Portraits of color
There’s a Black community in the Rogue Valley. Most white people aren’t too aware of it and don’t know that people of color here regularly deal with racist disrespect.
That’s the finding of Medford photographer Travis Toll, who has been shooting portraits of people of color and publishing them to his online gallery, along with quotes from his subjects.
Toll, who is creative director of his Portrait Slam, says he met his photo subjects at marches here for Black Lives Matter. He asks them, “What’s it like to be Black in Southern Oregon?” and lets them tell the story, which he posts on his Facebook page.
One young man, photographed in virus mask and hoodie, notes, “In the single year I’ve spent in Southern Oregon, the n-word is the go-to insult I hear more than any other. My first month, I was out in Medford shopping with my ex and our soon-to-be 1-year-old daughter. We got a weird look from some guy walking by as we were getting into the car after coming out of Ross. First thing that went through my mind was ‘F---. Here we go.’ Luckily he was shooed off by a couple of bystanders, but before that, he made sure to call her my b/tch, and me the n-word. Last thing he said was, ‘Go back to California.’ Honestly, I’m afraid to raise a child in this area.”
Most people commenting on the Facebook gallery are supportive — and scornful of racism, but not all.
Responding to this photo, one said, “How embarrassing! Please know that person is an exception to the rule!”
Another said, “So sorry for what you must always deal with here. Sadly this community has several ignorant people still roaming around, thinking they have this power of speech. They’re just sad, ugly people. Stay strong.”
One white woman noted, “Unfortunately, Medford has a history of being very racist. I am so sorry this happened to you. Thankfully, we are not all like that.”
Another white woman said, “I’m sorry you are treated that way here. I know people who moved here to get away from the ‘Black Problem.’ It’s disgusting. Please know that many of us are working hard to be supportive allies. And we don’t support or condone racism of any kind.”
Another photo subject, a young man in a viral mask, said, “My experience with racism in Southern Oregon could be a series of books. One incident that bothered me the most occurred while working at a gas station in Central Point. This lady came in and freaked out the second she saw me, ‘I don’t wanna f------ get gas here!’ She called the store to tell my boss I was rude, selling drugs and had the ‘devil in my eyes.’ I was wearing sunglasses.”
Responding to this, one man posted, “People can be so ignorant. All our ancestors came from Africa.”
Another posted, “I’m so sorry! I hate we have so much racism in our beautiful valley. And here comes another generation of bigots because they surely learned it from their parents!”
A Black man posted, “While walking in Food 4 Less this weekend, a child well under 5 yelled out ‘look at that n-----’ as I walked by. Growing up here wasn’t any different.”
A beautiful photo of an adolescent boy carried a comment from his mother, complaining of sketchy care during childbirth, and adding, “The whole experience felt dehumanizing, It could’ve been fatal for my son. The cries of Black mothers fall on deaf ears considering we’re [three times] more likely to die during childbirth. No child of color should grow up without a mother because of the mistreatment by the very people who are there to help. To my Black son Kameo or any Black child in Medford: You’re worthy. Your skin color should not define you as a person, only the content of your character.”
An endearing picture of a smiling girl, about 7, on a swing, carried a parental comment, “I hope one day my kids can live in an America where they are truly viewed for who they are, for the content of their character. I want the first thing noticed to be their kindness, their intelligence. Not the assumptions that come to mind when society sees a Black man.”
One disparaging comment on the photo gallery said, “Maby [sic] they should stop playing the victim!! I don’t discriminate against any one [sic] for what they look like, but there [sic] ‘movement’ and the way they discriminate against people of my color now has me on point! F--- with me or my family because of the way I was born, I will shoot whoever that may be! PS my wife is pregnant and [armed].”
Toll said responses to his gallery seem to be of two types: “Most have empathy and want to do something, and others feel attacked and defensive. I don’t know why, although some say racism is in our past and isn’t happening anymore.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.