By Jailany Thiaw
I didn’t go to the recent Black Lives Matter protests because it’s hard to march against police brutality with the same people who have said I look like a slave.
While this might be a shock to some, I’ve become unfazed by the weaponization of my own race against me, and even more so with the good intentions of white people who ignore their culpability.
The earliest memory I have of being racially targeted was on my first day of preschool, when a white boy told me something along the lines of, “You don’t belong here and you should go back to Africa.” Two months earlier, we moved houses because in the southern Oregon town we had lived in, a parent at my sister’s kindergarten threatened to lynch her.
I share all of this to show that although it is more common to hear about “microaggressions,” which aren’t always as micro as they’re often described, more conspicuous versions of racism are still pervasive throughout Eugene. What I’ve observed, and to our detriment, is that these cases are almost always excused from our conversations on race because people here are so “chill.”
That being said, the greatest attack I’ve felt on my Blackness has come in the form of well-intentioned allies.
As a Black person trying to avoid racial harassment here in Oregon, you learn quickly what conversations to avoid with people. You learn the right amount of humor and elusiveness to employ when your skin color is uncomfortably called out. You learn to try a little harder at everything in an attempt to avoid stereotypes. You learn how to contort your identity to fit into a place that so ignorantly refuses to hold space for us. And for me it’s worked.
I found that if I was just the right amount of reserved, polite and funny, more often than not, white people were nice to me. All of a sudden, they’d stop seeing my race, they’d assume my perspective on issues would be the same as theirs, and they’d start telling me I wasn’t like those Black people — which, to be clear, are all subtle ways in which my Blackness would be painfully eroded away until I was palatable for Eugene’s public audience.
This is what happens in spaces where one’s identity is the overwhelming minority, such as Eugene, which has a Black population of 1.6 percent and a white population of 83.3 percent as of 2019, according to the Census Bureau. Many Black people here, in socializing with the majority, risk having their identities contorted to fit into a rigid, limiting and often stereotypical box.
This is not to say that minority identities can never be preserved, but rather that a prolonged effort from our white community members would be required to create space for others to show up with their whole selves. In other words, attending rallies is important but not enough to address the unique issues on race which exist here in Eugene.
In addition to the protests, I encourage those who want to be a part of the solution to stop trying to force Black people to become what you think they should be by either distilling their Blackness or by projecting your preconceptions onto them.
More tangibly, this looks like dismantling our internalized stereotypes through reading and self-education (and certainly not depending on the labor of Black people in educating you).
This looks like supporting Black entrepreneurs, which are attempting to make space for themselves around Eugene (a comprehensive list is attached and found @eugenebrn541 on IG). This looks like keeping to yourself rather than staring at Black people expectantly whenever they enter a space.
My challenge to each person here who wants to make a change regarding racist attitudes and the subsequent systems which they enforce, is to do more than just protest. It’s to overcome implicit stereotypes without expecting us to educate you. It’s to separate Black empowerment from the appeasing of white guilt. It’s to make space for Black people in our community without forcing them into your preconceived box.
Find a list of Black owned businesses in Eugene and ways to contribute to the solution at BlackBusinessesEugene.GitHub.io/bbe.
Jailany Thiaw is a rising junior at Princeton University as well as an alum of Arts and Technology Academy and South Eugene High School. He is Black man who grew up between Senegal, West Africa, and Eugene, Oregon.