Minnesota’s flaws


I’m happy to be living in the relatively liberal, progressive state of Minnesota, but one of the goals of being progressive ought to be that we, well, progress, that we get better and better. And that requires paying attention to what we do wrong. And one of those things that needs attention is Minnesota’s attitude towards race. And what do you know, a couple of pieces emerged recently that get our problem exactly right.

Minnesotans like to pretend that they don’t see color. The state was taken over by Scandinavian and German people about two centuries ago, and we like to note that we’re pretty damned white around here.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not. At least, it’s not as white as it looks if you hang out in most of the places most white people hang out. Yes, on average Minnesota is whiter than most states — but we’re far from the whitest state, and there are large communities of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul. When white people say Minnesota is so white, what we really mean is that Minnesota is so segregated.

Very often, due to residential, educational, and professional segregation, white Minnesotans just don’t see people of color — and when we do, we often don’t realize we do. Another thing white Minnesotans often mean when we say Minnesota is so white is that if you’re not white, you’re not seen as “Minnesotan.”

We also have several large Indian reservations and substantial Anishinaabe and Dakota populations. When you see those adorable Minnesotans in the movies and on TV with their sing-song accents saying “Fer cute!” and babbling about the weather, it’s easy to forget that those charming Lake Wobegoners fought some savage wars with the native people and hanged and shot many of them.

We had Prince, and he was black…but do people think of the large black communities, or the Somali and Hmong people who’ve moved into Minneapolis-St Paul? Nope. Vikings and blonde kids and Nordic beauties, that’s us. Except it isn’t.

We also have a reputation for Minnesota Nice. I’ve tried to warn people that Minnesota Nice is the very opposite of nice, but they don’t believe me until they experience it.

Minnesota Nice is the transplants’ nice way of calling born-and-reared-here Minnesotans passive-aggressive. For those of us who’ve lived in other places, such indirectness is baffling at best, and emotionally abusive at worst. Unlike what the Star Tribune and City Pages offer in their analyses about “overcoming Minnesota Nice,” the problem is deeper than a state full of polite, but shallow, conversationalists. This isn’t about Indigenous people and people of color (POCs) simply needing to be more assertive in shaking hands with and smiling more often at white people – in other words, being nice to them. The interpersonal “remedies” offered by the mainstream press and its “alternative” subsidiary flippantly dismiss the realities of how racial inequity operates here and squarely puts the burden on Indigenous people and POCs to correct it in order to make white people more comfortable and not challenge – if not outright dismantle – the particular “friendly” construction of Minnesota’s racism. In other words, this state’s niceness isn’t nice at all.

The most common way this plays out in race relations is in what social justice thinkers and psychologists call microaggressions. As psychologist Derald Wing Sue notes particularly with racial microaggressions, they’re the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.”

I can vouch for that last bit. Everyone here is extremely well-intentioned. If you want to have a visceral education in how intentions do not magically solve problems, but can actually make them worse, move to Minnesota. But remember: if the passive-aggressive, smiling attitude makes you uncomfortable, the problem isn’t them, it’s you. You must adapt. You must become like them. If you don’t, you aren’t very nice, now are you? And we all want to be nice.

I remember my Minnesotan grandmother who I loved very much, and who I think also loved me very much, taking me aside when I went off to university and warning me that I better not date any of those black girls in the big city. But she was nice about it. She meant well.

We need to fix this.

We can talk not just about Prince, but about the African-American musical community that nurtured his talent. We can talk not just about Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi, but about the Somali-American community who enrich the fabric of Minneapolis. When we talk about Minnesota’s fertile fields, we can also talk about the generations of hands — many of them Latino and Asian-American hands — that have cultivated those fields alongside German-American and Scandinavian-American hands.

Ole Rølvaag’s epic novel about Norwegian farmers is titled Giants in the Earth. It’s true, in Minnesota we are standing on the shoulders of giants — including a lot of people of color who haven’t been celebrated with novels and statues. That’s a reality that white Minnesotans need to recognize, and we need to participate in the dismantling of a system that makes some Minnesotans more equal than others.


