Curtis Cook wants you to sit next to him on the bus. At 6-foot-7âwhen standing up straight, which is rareâhe still seems surprised by his own imposing presence. If youâre a woman and you call him handsome, heâll ask where you were when he was in college. That college was Oberlinâa pricey liberal arts school in Ohio that Cook attended as a âscholarship kidâ and graduated before defecting to Portland to do standup comedy.
A product of Auburn Township, "a semi-rural community" outside Cleveland, Cook moved to Portland to work on his unique brand of comedy. Audiences quickly became trained to laugh during his Hannibal Buress-style rant breaks. While the critical adulation seems to flow steadily his way, Cook constantly questions his place in town.
Look no further than his tweets in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., when Cook took Portland police to task via Twitter:
"Hey @PortlandPolice—Is it true your racial profiling has coincidentally increased alongside gentrification? I have. A lot. Of questions."
"I'm light-skinned, so a cop would definitely kill me, but the news would probably use a flattering photo from when I was in debate club."
WW: What's making you mad at Portland?
Curtis Cook: I don't like what's happening. To everyone who doesn't know who I am, someone chose the light-skinned articulate comedy guy to talk about a scathing issue that directly affects people who are continually being pushed out of my neighborhood. You wanna talk to me about race because I tell jokes about race and not because anyone in Portland actually cares about what's happening to black people.
I'm from a similarly white place outside Cleveland—Auburn Township, Ohio. The population is less than 1 percent black. There's a small, black neighborhood in the city next to mine called Chagrin Falls Park. Years ago, black people would commute from Cleveland to Chagrin Falls to work for the rich white people. But then Cleveland's economy failed, the bus lines stopped, and they all ended up having to live out there. So the surrounding area's local governments sectioned off this small, black community so the people living there couldn't directly benefit from the affluent communities surrounding it. And that's racist and terrible, but it happened in a time when that was the norm, and with people who were unapologetic about being racist because that's just how it was.
My frustration is that the people of Portland are doing that right now, while then also posting all-caps-lock links to BuzzFeed articles about how Israel is bombing Palestine.
If you do move into a historically black neighborhood because maybe you need cheaper rent, but you want to live in Portland, maybe you're escaping something—that's fine. But you can't actively be a part of what's hurting a minority group and then turn around and tell me you believe in something.
What is my other option? Pay more rent or not move into your neighborhood?
It's the fact that people are comfortable and willing to knowingly move into a black neighborhood and have the local government take visibly better care of that neighborhood as it becomes whiter, and then turn around and question the availability of diversity and wonder why it's gone, compounded with all the quasi-academic pseudo-liberal horseshit that runs rampant in Portland that's frustrating me.
In my experience in general, and especially as a comedian, I often feel when my "femaleness" noticeably changes the chemistry of a room or a collective social interaction. Do you feel this way as a black man in Portland? Like people are hyper aware of who you are but are pretending like they aren't thinking about it?
I have friends who will specifically bring up a thing they disapproved of that was racist, completely apropos of nothing. Like "one time my grandma said this and I was like, 'That's not OK!'" Great, now I know you're not racist. We could have just kept hanging out and I might have figured it out.
But with men especially and within traditional masculinity, it's common practice to jab based on physical appearance and faults to determine who is weaker or stronger, physically or socially. So sometimes race is just part of the jab. Sometimes in groups of other young men, I can't always get offended when someone brings up my blackness, if I then see the same guy turn around and say "He's shortâ or âHeâs hairy.â
Is that a guy thing? You're all just playing a fucked-up version of Guess Who?
I think it is. It's just how we relate to each other, for better or worse. And I'm like, "Are you racist or are you just trying to make me one of the guys?" Because if you're trying to make me one of the guys, I don't like it, but I also want to be included.
And you'll benefit from of it. Because you'll always benefit from being a part of or accepted by the dominant group.
I'm aware. We've both taken a lot of Sociology classes.
