Diversity in Minnesota: An Opportunity for Understanding

Marie Lattner | Contributing Writer

I remember the evening being terribly cold and windy – a typical Minnesotan winter – when I had the chance to visit the University of Northwestern in St. Paul to hear their first cohort of nursing students share their cross-cultural experiences. Seated on a comfortable chair in the warm, inviting Great Room, I listened to group after group share stories, laughs, and memories about their medical mission trips to various countries.

One story that struck me was from an African American woman. She shared how her ethnic food was very spicy, and she knew she would have to pack her extremely spicy, homemade hot sauce for her group’s medical mission trip. I remember her saying how she felt “she couldn’t live without her hot sauce!”

During the trip, the Northwestern student explained to her curious hostess that she was accustomed to her ethnic spicy food, and loved putting it on her meals. The hostess surprised her, asking if she could try the homemade sauce. The Northwestern student warned her of the intense heat of the sauce, but the hostess excitedly pressed on. The hostess, despite being from a totally different country, ended up loving the hot sauce, and it was a sweet point of connection for the two.

Hearing this story, I loved the connection these two had between cultures. Instead of judging one another or holding up a wall of cool politeness, they shared in and enjoyed the differences between them. I feel that this sort of relationship between ethnically different people – white people and people of color – is important in Minnesota today.

Hearing several of the writers’ perspectives from “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” brought into the open the deeply felt pain that racism causes, racism which is prevalent in Minnesota today. “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” has helped me see the struggles of identity within people of color in Minnesota, and how white people consciously or unconsciously affect people of color negatively. Thinking about race in Minnesota has made me long for a greater understanding amongst people in Minnesota.

Growing up, I have always greatly valued my German heritage and the fact that my mom immigrated from communist East Germany only a few months before the wall fell in 1989. I definitely have not been proud of the communist beliefs in the government that my mom had to grow up in. Rather, I love the culture of Germany.

As a kid, I knew I was somewhat different from my peers because of my German heritage and how it influenced my life through traditions, lifestyle, and memories. I have always enjoyed sharing to friends the experiences of my mom in Germany, the difficulties she faced, the effect of the communist society, and how she immigrated.

People almost always respond with great interest, questions, and admiration for my mom. Often as a child, peoples’ admiration for my heritage and experience of having a mom from another country made me happy to be viewed special in the eyes of others. My German heritage was and is something that I always cherish and value as a part of who I am.

Because of this positive experience that I have had with diversity in my heritage, it pained my heart to hear of the inner struggles that each of the writers in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota had with their own unique heritage being a part of their identity. While my German heritage has always been something that I have loved and others have found interest in, it is blatantly clear from the writers’ reflections how contrary their experience was to mine.

The writers shared their feelings of alienation from white Minnesotans because of their race. People of color in Minnesota do not even have to share their culture before they are judged – merely their presence and the way they look tragically evokes discrimination from white Minnesotans. From subtle, racist comments or looks of dissatisfaction to police arresting because of mere suspicion of the person of color, the quietly savage, thorny vine of racism grows tightly around what we know as Minnesota today.

It is painful to see how a person’s skewed mindset can affect so many others negatively. The blindness of not seeing a person of color’s heritage and culture as valuable, unique, and beautiful is sickening and prideful. To instantly judge another person negatively based off of their skin, facial features, or accent is immediately compartmentalizing them into a stereotype box within one’s brain.

Instead of taking the opportunity to see that person and interact with them to understand them, I believe that white Minnesotans often put people of color into those stereotype-labeled boxes. The thought is not, “They are different from me. How can I get to know and understand them better?” but “They are different from me. What’s wrong with them?” I think sometimes white Minnesotans can place people of color into those boxes and pridefully consider that they are right.

White people like to subconsciously think, “It’s just my opinion, which is right. It’s not bad to judge the African American man in Walgreens at night, or the Hispanic mother with five children; that’s just what I think. If that Latino man was not overweight and dressed more nicely, maybe I would accept him.” How great do our actions reflect our hearts though, and how great and tragic a ripple effect of distrust white Minnesotans can send to people of color.

Essay after essay within the anthology and during Century College’s “A Good Time for the Truth” Event, I sensed a great struggle of identity and self-worth within the writers’ hearts. It is a plea of “am I accepted for who I am in my heritage? And when I am not accepted, what is that aspect of myself that is so deplorable to others, and more so, why is it so disgusting to others, namely white people, and lastly, what does their negative opinion of a foundational aspect of my identity – my heritage – end up saying about who I am?”.

As an introducer to “A Good Time for the Truth” event at Century College, I had the privilege of talking with David Mura. It was both fascinating yet sobering to hear of his experience of living in Minnesota as a Japanese American. Since his family did not talk about their Japanese heritage due to the scorn they received in internment camps, Mura grew up knowing he was Japanese, but not being able to fully understand what that meant for him in his identity. He told me how he felt in his college years that emulating the identity of a white man was the best thing, because of its lack of connection with his Japanese heritage.

As a writer, the stereotypes surrounding being a person of color and producing literary work were negative. Mura did not want to embrace and emulate literary works from people of color because it would group him with the stereotypical “minority literature” or lead him into the “literary ghetto”. I found his struggle with racial identity saddening. The fact that Mura felt early on that he could not embrace his heritage through his identity and literary work because it would make him less successful was troubling.

The desire of some people of color to be white, in character, work, and hobbies, as David Mura did during his college years, is a loss of culture, diversity, and vibrancy within our Minnesotan communities. Rather than our communities continually becoming more and more polarized towards whiteness, people of color in Minnesota should celebrate their cultural differences and express them.

I do not think they should feel ashamed of their heritage, but rather see it as a positive influence upon their community. What is more glorious? An orchestra, with all its different instruments, sounds, and personalities, playing one single rhythm and tone together, or a symphony of various tones, rhythms, and parts blending together to create something beautiful, a work of art?

For a diverse amount of culture in Minnesota to be expressed, there must be a willingness to understand instead of judge one another. I recently saw a TED talk from Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church. In her talk, she discusses why she left and how she has come to learn greater understanding for people different than her. She said, “We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago (being a member of Westboro Baptist Church). We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp.”

Phelps-Roper continues in her talk, calling for people to intentionally seek understanding in conversations. She says to not assume bad intent, ask questions, stay calm, and make your argument – clearly explain where you are coming from, yet likewise listening to the other. I think her call for understanding is extremely important in today’s day and age of racial tension. In order to celebrate diversity and for people of color to feel the freedom to express their heritage and culture, understanding on both sides is vital.

As the writers have shared their experiences as a person of color in Minnesota within “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” it brings up the pain that many people within our Minnesotan communities have to face each day. Their experiences should challenge us and lead us to examine our own lives and how we respond to other people within our communities – white or people of color.

Hearing about the writers’ struggles of identity in their race should make us reflect how each of our actions and our mindset affect them. Do we seek to understand people who are other than us? Or do we quickly label them off, putting them in a stereotype box? In order to reach a greater racial peace in Minnesota, we need to actively seek to understand and listen to the other, to see the value that they bring in their own identity and culture.