being heavily white. But there is something wrong when UP’s heavily white student body forgets that there are, in fact, minority racial groups on campus.

That’s what happened during an incident in the Chiles Center two weeks ago when students wore sombreros, shook maracas and yelled Spanish profanities for an unofficial “Latin Night.”

“It’s not because we’re just (a group) of mean boys,” said sophomore Temo Ledua while apologizing for the incident at an ASUP Senate meeting last Monday. “It’s a lack of education about cultural insensitivity.”

As Ledua pointed out, the “Latin Night” incident did not arise from malicious racism, but from ignorance.

Part of the problem is we think we’re whiter than we really are. In 2012, almost 30 percent of UP students were nonwhite. Forty percent of this year’s freshman class identifies with some minority group.

Maybe we think we’re so white because Portland is, as an entire city, overwhelmingly white. Al Jazeera America published a report last year pointing out that at 76.1 percent white, Portland is the whitest major city in the U.S.

But the fact is, even though Portland is the whitest city in the nation, the city is presented to the public -- and even to us Portlanders -- as even whiter than it really is. Someone who’s never been to Portland but watches “Portlandia” and reads blogs about Portland’s foodie food scene might get the idea that everyone here is a cookie-cutter hipster -- brooding, young, skinny, white.

But one in four Portlanders is not white. This is especially crucial to remember for UP students, since North Portland is one of the most diverse parts of the city. Only a mile and half from campus is Roosevelt High School, the most racially diverse high school in the state. Well under half of Roosevelt students are white. But because many of us stay within the UP bubble, we know little about nonwhite Portland.

Of course, racial ignorance is not the only type of ignorance. The issue is not just about whiteness, but about privilege in general. UP students tend to make fun not only of the University’s whiteness, but also its wealth. Certainly, our student body comes primarily from an upper-middle class background, but we must remember that this is not true for all students. UP does have students from working class backgrounds, students who are the first members of their families to go to college.

It’s time for UP students to fight the ignorance that often accompanies privilege. It’s time for us to stop saying merely that UP is rich and white and start recognizing and appreciating different backgrounds on campus.

Fortunately, we have opportunities to do this. This evening, students and faculty will gather in St. Mary’s Student Center for the African American Read-In, where they will celebrate African-American writers by reading their work. Later this month, Student Activities will hold its annual Diversity Dialogues Week to talk about UP’s diversity.

So get out there and educate yourself.

Go into Portland and explore not only the dominantly white places you’re familiar with, but also the places you don’t know as well. Read about the troubling racial history of Portland and find out what you can do to make a difference.

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