When I visited home in Oakland last weekend, I realized I couldn't see myself settling long-term in a place where you can't listen to slow jams or rap on more than one radio station. How much Mumford can we take?
Eh. I'm not a big fan of co-optive culture on that small scale. If I walk into an all-white coffee shop that's only playing R&B and jazz, and there are no black people around, I feel weird.
It's upsetting to see on such a massive level an entire city that has systematically removed their minority population from where they used to live, fucking directly with the lives of real families, actively shutting down hip-hop shows with riot vans for no reason, to then throw so many parties with a hip-hop soundtrack. I'm not mad at you for enjoying good music, I'm mad at you for destroying the entire culture whose music you're enjoying.
So how can I do something meaningful and still get to listen to rap?
I'm not saying that only specific races can enjoy certain genres—I listened to a Blink-182 song yesterday. I'm saying it's weird to see a group of white people chant the chorus to a rap song, and then see that same group shy away and cross the street when a black man walks their way. It's upsetting when the skinny, blond, hipster dude in the A$AP Rocky T-shirt from an H&M clutches his backpack when I walk on the bus. Enjoying black culture gives white people some kind of hip status, just so long as there aren't a whole lot of actual black people around.
Portland to me has made it clear that certain aspects of societal change are the most fashionable and those are going to be the ones that mean the most to everyone. The "tote bag of social justice" is what matters the most. Everything else we're just fine with for now.
Isn't that why you should talk about race more often as long as people are asking you? To create awareness?
Awareness doesn't change anything. As soon as awareness starts to matter, I'll be really impressed.
But I do believe that awareness of real suffering can effectively motivate a dominant group to change its behavior.
You want to change your behavior? Well, no one in Portland sits next to me on the bus. OK? So now I'm trying to write more jokes about the kind of racism individuals in Portland can actually change.
I worry that if we print this, more people are going to sit next to you on the bus, and then you'll regret it when you have to sit next to a bunch of stank-ass people trying not to appear racist.
I don't want to live in a city of college-educated people who say they aren't racist, who are knowingly gentrifying a city, while actively avoiding black people in public. If people would just say "I'm a racist" or "I'm gentrifying and I just don't care" one time out loud, I would be fine with it. But if you claim to care, sit next to me on the fucking bus.
Am I gentrifying? Crap.
Technically we both are. But actively, only you are. I don't think an educated black person moving into a black neighborhood has ever hurt the neighborhood.
What can I do differently?
Maybe there isn't an option. Just don't say that you're blameless.
So it's all hopeless.
Yeah. There is no system that's flawless. Everyone in Portland knows they aren't supposed to feel racist or do racist things. But things are still flowing the way they flowed 20 years ago. Everyone is just more polite about it.
Did you hear about Kevin Rose thing? The founder of Digg is moving to Portland and he bought a 122-year-old house for $1.3 million in Northwest Portland, planning to demolish it and build some modern atrocity on the land. But the neighborhood petitioned to shut him down, and flooded him with emails and letters, and now he's selling the house. The neighbors said they were used to having the annual Easter egg hunt there and didn't want to give that up.
So if white Portlanders cared as much about black families as they do about Victorian houses and Easter egg hunts, we wouldn't have a problem. People aren't willing to fight for us. If there was as much activism about gentrification as there was about fluoride, maybe things would improve. But no one actually cares; they just know they're not supposed to say anything bad out loud.
Man. I'm so bummed out. Do you wanna make out?
Not right now.
Is it because I'm a gentrifier?
No. It's because I changed the rules of my open relationship recently so I can't be all willy-nilly with my body.
That's the most Portland thing you could have said.
GO: Amy Miller opens for Maria Bamford at Helium Comedy Club, 1510 SE 9th Ave, 888-643-8669, on Thursday, Sept. 18. 7:15 and 9:45 pm. $27. 21+. Curtis Cook runs the show "Let's Not Shit Ourselves" the last Monday of every month at the High Water Mark, 6800 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 286-6513.