Oregonians vs. Californians

I’m a social-media coward, disinclined to comment on controversial subjects. That said, I’m commenting on a well-known but seldom discussed underside of Oregon civility, a banal intolerance that could be amusing if it weren’t real.

Oregonians are said to openly dislike Californians. Their disdain is sometimes traced to former Governor, Tom McCall, who once said, “Come visit us again and again…. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” This statement, from a man who was born in Massachusetts, has been variously misquoted. Although he was speaking to a national audience, most who cite him focus the sentiment on Californians, not other migrants to the state.1 Those who bash Californians seem to believe that misquoting a former Governor makes intolerance okay. For some it’s amusing, in the way that jokes about race or dumb blondes once were.

Back in 2007, when I moved here, the real estate web sites assured California migrants that newcomers are welcomed. Once here, I realized that maybe it’s only realtors who were welcoming. Matt Love, an Oregon writer, admits to vandalizing cars with California license plates.2 Maybe he was indulging in hyperbole when writing of his antics twenty years ago, but Oregon Public Broadcasting reported a similar story of petty vandalism on California cars.3

Various blogs and message boards feature anecdotes of bias. Some snarky writers blame Californians for every national trend that Oregon has followed, and a few that Oregon has led. California buyers,  not the Oregon property owners who sell to them, are blamed for the rising cost of housing. Californians are rude. They’re outspoken. They’re slick. They’re too confident.

I’ve heard the coded question, “So what brought you to Oregon?” I’ve seen the change in facial expression when I let slip that I had previously worked in the Bay Area. At a job interview I was told, “I’m not sure how our Board would feel about hiring a Californian.”

Then there are the folks who introduce themselves by identifying the Oregon high school they attended. This is another coded message. If you’re a native you then respond in code by revealing your own high school pedigree – this even if you’re at a business meeting. Outsiders are perplexed at this odd cultural ritual. I think of it as a display of plumage, or the call of a bull elk.

It’s an accepted sport to bash Californians. In May, while attending a writers conference, I heard snide asides about Californians. I sat in silence and realized that I was “passing,” sandwiched at a table between two otherwise lovely bashers. Their words reflect a prejudice embedded in Oregon culture, weirdly acceptable even to those who would object to slurs based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Later, the table companion who bashed my people invited me to like her on Facebook, apparently unaware that I was one of them. She was hoping I’d buy her books.

As innocuous as my experience is, it hurts. I intellectually grasp that this intolerance is a form of tribalism, a paradoxical effort to bind a community. But it still stings, especially when coming from other migrants who hold a misguided belief that only Californians exert a negative impact on place.

This regional chauvinism is so widely recognized that it has been studied in academic circles. A research center at the University of Washington offers a temperate view of the historical division. They advise against California-bashing for the way that such attitudes “contradict our own perceptions of ourselves.”4 Indeed, all this bashing is ironic, given that Oregonians consider themselves above such things.

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  1. A New York Times interactive map points to the paradox of Oregon’s Californian bashing. In 2012 fewer than half of all Oregonians were natives. Indeed, in 2012, of those who weren’t born here, 14% were born in California, which leaves another 40% of Oregon residents who were born elsewhere.
  2. Matt Love, in Rose City Heist (2014) writes, “…I grew up in Oregon City before it died as a mill town and I later had nothing to do with the gentrification of Portland. In fact, I think I tried to forestall it by drunkenly keying all those cars with California plates.” (p. 12-13)
  3. Erica Cain. ‘“Former Governor Tom McCall’s Message to Visitors” March 19, 2013.
  4. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. Lesson One: Who Belongs in the Pacific Northwest?
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