  1. lactosefermenter says

    I live in Vermont and it is also a progressive left-leaning state. Maybe the most left-leaning in the nation. I am thankful for that but with that comes a relatively large anti-gmo, anti-vaxxer, everything must be organic and “natural” attitude that has to be dealt with. It can be frustrating….

  2. says

    I don’t know why there’s a border between ND and MN, it’s exactly the same way. White, North Dakota Nice. I’m pretty sure ND won out in the sheer whiteness stakes until recently (because that whole Indian country thing, that doesn’t count.)

  3. qwints says

    But remember: if the passive-aggressive, smiling attitude makes you uncomfortable, the problem isn’t them, it’s you. You must adapt. You must become like them. If you don’t, you aren’t very nice, now are you? And we all want to be nice.

    I don’t quite understand what you’re saying about the interaction between Minnesota nice and white supremacy. It seems to me that white supremacy manifests itself in different ways based on the cultural norms of a region but I don’t see how Minnesota nice is itself a manifestation of white supremacy, which is what I hear you saying.

  4. beergoggles says

    I don’t think I could adapt to a state full of tone trolls. I’ve lived too long in east coast cities and would be lost without the bluntness.

  5. says

    Fredrikjanson @ 4:

    Minnesota Nice sounds like the Law of Jante, which is indeed of Scandinavian origin.

    From the link:

    Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?

    That’s sure as hell ND nice all over the state.

  6. razzlefrog says

    I don’t get from this post how Minnesota Nice is distinctly passive-aggressive. I think you’re trying to say you feel awkward or disapproved of if you are not a reciprocator of the conventional pleasantness people have when they’re acquaintances. Which sounds like pains you feel in Texas, too, when there is a nonverbal emotional mismatch, like for example when a coworker you don’t have any kind of prior personal beef with gives a friendly “good morning!” and you just look indifferent, dour, or annoyed. (Special note: I should probably mention if it isn’t obvious that I’m not from Minnesota, which may have some explanatory power here.) Now, if you mean people are like, “NOW, THAT IS NOT VERY POLITE” when you’re trying to have a conversation about race and it makes you feel weird, then I get it. (Although still don’t get how that’s unique to Minnesota – you try having that conversation in any place here in the South and you’ll get that response something fierce.)

    Chalk it up to reading comprehension failure on my part if I missed a point you feel you clearly made, because that may have happened.

  7. anbheal says

    The love of my life is a Minnesota media personality, so I shan’t name her, but during two of our five years together, we lived in Tokyo, where she lived most of her life (as a gaijin, but born and raised there) and she frequently compares Minnesota to Japan. “Everyone here is sooooo polite, always smiling, always a cheerful hello, but it’s as hard as Japan to make a really good friend. I swear, in New York, like David Letterman says, if you say “hey asshole” to the very first person you see after walking out of your apartment building, 9 out of 10 days you’ll be correct…but I made lifelong friends every couple of weeks, it seems. The public persona is cold and brittle and harsh, but the private personas are so warm and inviting. But Minneapolis is like Tokyo, everyone is so goddamn nice, but you never get to know them, really KNOW them.”

    I can’t really speak to the gestalt, having only spent limited time there as a consultant to United HealthCare, but her sentiments definitely echo PZ’s take on it.

  8. consciousness razor says

    I can vouch for that last bit. Everyone here is extremely well-intentioned.

    Well, I certainly don’t believe that. You mean most of the people there, probably not the murderers and such, since you do have those on occasion. But most people everywhere are (generally) well-intentioned. This is about as informative as saying that you have people in Minnesota.

    My bet is that “Minnesota Nice” is primarily a story that Minnesotans are accustomed to tell about themselves, for whatever historical reasons which I don’t especially care about, while people in other places haven’t done as much over the years to develop this particular myth (and a recognizable brand name) about themselves. We don’t have a handy phrase that we invented for it, theories about how Our People™ came to be special, and so forth. We didn’t have a Garrison Kiellor elaborating our myth on the radio every week, for instance. But that’s all different from saying it doesn’t happen elsewhere or that it doesn’t happen to the same degree — the thing that’s uncontroversial (probably) is that you talk about it in a certain self-referential way more than other people do.

