The overwhelming whiteness of Portland's World Naked Bike Ride

Seeing a mass of drunk and high naked white people celebrating their newfound liberty with police officers standing guard is a slap to the face. 

Carlos Covarrubias
29 July 2015
 Demotix/Jeff Rudoff.

Participants at the World Naked Bike Ride. Credit: Demotix/Jeff Rudoff.

I was born naked and brown.

My ancestors on my father’s side were also born naked and brown. They felt no shame for dressing for the hot temperatures of their tribal soil.

But I was not born in the tribal lands of my Central American ancestors. I was born into the whitest of white places: Portland, Oregon.

Over the years Portland has come to prize itself as one of the most liberal cities in America. You can smoke weed, marry a person of the same gender, have a beer at the movie theater, and pay for a cuddle all in the same day. For most people these liberties have come to define what it means to be ‘weird’ and liberal in Portland.

Once a year, in late June, you can even take off all of your clothes and ride your bicycle butt naked to give a big ‘fuck you’ to the world, or maybe just to declare a newfound security in your nudity.

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) in Portland is not something that I’ve ever participated in, and although it could be conceivable that as some indigenous ancestral throwback I might want to join in, I sure as hell don’t.

Let me explain why.

Oregon has a history of passive racism. Over the course of Oregon’s short statehood there has been legislation which has prohibited people of African descent from entering the state, Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land, and an indigenous population that has been erased from the green pastures of the Pacific Northwest.

Most Portland residents don't know that Oregon, and Portland specifically, also served as the western front for the Ku Klux Klan during its most powerful era, with over 14,000 members statewide circa 1922. The culmination of these factors has helped to make Oregon one of the whitest places in the world.

Given its historical limitations, the naked bike ride in Portland has been an overwhelmingly white activity by proxy, not intentionally, but no doubt as a consequence of historical and structural racism. 

White people nowadays didn’t have a direct hand in that legislation or history but should consider taking a moment to recognize how and why Portland is so white. White people should also consider how and why the naked bike ride itself turned out to be such an overwhelmingly white activity.

In 2003 WNBR founder Conrad Schmidt picked up on the idea of using nudity to draw attention to an anti-fossil fuel cause to Vancouver BC, and the idea spread throughout the Pacific Northwest. In 2004 Portland activists picked up the naked bike ride protest model to join in the protest of dependence on blood-oil and the US conflict in Iraq. There is no doubt that the visual mass of naked bodies on the roadway was an effective and shocking method for promoting a political message in a normally clothing-conservative United States. Local and national media flocked to the controversy and the protest gained much praise as a radical action.

Unfortunately in Portland and across the US, the political message of the first American naked bike rides has been lost. Despite continued US involvement in conflict zoned, oil rich parts of the Middle East, the shock and social taboo associated with the nudity of the protest has been re-centered as the focus. Many now participate in the naked bike ride as a proclamation against body shaming and ridding naked bodies of a sexualized stigma, which was a common theme amongst earlier Western European nudist movements. 

Ironically, in trying to maintain a degree of radicalism by not purchasing city permits or providing a preplanned route, Portland organizers now force a mass idling of motor vehicles which further exacerbates carbon pollution.

Portland’s naked bike ride has also in recent years been treated as more of a celebration than a protest action, leading it to become a throwback to its pan-European roots. Open drug and alcohol consumption are now a standard expectation within the ride, further expanding nudism as a leisurely pursuit rather than an intentional element of a radical, politically motivated protest.

Portland as of 2015 has had the largest number of participants of any city in the US. The City of Portland itself has not yet attempted to shut down the ride, perhaps because the annual event has become an attention grabbing part of local culture. In recent years it has even been informally facilitated by the Portland Police. Cops now stand guard to protect the bicyclists from angry drivers and pedestrians who find they are unable to cross the 10,000 strong mass of nude bodies, who can take over an hour to pass. 

Having the cops involved has discredited the radicalism of the ride and prevented access to it from communities of color. Historically, we have plenty of reason to be distrusting of law enforcement. Even the normally conservative Oregonian newspaper has picked up coverage of the WNBR and published narratives written by participants that describe the range of emotions riders experience in openly exposing their nude bodies to the world for the first time.

Photographs of majority white participants are scattered across Portland’s various news sources and could easily be mistaken for photographs taken at Coachella or the Burning Man festival. This celebratory aspect of the ride has also in recent years brought with it trendy festival fads, including the appropriation of indigenous culture in the form of headdresses and quasi-Native American style body paint and garb. 

I have personally witnessed this insensitivity and have consciously decided that this is where I draw the line. Wasn’t nudity always cited as an indicator of savagery by Western European colonizers? And wasn’t nudity often one of the primary justifications for both African enslavement and indigenous tribal genocide? Considering my own identity, I cannot help but be bothered by all this. 

After a lifetime of experiencing police profiling, seeing a mass of drunk and high naked white people celebrating their newfound liberty with those same police officers standing guard is a slap to the face. 

I recognize that participants in the ride may experience a degree of personal growth with regards to body image and their nude bodies’ relation to the world, but like the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, the radical message of the ride has been lost to a mass of stark naked whiteness. 

Perhaps it is not the kind of whiteness that covers the face with a white hood, but the kind of whiteness which doesn’t even realize that a white hood is covering the face at all.

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