(Editor’s note: This commentary has the full support and backing of the Adams Publishing/ECM Editorial Board.)
A work trip recently led me to El Paso, Texas, where I saw two poignantly significant spots in today’s political climate. Observing the border wall and the Walmart memorial that still stands in remembrance of 22 innocent people killed and 26 injured by a shooter this past summer was heavy, and yet it felt important to bear witness to the relation between them.
Our packed agenda included meeting several local leaders whose remarks to our group included their Aug. 3 experience. They all instantly knew the Walmart shooter couldn’t be local; it just wasn’t what their community was about. They prided themselves on dozens of recent national accolades on livability, friendliness, safety, recreational and post-secondary opportunities. They couldn’t fathom that one of their own could commit this horrible act of domestic terrorism.
Hearing their pride in community reminded me of home, which for almost nine years has been suburban Twin Cities. Minnesota has earned its fair share of quality of life and thriving business environment recognitions. Cost of living, good public schools and professional opportunity bring families like ours here, and “Minnesota Nice” offers a semblance of neighborly peace few other states can boast.
Of course, native Minnesotans take both pride in and cynically joke about Minnesota Nice as a cover for passive-aggressiveness. In light of what I saw in El Paso, however, I’ve come to a different conclusion. Because being Minnesota Nice means choosing words carefully and evading sharing a real opinion when one disagrees (“That’s … different!”), it also means not challenging differently-minded relatives and friends, even if their opinions are downright racist, sexist or homophobic.
The thought of going there is uncomfortable, I know. You know what else was painfully uncomfortable?
When a college student walking with her internship supervisor near the state Capitol in August faced a woman screaming at her to go back to Mexico and demanding to know what she was doing in this country.
Or when a friend cheering with his family (including two small children) in Minneapolis as the Gophers defeated Penn State was called every racial slur imaginable by other spectators.
Or when on my flight back from El Paso, my seat neighbor said I should have more than two children to balance out the kids Mexicans invading our country are having. He didn’t notice I am Latina.
Stunned and shaken in all three situations, we made the same choice: disengage to avoid what could quickly become much worse. They left their respective spaces immediately and I joined the silence of the shocked people around me on the plane by putting in my headphones and facing the window. That man and I live in the same suburb.
These humiliating events were just words, but here’s why they matter: Unchecked racist rhetoric leads to acts of violence. It’s not a stretch. The murderer in El Paso wasn’t local, but he was Texan, and he chose the location because he wanted to shoot Mexicans. Attacks on communities because of race or ethnicity are rising, and I increasingly worry one will happen here in Minnesota. I worry about my kids experiencing racial trauma while playing in our front yard. I worry about friends and colleagues who could be attacked on their way to work or while enjoying a night out. I worry about people attending celebrations, festivals or rallies and the potential for tragedy there. I am not alone.
When I share these fears and stories with white Minnesotans, they are invariably shocked and saddened. They say they’re sorry, they offer solidarity and support. And here’s where I would like to take them up on their offer. I know those running amok in this time of unfiltered speech are not the majority of Minnesotans; some are relics of a different time scapegoating people for economic and societal shifts. But the threats are real and it won’t take much for us to be another community sharing stories of where we were on one heart-shattering day.
So I ask simply this: Step up and push through the Minnesota Nice. Challenge that uncle or cousin’s views. Speak up when someone is experiencing verbal racial abuse. Share a word of solidarity and community. Learn about the pervasive inequities affecting communities of color here and get involved with community-based organizations fighting to make things better. Question who benefits from stoking racially-based fears and think about the real-life implications of fearmongering. Stand up to hate to keep your neighbors safe. It truly could be a matter of life and death.
Angelica Klebsch is a member of the Adams Publishing/ECM Editorial Board and works on public policy in the nonprofit sector. Reactions welcome: Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.