    I doubt it’s something which is peculiar about people in that particular place, which you couldn’t just as well say about people who live nearly anywhere else. Of course, groups of people in other geographical areas talk about themselves in other ways, often every bit as biased and parochial. I’m sure you don’t even know about many of those (like I don’t), if only to begin to compare them to what Minnesotans say about themselves, if that were a worthwhile thing to do since you’re taking these kinds of things seriously enough to believe them. But you’re probably no better putting stock in any of those myths than this one which you happen to be familiar with — the point is just that whatever experiences you’ve got to support this notion aren’t enough by themselves to reach very many meaningful conclusions. Like you’d want to do for a person who adheres to a specific religious sect, you’ve got to ask whether they have ever even considered all of the other religions which make different claims (or even ones that make the same claims), and you’ve got to wonder why they don’t bother to challenge their assumptions and test them against (or even compare/contrast them with) anything else. Because it’s pretty obvious that they’re skipping a lot of the steps. Maybe they’re so excited to reach their favorite conclusion that they just forgot. More likely, they’re being sloppy.

  9. cartomancer says

    I don’t know whether “being passive-aggressive” is the right way to describe this social phenomenon. Mind you, I’m not hugely familiar with what “passive-aggressive” is supposed to mean. I’ve only ever encountered it used by a Canadian whom I was a postgraduate alongside a few years back. He seemed to use it to mean communicating messages and making one’s feelings known to others without coming out and making direct demands of them. Such as saying “I’m tired” and communicating boredom with the bar we were out at, rather than saying bluntly “I want to go home”. It was an eye-opening bit of a cultural clash for me, because in England it is generally accepted that one doesn’t make straightforward demands like that of one’s friends. To me coming out and saying “I want to go home” would be an unforgivable rudeness, and communicating that I’m not having a good time but leaving the ultimate decision to leave or not to others is a necessary politeness. It leaves the agency to others, but lets them know that your feelings are on the line in the decision they make. You might curse their desire to stick around silently to yourself if they decide that their having a good time is more important than your having a boring one (that’s only right and natural!), but it would be far ruder to simply… impose on them.

    It is very common among groups of English people for plans to be made by hint, suggestion and intimation, rather than outright cards-on-the-table negotiation. Whenever I’m meeting up with my friends it generally takes us a good twenty minutes to decide where we’re going to go, consisting of several rounds of “I don’t mind, where does everyone else want to go?” from each participant, interspersed with one or more of us making suggestions of places we theoretically could go and tentative assent or objections being raised in the abstract. While we do have private agendas and preferences, the trick is to present them in terms entirely divorced from personal desire and thus avoid the unconscionable rudeness of being seen to railroad your friends into doing something you want to do more than they do. One only admits to passion for the choice made if and only if everyone else does so as well.

    I’m not sure this is quite what the article means when it describes the phenomenon of “Minnesota Nice”. From what I can gather the over-arching imperative of that is to appear humble and unobtrusive, whereas in the (middle-class English) social norms I am used to the imperative is to appear undemanding of others and unwilling to exert direct influence over them. The former is about projecting an image of pleasant, unthreatening conformity, the latter about ostentatiously defusing claims to superior power and influence. They’re similar in that they both require an assiduous masking of what you really want and really mean, but the difference seems to lie in the value placed on conformity on the one hand and compromise on the other. English social discourse as I know it doesn’t value conformity. Quite the opposite in fact, it tends to emphasise idiosyncracy and eccentricity – and the social norms exist to prevent that from taking on any kind of unequal power dynamic. Including the ubiquitous good-natured insults that we throw at our friends near-constantly – those tend to function as a pre-emptive warning against anyone taking themself too seriously or getting ideas that they’re better than the rest of the group.

    The problem, of course, is that we’re very good at in-group bonding and preventing unhelpful power dynamics from springing up among people we know well and like, but tend to think we’re automatically better than people we don’t. And the politeness we use to mask that does indeed cover a multitude of problems. We tend not to do much negotiating and ostentatious influence-defusing at all with people we don’t know very well – we just go through the motions and leave at first opportunity.

