Reconciling with your racist hometown—unfortunately, it's something we all probably need to do.
My ancestors moved to the United States of America in the 1850s. Coming from Ireland and Germany, they chose a spot to settle that felt like home—a quiet land covered by lakes and forests. A land with long, cold winters, where many other Europeans were beginning to congregate. That land was soon to be called “Minnesota.” From what I can gather, I am a sixth or seventh generation Minnesotan. Both sides of my family settled in the state and the majority of their descendants have lived there since.
Being Minnesotan is a big part of my identity. I am reminded of it every time I get made fun of for the way I say “bag.” I grew up on the lakes every summer and in a hockey rink for the majority of the winter. I frequently go on trips “Up North” to visit my family cabin. I know the state fish, the state flower, and even the state muffin (it’s blueberry). My family’s roots are so deeply tied to the state that my ancestors owned the first ever grocery store in Minneapolis. I have always been extremely proud of my home and the “Minnesota nice” culture that I was raised in...until this summer.
George Floyd was killed about 30 minutes away from my house. I woke up the morning after to a Snapchat headline that read “This isn’t a Movie: it’s Minnesota,” with an image of my city up in flames. I couldn’t sleep at all that week. I felt so helpless. I went to protests and donated supplies and collected money for organizations—but nothing I did felt like enough. This place that raised me, the state where my roots are so deeply embedded, was the same place that a white police officer kneeled on the neck of an unarmed Black man for nine minutes. How could I possibly do anything to make up for that?
This summer caused the entire world to wake up to the systemic racism that plagues our societies. It was the beginning of what everyone hoped to be a positive change. People were educating themselves on how to be anti-racist. Black leaders were finally getting the recognition they deserved. The entire concept of the police was beginning to be reconstructed. In the midst of a terrible crime, there seemed to be an awakening of hope towards a better future.
And then Daunte Wright was shot in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. 10 miles away from where Derek Chauvin was on trial for the murder of George Floyd. And again, the place that I call home is garnering national attention for its racist police force. And again, I can’t sleep.
How does one reckon with the fact that their hometown is now known for racism? How can I rest easy knowing that the cops who are killing unarmed Black men are, quite literally, my neighbors? These questions have weighed heavily on me for months. In my case, the racism that plagues my hometown has become national news. It is obvious why I am asking these questions. However, I would argue that almost every city in America has a racist history, and it is the job of all of us to confront it. I don’t exactly have the answers on how to do this, but I do have a few ideas.
The first step in reconciling with your racist hometown is to acknowledge that your personal experience is not a universal one. I love Minnesota. I have always felt comfortable and safe there. I feel a deep sense of belonging when I am home. I am also a Catholic white girl of European descent who spent most of her childhood in the heavily sheltered suburbs. To think of my experience as a universal one would be ignorant.
I recently learned that Minneapolis has one of the largest income inequality gaps in the nation. According to NPR, the median income for a Black family in Minneapolis is less than half of that of a white family. According to the same article, Minnesota ranks as one of the worst in the nation for racial disparities in high school graduation rates. I was completely oblivious to these (frankly embarrassing) statistics until I went looking for them on my own. Nobody from your hometown is going to be talking about these things. It is important to educate yourself, and then others, so that you know what work needs to be done for a better future.
Another crucial step in this reconciliation is acknowledging the systems that our hometowns are built upon. In Minneapolis, racist police are not a new concept. In the summer of 1967, Black Minnesotans took to the streets to protest police brutality. The National Guard was called in. Buildings were set on fire. Dozens of people were injured and arrested. The parallels between the summer of 2020 and the summer of 1967 are almost uncanny. And yet, what has changed? History will continue to repeat itself until the American people step up to the challenge of dismantling the system and coming up with a better one. This is not a simple or straightforward process, but until it is fully acknowledged, no progress can be made.
There is a passage from Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race” that really struck me when I first read it. Olou writes, “We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged or changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color.” The problems that are happening in Minnesota aren’t unique to Minnesotans. It’s not that people living in Minnesota are more racist or evil or careless than people in any other part of America. The problem is the American system and the fact that nothing is being done to fix it.
I wish I could write an article that was a simple step-by-step plan for how to completely rebuild a better, more equitable system for the good of all the American people. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of us know exactly what that looks like yet. Until that day comes, commit yourself to being part of the solution. Educate yourself about your immediate surroundings.
There is work to be done, even in your hometown.