Recently, after I gave a talk to a group of white, concerned adults about the gap between white children and children of color in their school achievement a man asked me, “Why are our numbers so dismal in Minnesota? Is there something unique about our state that cannot connect to students of color?”
The danger in any question like this, and in any answer, is that it will involve generalities. And it may offend someone in the audience. However, I did provide my take on the issue: In all the work I have done with teachers throughout the country and abroad, I find many white people in Minnesota to be unusually resistant to tackling race and racism directly. Many would like to say that we are talking about class, not race. Others want to turn the topic to something else, jumping in with stories about gender or economic prejudice that they witness. I find that when teachers and principals, counselors and staff members struggle to engage in this subject they are often rebuffed, driven out from their districts or isolated. This happens to white and black, Latino, Asian and indigenous men and women who work for racial equity.
Does this have anything to do with what has been called “Minnesota Nice”, a surface smile and welcome along with a desire to keep to topics that won’t cause a stir? I think it does. This overlay feels like inhibition that turns into a barrier, a nervousness that becomes anger. I have had white friends who tell me that it was not until their adopted brown children turned sixteen and began driving, and were followed home by police who believed they had stolen their family car that these friends understood what racism truly means. Other white parents have described overhearing office workers in their black children’s school discussing students of color in pejorative or racist language, not realizing that the white parent sitting there was waiting for her or his black son or daughter. And while each state, each region may have its own unique way of approaching or avoiding race and racism, we are hesitant to explore what our own home responses mean. Even when confronted with example after example of racist experiences, we often resist any discussion, any acceptance that racism is alive and well in our midst.
In Duluth right now there is an interesting conversation beginning around the idea of white privilege. Signs have been posted that say simply: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white”. The reaction to these signs has ranged from “die scum die”, (sent to Mayor Ness) rage and anger, to “I think I get it, I understand.” I am not surprised by the reaction but am troubled that in 2012 many seem too fearful and defended to accept that whiteness and white skin privilege exist at all. The simple declarative statement that it is hard to see racism when you are white, is one that opens a wide ranging and painful discussion of what this means, what seeing the world through a white lens entails and how we can pry open our perspective to be available to other points of view. So where does the fear to do this come from? Why the denial of the experience of black and brown children and adults that give witness to the simple fact of white advantage in our country?
In the myth of Narcissus, a young man falls in love with his own image in the water and cannot tear himself away from it. Finally, he dies near the clear pool where he first spotted his own lovely face. Have we fallen in love with an image of ourselves we cannot give up? And does this image in Minnesota involve the myth of our “niceness”, our “color blindness” our populism? If this is the case, if we are unwilling to take a hard look at Minnesota’s history which includes lynching in Duluth, the genocide of indigenous peoples during settlement, the acquisition of another’s land, the denial of hotels for black musicians as they came through town, then we will remain locked, hardened and closed to the reality of whiteness and its advantages. And we will continue to wonder why we are not making progress, why parents do not trust school systems who track kids according to race, why our state ranks below many states in the deep south in achievement for black males, why we have one of, if note the, widest disparity between blacks and whites in unemployment. To change this takes discomfort, hurt, persistence and diligence. It takes being willing to enter a stateof disequilibrium and staying there with each other. It takes doing what Duluth is doing, not being quite so “nice.”