Sunday, July 26, 2015

Where The Target Is

Downtown, a woman fell into step with me on the sidewalk. She gave me an open, curious glance, and then asked, "Are you from here?"

"From Portland? I am," I said.

"Do you know where the Target is?"

I had to think about that: there is newish one downtown, I think. "I'm afraid not," I said. "I have a vague feeling it's over thataway," and I waved my hands towards the Southwest. "But I really don't know."

"OK," she said. "Thanks!" And we parted at the next corner.

People often approach me for directions downtown: I tend to meet people's eyes and smile, which makes me approachable, but I walk briskly, like someone has definite business somewhere, which makes me seem easy to get rid of. So that was unremarkable. What was remarkable was that this woman was black.

My first thought, upon meeting her eyes, was that she was African. There was an easy boldness about her, and a cheerful friendly confidence, that was not at all typical of the guarded, formal interactions I usually have with American blacks on the street, and especially not with Portland blacks. This is not a city with a happy history of race relations, nor a particularly happy present. But this woman's accent was pure Midwestern, probably Chicago, with no African trace that I could detect.

So the interaction was heartening. It was not a "here I am a black person approaching a white person" interaction, it was an "I wonder where the Target is?" interaction. Like almost all Americans, I have a desperate longing for the racial history of my country to disappear. This little interaction made me feel that it had. We could start over. The world was new. 

There has been so much bad news coming over the wire that many people feel that things are getting worse, or at best, that they will always remain this way. But I don't actually think that's true. I think that comes of not ever having fully understood how bad things have been, not really having understood or digested the long white terror after the end of the hot phase of the Civil War. Things are bad now. But they are actually better. The fact that people can say how bad it is means that it's better.

A single interaction on the street is not evidence: it barely amounts even to a data point. But I'm old enough to feel it in my bones: this was not an interaction that was possible in my youth, and not one that was likely even twenty years ago, in this town. There is a cultural shift. The wind has changed.

There's everything yet to be done. But I'm filled today with an unreasoning joy, and a certainty that in the endin the end long beyond my end, of course, but still, in the endwe are going to win this one.


Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

What's strange and intriguing and so existential to me is her question: where is the target?
What target? How did you know what 'the target' meant?
There's a whole cinematic story to be uncovered here!

But on the reality level, it's so sad that such a simple encounter should appear so unusual. In London, it's a daily kind of thing. Not that there are never racial tensions or incidents but the mixture of races, colours,clothing, languages is so ubiquitous and commonplace that one hardly notices it.

Nimble said...

Yes, it feels like we have cracked the silence and can say what is going on. I hope that's true.

Dale said...

I'm dubious whether I've really conveyed what I meant here, Natalie. There's nothing unusual about the interaction: a black woman might have asked me the way to a shop in Portland any time these past fifty years, and the script might have run exactly the same. It's just that the feel of it would have been different. There are, of course, plenty of (white) people in Portland who will tell you there's no prejudice or racial tension here at all. Portland has many recent immigrant communities, among them a large Somalian contingent, so it's not like, say, Switzerland as James Baldwin described it, where someone with brown skin was startling. Still, Portland is one of the whitest cities in America, and it's done a poorer job than most in coming to terms with its racial past, which is not very pretty. The largest black immigration from the South came here in WW II, to work in the shipyards, and they were met ungenerously, with hostility and suspicion and violence, and rioting here in the 60s was some of the worst in the country. Martha grew up in the thick of that, in a working class North Portland neighborhood, and it left its marks: being hit and kicked and vilified for being white was a daily experience.

Anonymous said...


I'm thinking you're not an American, and that's why you're wondering how Dale knew "the target" this woman referred to. "Target" is a store, one that sells a variety of goods such as food, clothing, housewares etc. She was asking if he knew where the closest one was.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh Dale, I do so hope that "in the end—we are going to win this one" ... yes! Living in Western Japan in my younger days, I felt what it is like sticking out like a sore thumb. Being hated and discriminated against just because of the way I looked or didn't look. It was a good experience for me. Made me think and act. I just finished reading Te-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. Thought-provoking read, and I thought I was sensitive to things having lived in Mississippi for some years. All I can say is that I'm glad I stumbled across this book. Opened my eyes further.