IN A STRANGE LAND: 'Portlanida' stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

If you’re not a fan of sketch comedy or a resident of the Pacific Northwest, you might not be aware a funny new comedy series starring Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of the band Sleater-Kinney. Portlandia, airing on the cable network IFC, is a loving jab at the city of Portland, Oregon, and the hipster, bohemian lifestyle that it’s becoming known for.

“Portland,” as one character says to another, “is where young people go to retire.”According to Portlandia, it’s also a place where cars don’t exist, everyone has tattoos, and people are content to be unambitious, play in bands, and sleep ’til 11 a.m. “Where you can just put a bird on something and call it art.”

This last example was highlighted recently in a sketch involving two people who love to decorate by putting birds on things. The humor comes not only from its pitch-perfect depiction of Portland arts-and-crafts mavens, but also because (MILD SPOILER ALERT) when the bird-silhouette auteurs encounter a real live bird that flies into the store, their utopian pretense is shattered … and they freak out big time.

Like all great satire, this description is not far from the truth. Portland is a weird place, and its citizens work hard to keep it that way. I know this to be true, because Portland is my hometown. And this sketch reveals not only a quirk of the city’s culture, but it serves as an unintentional allegory about people’s attitudes about diversity.

The Real Versus the Ideal
Author George Pelecanos, former writer for HBO’s “The Wire,” has a salient quote that captures the typical Portland attitude toward diversity in his sprawling novel, The Night Gardener.

Speaking through character Gus Ramone, a straight-shooting police officer with a biracial son accused of a crime in an affluent neighborhood, Pelecanos wrote the following:

“I do not like that neighborhood,” says Regina. “With the bumper stickers on their cars.”

“Celebrate Diversity,” said Ramone. “Unless diversity is walking down your street on a Saturday night.”

Though it’s never said aloud, the notion is clear. In Pelecanos’ fictional Maryland suburb, the attitude is the same as it is in my actual hometown of Portland: Diversity is fine, as long as I can deal with it on my terms.

Just as the perky decorators of Portlandia loved to affix images of birds all over things without loving the actual birds themselves, so often do people of Portland love the idea of diversity without ever actually grappling with much actual ethnic diversity. (Christian Lander developed this idea on his popular Stuff White People Like blog with a post on loving the idea of soccer.) As someone who grew up in this region but spent the majority of his twenties in Chicago, I find myself constantly astounded and irritated by the irony that people in Portland often support ideals of tolerance and the embracing of ethnic diversity, yet the city is so overwhelmingly White. In fact, it is one of the most homogenous metropolitan cities in the nation. I guess it’s much easier to talk about loving people who are different than you when there aren’t that many people who are different than you. The whole conversation is mostly theoretical.

Even In Church, Too Much Work
This is not just a Portland thing, it’s a part of human nature. We like to avoid things that are hard to deal with, and most diversity issues, once you get past the surface-level platitudes, are hard to deal with. They involve ideas and paradigms that have been entrenched for decades, if not centuries, and most fundamentally, they involve clashes between cultural lenses that create worldviews, and make it difficult to communicate.

This is especially true in churches, which is why, for all of the gains made in the multiethnic church movement, churches that are truly multiethnic are still pretty rare. Even in a church like my own, that was intentionally planted as a multiethnic congregation over 20 years ago, we still have difficulty speaking frankly and freely about issues connected to race and ethnicity. We are blessed to be in a denomination that offers resources and personnel to help facilitate conversations around these issues, yet we’re still having some difficulty getting the process started.

I think it’s especially difficult for African Americans in these contexts, because many of us are tired of having diversity conversations that don’t lead to action or to changes of much consequence. Many of us have latent resentment that can turn to hostility in a hurry. Others of us feel like the conversation is just futile, and with the memories of 2008 fading fast, there doesn’t seem much hope or change on the horizon.

Not that it’s easier for other folks. There are plenty of underlying tensions that tend to show up in churches, and not only between Blacks and Whites. And the conflict bleeds into the political. Liberals tend to draw comparisons between the civil rights struggles for Blacks in the ’60s and the struggle for gay and lesbian acceptance today, whereas conservatives view the issues as separate and unequal. And then there is immigration reform, and then health care, then unemployment, and the issues go on and on. In even the most loving and stable faith communities, navigating these issues takes a lot of work.

Take What the Defense Gives You
It’s easy to talk about the problem, but what about solutions?

They start with finding the middle ground between avoiding na├»ve ideals devoid of reality and refusing to back down from difficult conversations just because they’re difficult. Most importantly, we must take the opportunities that already exist and make the most of them.
February, as we all know, is Black History Month. This is the time of year when Black folks are given brief platforms of cultural expression from which to broaden the horizons of others (usually White people). It happens in schools and churches and community events throughout America.

And for most articulate Blacks, people of substance who have achieved things and broken formidable cultural barriers, these seminars, speeches, and presentations can often feel like futile, token gestures meant to patronize the oppressed and entrench the status quo. In the grand scheme of things, these events can feel worthless and without meaning.

They are not. Many times, they are exactly where God wants us to be.

So if as Christians we are to effectively shine the light of Christ wherever we go, we must not despise less-than-ideal situations and opportunities. We must, in basketball parlance, take what the defense gives us.

This is what the apostle Paul did in Acts 25. Paul had every reason to overlook a chance to testify in front of a ruler who had a political incentive to keep him locked up, But he did it anyway, and God got the glory from it.

So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t feel empowered to do the same. After all, if He can keep track of every bird — even the ceramic painted ones — then He can keep watch over us.

Portlandia images from IFC.

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