'What racism in Minnesota feels like'

A panel of Minnesota authors was hosted at Mahtomedi High School Jan. 30 to discuss race. From left, moderator and School Board member Kevin Donovan, author Kao Kalia Yang, editor Sun Yung Shin, moderator and Mahtomedi Schools parent Duchess Harris, author Heid E. Erdrich and author Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria.

What makes racism in Minnesota unique? 

“Minnesota racism is walking out of a parking garage with your black and brown male friends and having people look at you like you should be afraid,” said Heid E. Erdrich, an author at a community book read event at Mahtomedi High School Jan. 30.  

Erdrich's response was to a question from an audience member during a Q&A panel discussion on the book, “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” edited by Sun Yung Shin. Contributing authors at the panel were Heid E. Erdrich, an Ojibwe author and poet; Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, a Peruvian American writer and spoken word poet; and Kao Kalia Yang, a Hmong American author.

Erdich added: Racism is when a teacher asks what she should do about the loud, intimidating African American students who stand by her classroom door. Talk to them by name, Erdrich said she told the inquisitive teacher. 

“It is not subtle to me and to others, but it is subtle to Minnesota in a strange way,” noted the poet. 

Yang also shared veiled experiences of racism when she moved to Minnesota with her family as a refugee at the age of 6.

Her family was sponsored by a church. Yang remembers that the Hmong children were given different presents than the white children at a Christmas event — the new immigrant children received a pen and notebook with a message about how the gifts would help them build better lives. The white children did not receive pens or pencils as gifts.

“Minnesota has good intentions,” she said. “They want to share, but they only want to share some things.” 

She said racism in Minnesota can actually be intended as a compliment, like when people say they are so impressed with her English.

“That's what racism in Minnesota feels like,” she noted. 

Sanchez-Chavarria said he experiences racism when people make comments suggesting he is lower class or someone asks him where he is from in such a way as to point out that he is different. Saying he is from Midway in St. Paul is sometimes not enough, he noted. He says people ask him with the implication, “Where are you really from?”

“Minnesota racism has to deal with not only those types of comments … but having the power to ask that type of question,” he noted. 

Shin also said the homogenizing culture of Minnesota would rather not talk about race and thinks it is impolite to notice that someone is not white.

Panel moderator and Mahtomedi Public Schools parent Duchess Harris said it is not good not to notice skin color. Harris, an African American, grew up in the northeast United States. When Harris first moved to Minnesota in the '90s it seemed like people thought they were being kind to her by saying they didn't notice her skin color, that she was just like them.

“On the East Coast, people acknowledge race, see race. In Minnesota, people still subscribe to a colorblind discourse,” Harris noted. “And a colorblind discourse is not helpful for many reasons.” By not acknowledging someone's race, their journey and their uniqueness go unacknowledged, Harris explained. 

“That's why it is a good time for the truth,” she said. 

The panel was moderated by Harris, an author and chair of the American studies department at Macalester College, and School Board member Kevin Donovan. The event was hosted by Mahtomedi Community Education and Mahtomedi Public Schools. 

Over 200 community members came to the event. 

Another community book read with authors from the book will be sponsored by White Bear Lake Area Schools and the city of White Bear Lake from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Boatworks Commons, 4494 Lake Avenue S. Advance registration is required at whitebear.ce.eleyo.com. 

(2) comments

Mark Ross

I’m a white guy, but I understand there’s racism, it’s completely illogical, but it exists. They only thing I want to add is that MN Nice is BS and is also what you described with the parking lot. It’s also being nice to your face and stabbing you in the back later. I’d rather have truth like la or ny. It’s hard to say what ther was buit I get the point. What you described is quite typical for white liberals.

MinnesotaNot SoNice

Racism in Minnesota is real. I live on the western side (Plymouth) of the twin cities and I deal with racist people on a daily basis. As an African American adult male, I'm strong enough to deal with racist people. But what bothers me the most is seeing adult white males constantly picking on little black boys, especially in youth sports. In a way, I see as a modern-day suppression and oppression of black males.

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