  10. cartomancer says

    I suppose if you put it in terms of success and achievement, the English way tends to be that you absolutely mustn’t boast about your own achievements, and when others praise you for them you must look appropriately sheepish, embarassed and grateful, preferably with a self-effacing “oh stop it” or “I’m really not that special” thrown in, but celebrating success and achievement is not a bad thing in and of itself. As long as it’s other people leading the cheers, you’re generally fine. We all want to be special and important and adored, and that’s not something we encourage each other to feel guilty about, but we sure as hell don’t want others to think that it gives us the idea that we’re better than them.

    Reading into this “Law of Jante” business, the way it’s phrased suggests to me that the atmosphere surrounding these Scandinavian / Minnesotan social interactions is one of constant scrutiny, backbiting and presumed guilt. The understanding being that everyone should be slightly paranoid about stepping out of line at all times. That gels well with my understanding of similar Japanese cultural norms as mentioned upthread (my brother is a Japanese interpreter and his wife is Japanese, so I see this in action a fair bit), encapsulated in the Japanese proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. English middle-class self-effacement isn’t quite like that. It’s more a recognition that the masquerade is necessary to get on with other people. You do it not because you fear social censure but because you want to think of yourself as a reasonable, polite and socially well-adjusted person – it’s a feather in your cap, not a way of avoiding ostracism.

  11. says

    I remember my Minnesotan grandmother who I loved very much, and who I think also loved me very much, taking me aside when I went off to university and warning me that I better not date any of those black girls in the big city. But she was nice about it.

    My Dad had a cousin who lived most of her life in Bradford, in Northern England. Sweetest person you could ever meet, and someone who endured the double tragedy of losing her husband and her son before their time with grace. Very friendly, always willing to go the extra mile, and so on.

    Unless, that is, you raised the subject of her home town and how it has changed over the years, and then it was all about those damned “Pakis” (a racial slur in the UK) and how they destroyed the city she knew and loved. Quite shocking when you first heard it. The racial resentment can burn deep in even the gentlest of souls.

  12. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    MN Nice is the difference between what they say to your face, and what they say about you after you leave the room. They’re being nice, ya know.

  13. davidrichardson says

    One of the strangest experiences I ever had in Bradford, tacitus, was taking the last bus home one night where everyone else on my deck was speaking a foreign language … except one guy who sat next to me and told me how all the Pakis ate cat food. The odd thing was that he was a Jamaican and everyone else was white (they were speaking Estonian, because Bradford is one of the places ‘DPs’ – displaced persons – were sent to after the war and Bradford had a lot of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who did want to be sent to the Soviet Union …). Just goes to show how stupid racism is.

  14. =8)-DX says

    @consciousness razor #10

    Uh. That was a whole lot of hypothesizing, mindreading and general speculative nonsense. Yes, maybe PZ is talking about a phenomenon that has plenty of other cultural analogues in other countries. No, PZ didnt say Minnesota Nice doesn’t appear in other places in other forms. So you’re basically saying he’s too stupid to talk about the norms of the culture he lives in and, despite being a public speaker who has travelled all round the globe and his country interacting with various cultures and people, you just blithely assume there is no way, no way he could compare his culture with others, so he must just be ignorant!
    Please actually think about your own sloppy comments before posting them next time. Ultimately we’re just oxygen pumping meat-sacks, but some of us don’t have a problem discussing the more nuanced differences or considering our experiences “real”.

  15. antigone10 says

    There are many examples of Minnesota Nice, but I suspect the most illistrative is one that I saw my sweet mother do.

    There was a gentleman that came to our front door and knocked on it. He was trying to sell cable subscriptions.

    If I were to be back in Georgia, this person would have been offered tea/ lemonade and invited to sit down if we were being polite.

    If I were in the Pacific Northwest, as near as I can tell from living there the polite behavior is to pretend to not be home and not answer the door.

    In New York, as near as I can tell from living there awhile the polite behavior is to go tell them to fuck off.

    But in Minnesota, the polite behavior was to stand with your back to the door, make small talk with the person, and never actually say the words “no, we’re not interested” but smile and make indirect noises in that direction until the person leaves and then say a nice goodbye.

    Another example: we’re in meetings. The powers that be have already decided a course of action, but feel like it’s important for us all to feel like we have a say. So we all come to a meeting, express our concerns, talk about different courses of action. The powers that be thank us for our contribution, tell us about how appreciative they our of our work, and then do what they were going to do anyway.