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Keep Portland White!


Sitting in traffic and staring at the car in front of me, a tastefully muddy Subaru Outback with the requisite Thule bike rack, I spot this on the bumper:

“Keep Portland Weird”

Yet another Portlander proclaiming their uniqueness by slapping on their car most overused sound bite attached to the place I live.

There is an element of truth to the sentiment: to friends who suffer the ignominy of existing in California or New York, I live in hipster Valhalla: a happily ironic place where vegan food carts abound and localvore beer flows from repurposed fixtures.  It’s a place where young creatives commute by fixie bikes, towing babies or dogs to careers involving DIY charcuterie, vintage buttons or recycled wooden paneling.

But as I wander pass the organic coffee houses chock-full of thirtyish men with full-on lumberjack beards and defiant beer bellies, or boutiques filled with mock Goodwill cardigans selling for prices once considered exorbitant monthly rent, the message is unmistakable:  I am not a member of the Keeping-it-Weird club.

I realize that’s the first thing expected from a Portland hipster, but it’s true. I live in a ridiculously overeducated neighborhood riddled with organic farming emporiums and yoga studios. I also have a job that’s the wet dream every liberal arts graduate (librarian), But there’s one thing that makes me different from the exquisitely-toned women feeding chickens in their back yards: I am the wrong color.

Not that I’m harassed for my “interesting” (as one library user put it) looks, but quite the opposite: I am constantly celebrated for being an official person of color.  Not a week goes by without someone insisting upon the opportunity to honor my person-of-colorness, which consists of describing their week/month/year trip to Japan, followed by a detailed rave about the culture, which apparently is only made up of food or interior design accent pieces.  Oftentimes I’m asked to grant the Asian seal of approval for whatever side project they divulge to me, one they claim expresses their inner nature, be it bonsai, hot anime chicks in uniform, or origami bird earrings.

This practice of honoring of my culture or any culture involving people of different pigmentations is starting to wear me down:  those Taiko ensembles with nary an Asian in the bunch, or the blues festivals held on rare sunny days, playing to an audience doused in Oregon-grown Pinot Gris and 75 SPF sunblock, with everyone nodding to music made by the only folks in sight with a claim to an ethnicity. So after years of enduring the eternal parade of skinny white guys possessing pork-pie hats and Asian girlfriends and blissed-out wiggers thumping day-long on African drums, I have come to one conclusion: my race is a commodity—in fact any race outside Caucasian is a commodity.  It’s what keeps the Portland Hipster Machine going.

How?   By providing two crucial elements: cultural authenticity and street cred.  Without us, there’d be no culinary wunderkind studded with tribal ink with three-month-old-yet-already-raved-about-by-the-New-York-Times ramen restaurant, all because he had the wherewithal to track down and apprentice with a Japanese master revered for his secret noodle-making techniques.  And how would the media survive without the Portland small business success meme of willowy girls hacking vintage kimonos into adorable scarves while breastfeeding their Wrens or Atticuses? We’re the raw material mined for the benefit of the Greater Hipster Good, or at the very least provide ammo for those Yelp discussions as to who serves the most authentic sushi.

So the next time a hipster sidles up and grills me as to who serves the best kimchee fried rice in town? I’m gonna start charging….

LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian!  web site.  She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.


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