Black Girl in Suburbia

Black Girl in Suburbia

Melissa Lowery '09 debuts her feature-length documentary, "Black Girl in Suburbia," about the experience of growing up black in suburban Oregon.

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Black Girl in Suburbia debuted June 7 in Hillsboro, Ore. The next screening is at 2 p.m. June 29 at the Multnomah County Library. Get tickets here, and follow the film's progress at twitter.com/BlkGrlinSubrbia

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.

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Student leaders have reinstated the historic Black Student Union and founded the Hispanic Heritage Student Association, creating a rising awareness of diversity at Pacific University.