Melissa Lowery ’09 was in third grade when she first realized her skin color might set her apart. A little boy in her class refused to use the water fountain after her, fearing that her darker skin would “rub off” on him.
Lowery’s oldest daughter, Jayla, was about the same age when she started asking her own questions, like why she was the only “brown kid” in her class who didn’t speak Spanish and, a few years later, why people commented on her hair.
“We had a conversation about where we live, how to handle yourself, that it’s OK to just be you,” Lowery said. “But I started looking back at my own experience and thinking, ‘Huh, this is a good opportunity to dig into this experience a bit more.’”
The result: Lowery, a media arts graduate from Pacific University, just released her first feature-length documentary, titled Black Girl in Suburbia, about the experience of growing up as an African-American woman in the predominantly white suburbs of Oregon and elsewhere in the United States.
OREGON IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE “WHITEST” STATES IN THE COUNTRY, a dubious legacy created by decades of racist policies and laws that, literally, forbade African-Americans from living in the state.
Today, less than 2 percent of Oregon residents are African-American, and the numbers drop even lower outside the major cities. In West Linn, the suburb where Lowery grew up, only .07 percent of today’s residents identify as black.
The community is one of the wealthiest in the state, boasting Oregon’s fifth-highest per-capita income. It’s also been named to national “best places to live” lists twice in recent years and is often thought of as the home of members of the Portland Trailblazers.
Lowery is quick to point out, though, that she didn’t grow up “on top of the hill with the Blazers.”
“My mom was a single parent raising three kids,” she said. “There were times we were eating ramen. We didn’t have the big luxury set-up. That was not my experience.”
Lowery said she was always a minority in school and in her neighborhood, one of only a couple of black kids in the entire community. At the same time, though, her zip code made her an outsider among other black children she spent weekends with in Portland, where her mother ran a performing arts center.
“We talked different,” she said.
“I was told, ‘You talk white.’ I don’t know how that is.”
It’s a tension that Lowery has heard time and again as she interviews other black women in predominantly white suburban America — in communities where they defied expectations.
“There are a lot of assumptions about what you’re like, who you’re supposed to be,” Lowery said. “There are lots of different experiences like that we talk about in the film.”
A group of teenage girls in the film talk about the stereotypes they deal with on a daily basis.
“Everyone just assumes that I know how to dance,” says one young woman. “I used to be able just to dance freely … but I just don’t want to dance anymore. I basically stopped dancing, like, three years ago.”
“I choose not to do certain things that are associated with black people,” says another. “I honestly don’t drink Kool-Aid, because it’s a stereotype.”
Older women in the film say they’ve dealt with the same struggles — trying to figure out how to be themselves amid assumptions about who or what they should be.
“You can’t act a color,” says one of the interviewees.
“There’s no one black experience,” adds another. “There’s no one suburban experience. There’s no one female experience.”
Lowery sums it up on camera: “Black Girl in Suburbia is an experience shared by many, but not in the same way.”
IN SEPTEMBER 2011, LOWERY POSTED A TRAILER FOR THE DOCUMENTARY ON YOUTUBE.
The first email comment was short and hateful.
“I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking of opposition. I know there are people out there who take pleasure in that,” she said. “There were a few more like that, then all the comments were of support from women all over.”
Lowery had set out to tell a story that would help her young daughters see that they weren’t alone. But she found that she had tapped into an untold experience shared by women across the country.
“This is my story,” said some.
“I can’t believe you’re talking about this,” others wrote. “I’ve never shared this experience.”
Her hope, now, is that the film can start honest dialogue, starting in her own community in Hillsboro, where her family now lives. The film premiered June 7 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro and her daughter’s school expressed interest.
Already, she said, she’s found new angles and audiences she never imagined: The mother of a biracial child who didn’t know what challenges her daughter faced at school. A young woman who was adopted from Africa by a white family and who felt disconnected with her heritage.
“Now it’s out there, and people are wanting it and needing it,” Lowery said. “The purpose of the film now is really to make people aware of things they might not be aware of from people of different backgrounds.
“To start a dialogue, just to talk, became my goal.”