Minnesota Whites: Start Seeing Color

Minnesota Whites: Start Seeing Color

Last year, I was at a meeting where a group of community leaders were grappling with some of the challenges facing Minnesota and the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. We were looking at the results of a recent survey that showed, among other things, that substantial numbers of Minnesotans are seriously concerned by the achievement gap in our schools.

At that, one man — a middle-aged white man — registered surprise. He made a couple of comments that revealed two things, even if they weren’t explicitly stated. First, he didn’t think there were very many people of color in Minnesota. Second, he assumed that whites automatically wouldn’t be troubled by the achievement gap. So then, he clearly wondered, who were all these people who were worried about it?

“Minnesota is so white.” You’ve heard white people say it a million times, often with a nervously self-deprecating tone. When white people talk about how white Minnesota is, we often imply or state outright some kind of explanation for it: Minnesota’s not “cool” enough for people to move here, it’s so cold that only fifth-generation immigrants from Nordic nations want to be here, it’s in the middle of nowhere.

White people who talk about how white Minnesota is know that whiteness isn’t something to brag about, but we often seem quietly comforted by it. Racism? Segregation? Nothing we need to worry about, because — ha ha! — this state is just so white!

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 brag about the quality of Minnesota’s schools, because by “Minnesota’s schools,” we mean “schools where white people go.” Whites are aware that less successful schools, often overwhelmingly attended by children of color, exist — just try suggesting that whites send our own kids there — but we still brag about how great “Minnesota’s schools” are because we implicitly dismiss those other schools as not really being in Minnesota.

This is how white Minnesota maintains the narrative in which our state is liberal-minded and prosperous in an uncomplicated way. We always vote blue, right? Well, there you go. We voted for Obama — twice! We’re not racist! How can we be, when there are no people here who aren’t white? Ha ha!

The shooting of Philando Castile has drawn a harsh, and long overdue, national light on Minnesota’s racial segregation, which is among the most extreme in the country. That’s hard for a lot of white Minnesotans to accept, and many still won’t. It’s hard for many white Minnesotans to revise the narrative handed down for generations: that Minnesota is just so white.

Here’s something white Minnesotans love to do: laugh, in a way we see as good-natured, about immigrants who’ve moved here from Somalia and Laos. Move here — from Africa? From southeast Asia? Ha ha! Go figure!

The implication is, “We’re not saying you can’t move here — we’re just sending the message that you don’t belong here. You’re not really Minnesotan.”

Why does immigration to Minnesota seem so amusing and incongruous? Aren’t white Minnesotans always bragging about how great this state is? Why is it so strange that someone from Somalia would move here for the same reasons white Minnesotans’ ancestors moved here from Germany and Norway and Ireland? Minnesota — it’s the good life! Lakes! Sun! Snow! Employment! Right?

Germany and Norway and Ireland are exactly where my ancestors came from, and I know I’m not immune to prejudice. I hope I can help, though, to build a better Minnesota: a more equitable Minnesota, a Minnesota that celebrates our state as it is, not as we’ve been taught to see it.

We can’t put this shared nightmare behind us overnight, but we can honor the memory of Philando Castile and the many other Minnesotans whose lives have been lost to, or hindered by, racism: we can tell truer stories about life here in the heartland, in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

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.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Million March Minnesota, 2014 (Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0)