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.