Minnesota Not So Nice


I went to a fascinating talk by Julie Landsman on Friday, where the author of “A White Teacher Talks about Race,” talked about racism and white privilege, and how the two have been instrumental in causing the achievement gap. Perhaps the most shocking part of the lecture, and discussion afterwards, was the connection that Landsman made between “Minnesota Nice” and Minnesota’s particular version of racism.

I’ve been pondering the whole concept of Minnesota Nice ever since I wrote about Frank Sonntag leaving the Cowles Center. Sonntag’s comments to the Star Tribune about “Minnesota culture” caused quite a stir, and made me think about what the harms are of a kind of communication style here that is at once very friendly, but at the same time extremely judgmental, and cold.

As a Minnesotan who escaped for six years after college before inevitably returning, it’s difficult for me to even grasp what Minnesota Nice is. People who have moved here from other places have a much clearer sense of what this is really about. Just as I can’t “hear” my Minnesota accent (I’m told I have one), I have a hard time being objective about a way of communicating that is completely ingrained.

From friends who have come here from other places, I hear the classic example of Minnesota Nice is the dinner invitation. A Minnesotan will say something like: “Oh, you should come over for dinner sometime!” However, no date will be set, and the said dinner will never occur. The next time you see the person, they might reiterate: “We really need to get together!” Again, it will never happen.

For further investigation on Minnesota Nice, I turn to my family’s dinner table. My large Catholic family is full of quite a few spirited personalities. Certain topics — namely religion and politics — tend to get everyone emotional and on guard. There are a few of us who will drive these disagreements to a level of almost shouting, but we are quickly entreated by the others to change the subject. When disagreements to arise to the level of hurt feelings, they aren’t ever resolved, but are rather ignored. We pretend that it never happened.

Okay, so let’s look at what the above two examples reveal about how Minnesota Nice and Minnesota racism might be correlated. The first example suggests that we aren’t a society that is very open to strangers. We have strong communities here, where families and friends are very important, but maybe we’re so close to our own groups that we aren’t open to difference?

What we do know is that Minnesota has a very high achievement gap, and a very high unemployment gap. So if it’s true that we have a very segregated society here, and that’s in part what’s causing these disparities in the education system and in the state’s employment, then it would make sense to talk about it, yes? Ah, but Minnesota Nice dictates that it is an unpleasant conversation, and we don’t like to talk about unpleasant things!

In Landsman’s talk, she said that here more than anywhere else in the country, she has gotten the most resistance to her lectures about race. Teachers at the conferences where she speaks fold their arms in front of them and start working on their grade books. Maybe it’s not that they are bad people, but they are socially trained to tune out when something as ugly as racism is being discussed.

So maybe I’m making a few leaps here, but might I suggest that we can’t really solve Minnesota’s segregation problems, our achievement gap, or any other inequalities or disparities between whites and people of color until we actually name the problems, and let go of our resistance to speaking about these things. Because if we don’t talk about them, how will they ever change?