Race & Politics, Reflections
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30 Years A Minnesotan

Snelling Avenue Green Line Station in St. Paul

by Walt Jacobs

In the summer of 1986, I started an engineering internship at 3M. I was a kid from Atlanta spending the summer in the Twin Cities on my way to college in the fall. I grew up in mostly Black neighborhoods in the south so spending three months in the predominantly White Minnesota cities was quite an adjustment. In fact, the first time I walked into a McDonald’s my inner voice screamed, “There are White kids working at McDonald’s!” As the summer wore on I was shocked to see White and Asian folks in public housing complexes and was stunned when I could count the amount of Cadillacs I saw on one hand. Rear wheel drive is not practical for Minnesota winters!

The first two times I was called “nigger” to my face were at Boy Scout camps. The third time was while sitting in a car at a stoplight on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. I was on the passenger side with the window down; my colleague, a White intern from California was driving. An elderly White woman in the car next to us started screaming “nigger” and giving me the finger. It was traumatizing for me but my friend went out of his way doing nice things for me for the next few weeks.

Aside from that Snelling Avenue encounter my racialized experiences in Minnesota have been mostly positive. For instance, I had my first significant discussions about race with White folks that summer. In high school there were 1600 students, and all but four were Black. Of the four, three were White guys, and the fourth was a recent Vietnamese immigrant, Tuan Le. One of the White guys was in my clique of five, but we never overtly discussed race. While working at 3M and living in a residence hall in Hamline University I made friends with more than one White person. And because of these friendships and conversations I began to explore questions that eventually led me to abandon Engineering and turn to Sociology as a profession. One person from that first summer in Minnesota has been a friend ever since, and several folks from my second year as an intern at 3M during the summer of 1987 are life-long comrades to this day.

During undergraduate and graduate school, my Minnesota friends and I kept in touch. But it got easier when I moved in 1999 to become a Sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. One of the difficulties many transplants report is adjusting to “Minnesota Nice,” how everyone is very polite on the surface, but it’s hard to break into friendship circles, and get folks to open up about deep topics. My experience was the opposite: I made lasting friendships seemingly immediately, and was able to quickly establish enough trust to talk about difficult topics, such as race. My new friends also helped me overcome my homophobia.

The other significant racialized experience for me came during another summer while in my second or third year as a professor at the U of M. I was walking behind Appleby Hall on East River Road when a car pulled over and the driver, a Black man, asked me for directions to Chicago Avenue which spans primarily in North Minneapolis, an area which is predominantly Black. I looked up and down East River Road getting my bearings and the passenger, a Black woman, chuckled, “Did he just say ‘let’s see’?” My initial reaction was similar to experiences I had in the South where my Blackness was often questioned. In that moment, I felt they were judging my “illegal” boundary crossing into “Whiteness.”

Although I have found that in Minnesota I was able to inhabit a more expansive place regarding racial identity. I am not saying that Minnesota exists in some sort of post-racial utopia where everyone gets along. On the contrary, there is way too much work ahead of us, as evidenced by recent reports about the Black-White achievement gap in Minnesota, and attacks on Black Lives Matter activists in North Minneapolis at the Fourth precinct. But I am suggesting that I believe there is a willingness by progressive Minnesotans to think about race in new ways, so the path forward is not as steep as in other places.

The author Touré begins the book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now with an anecdote about an encounter with Black men in a diner. After learning that he was in town to do a story about skydiving, they tell him, “Brother, Black people don’t do that.” Touré notes that if he had listened to such internal community admonishment in the past he would have missed out on what he describes as a spiritual and life-changing experience. I very much appreciate Minnesota because in my experience there involved less policing of boundaries about what it means to be Black, from both Black and non-Black friends.

I unofficially began to think of myself as a Minnesotan in the summer of 1986 after experiencing that the land of 10,000 lakes also helped me see that there were 10,000 ways to be Black. I was officially a Minnesotan while I lived there from 1999 through 2013. It was then very easy to maintain an identity as a Minnesotan while living in Wisconsin for two years from 2013 to 2015. In 2015 I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area still maintaining my Minnesota pride! Recently, after a move to San Jose, California I changed my Facebook hometown status form Atlanta to Minneapolis. June 2016 will mark the end of my 30th year as a Minnesotan. And although I may never reside in Minnesota again, I hope to call myself a Minnesotan for at least 30 more years!

[Header image courtesy of Jean Pieri, Pioneer Press, 2016]

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