“I felt so good. That was my best part of the night, just giving out that money,” activist Cameron Whitten told Raw Story. “I feel like Oprah—like, fuck, I’m Portland’s Oprah right now.”
In 2006, Oprah gave $1,000 and a camcorder to each of the 300 members of her studio audience, telling them to take the cash, pay it forward, and then to film the results. Whitten, the founder of social justice organisation Brown Hope, had just hosted his first Reparations Happy Hour, an event which involved donations from white Portlanders being distributed in ten-dollar increments to black attendees. Not quite the same thing, but perhaps the same sentiment.
“Black, brown, and indigenous people, this event is specifically for you,” the invitation for the happy hour read. “This event is for white people, too. (But don’t show up physically!) [...] Instead of physically attending, your presence will be felt through your active financial support for healing, leadership, and community building within Portland’s black, brown, and indigenous community.”
About 40 people of colour took Whitten up on his offer and attended the first social, which had collected donations from about 100 white people—although the News Tribune reports that the biggest donor was a black woman who participated and gave $500 to the cause. The event was held at craft beer bar Backyard Social, which donated food and drinks, and also gave 10 percent of its total sales to Brown Hope. (Whitten has since clarified that, despite the name ‘Happy Hour,’ the white donors were not “buying drinks,” nor was getting buzzed the focus of the evening).
This is an ambitious idea that is pre-loaded with tension, considering the city in which it’s being held. Portland is one of the whitest cities in the United States; more than two-thirds (78 percent) of the population is white. And, as the Tribune points out, it has had more than its share of “strained race relations.” (In the past couple of years, the city has been the site of several race-related controversies, including a standoff with neo-Nazis at a bar and the closure of a burrito truck that was accused of cultural appropriation.)
Across America, reparations remain a frequently discussed but contentious idea; according to a 2016 Exclusive Point-Taken Marist Poll quoted by The Hill, 61 percent of Americans opposed the idea of reparations, including 81 percent of whites and 35 percent of non-whites.
But Whitten says that the distribution of $10 bills isn’t the real point of these soon-to-be monthly events: His biggest hope is that it will become a “pipeline into leadership” for people of colour who have been denied those opportunities—or denied the opportunity to even consider those opportunities.
“I’ve seen daily and monthly what it’s like to live in a place like Oregon, which has a spectacular history of creating policies to be a white, Bohemian utopia,” he said. “If folks are saying they want black, brown and indigenous people here, we’re calling on them to pay for that to happen.”
The response to the event has been mostly positive, although there has been some pointed criticism. “I'm glad this ‘Reparations Happy Hour’ raises awareness of the issue, but it's gonna take more than a free drink to recover from 400 years of systemic oppression,” CNN commentator Keith Boykin tweeted. “Let's talk about transferring land and wealth and dismantling racist laws and social systems.”
Another critic called it “a failed skit left on the cutting room floor of Portlandia.” Yes, it’s complicated.
The next event will be held on June 20, at the Back to Eden bakery.
This article originally appeared on Munchies US.