It may not look the same as it did in the 1950s. To some, it may even look like it’s gone. But racism is a part of every community in the U.S., and White Bear Lake is no exception.
“Racism is a chameleon that changes with the times,” said Dr. Marcellus Davis, director of Equity and Engagement for White Bear Lake Area Schools. “Sometimes colleagues look for 1950s racism as an example of what is happening today, but the truth is, it morphs.”
Davis and district staff from the office of Equity and Engagement recently met with the White Bear Press to talk about the presence of racism in the White Bear Lake community, and the next steps to address it.
In the worst cases, racism looks obvious—threats, physical violence and even death. But racism is present in many subtle, everyday ways that often fly under the radar.
“We’re all conditioned with racist ideas, from the time we were little, to now,” Davis said. “Every time we watch the television. Every time we pick up the newspaper. We have to be able to see the conditioning so we can work against the conditioning.”
Most people don’t consider themselves racist. They don’t personally wish harm on members of the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. But the harmful assumptions related to racism crop up in ways that people might not even realize are racist. It might look like conversations that tiptoe around racial assumptions with phrases such as “bad part of town” or “crime coming into the community.” It might be baked into school curriculum. Or it might appear as legislative policies that disproportionately affect BIPOC communities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified racism as a high risk to physical and mental health, as ethnic minority groups across the nation experience higher rates of illness and death than white Americans.
“It’s impacting children every day, and some, it’s killing,” Davis said. “It is a contagion that is far beyond COVID-19, and I don’t say that to diminish COVID-19, but for this plague, there has not been serious research put into an antidote.”
Minnesota has been in the global spotlight after the police killing of George Floyd last summer, but there is a long history of racial violence in the state. In April, students at White Bear Lake High School endured a slew of racial attacks and threats via messages over social media. The person behind the messages was an unidentified student wanting to draw attention to the handling of racial incidents within the schools, but the pain and anger that resulted from the messages were felt throughout the community.
“You have the Chauvin trial, you have COVID-19 harming communities of color at a higher rate, and then this situation,” Davis said. “Tension is at its highest level. The city can’t take much more, especially when we’re not having enough spaces to have discussion.”
For Davis, the most important thing in talking about racism is having a clear definition of what racism is. There are several to choose from—one of the simplest Davis likes to employ is that racial prejudice + power= racism. “Racism always deals with power,” he said.
Davis was clear that the criticisms of racism in the school and community are not meant to be an attack on the school district or community, but a call to do better.
“What we are trying to articulate is that we have a problem. That’s what our students and families are telling us,” he said. “We are trying to be that district that does better for every student, in particular students of color.”
That responsibility includes students who are not members of the BIPOC community, Davis said. All students can benefit from the communication and listening skills required to have an effective discourse about race.
“Eradicating racism in the White Bear Lake Area Schools community is going to be a concerted effort by all of us. Not just a few,” Davis said. “This is a community problem, and the school district is included in the community.”
Some of the district’s direct actions to address racism include creating spaces where students can process and deconstruct. Healing circles are one of the ways the district is doing this. This activity is based on an Indigenous practice of working through problems in a small group setting, said Patricia Ferrell, who has worked with students and facilitated the healing circles.
“It’s a way for all people to get all their feelings out in a respectful way,” Ferrell said. “We’ve had some awesome circles with staff and with children. The things that come out would really surprise people. Even if they don’t talk, they’re listening, taking it all in. They may not say anything, but at the end, they’ll pull you aside and say, hey, I learned a lot, I didn’t know XYZ. Nobody ever told me this. I didn’t know I was affecting people like this. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“You have to have a bottoms-up approach,” said Aaron Turner, who also works with the office of Equity and Engagement. “It does start with the youth, working your way up to adults so that we can have a long-lasting approach.”
Student leaders are working directly with administrators to develop strategies of transformative change in the classroom. Student-led groups such as Culture Club, Latinos Unidos and the Black Excellence Club are providing supportive spaces for student connections and growth. District staff hopes to see some of the dialogue techniques, such as the healing circles, happen in the wider community sometime in the future.
The path forward requires openness, difficult questions and hard truths, but Davis and school staff attested that the district is ready to do the work.