How To Not Be Racist

As I write this, I’m up north — Bemidji for a little vacation, Fargo for a few days with my new job. It’s humid, cottony — air so thick you can touch it, lakes common as mud puddles.
I live in Worthington, home to me now, my things and my work and my people and the community I’ve invested in, studied to solve from inside my own skin like an anthropologic puzzle gone native — but northern MN is my skin, in a way I can’t calculate for, a pair of binoculars I can’t see past. The square I stand on, like it or not.
These days up north, sweet dark coffee always at the ready, I’m thinking about the way the color of my skin and the fabric of my families has shaped the way I look at the world in a way I can’t see without.
My family is built of immigrants and homesteaders, scholars and musicians, stay-at-home moms and political activists, teachers and pilots. I’m proud of the melting pot of genetics in my cells, the strengths passed down by generations — passion and work ethic, honesty and ingenuity. I like to think that I got where I am because of who I am, how hard I have worked, who I have become.
I don’t like to think that I may have gotten here because of my decidedly European name, my easy-burn skin, the way my parents were on a first-name basis with all of my teachers and my first summer jobs were with family friends. I learned by example to wield the academic system and non-confrontational communication model to meet my own ends.
I look safe, I suppose — flyaway hair, glasses — Caucasian — and sometimes when people meet me, I think the description of humans from Hitchhiker’s Guide crosses their minds: Harmless. Well, mostly harmless.
I don’t think that acknowledging the factors I’ve benefited from makes me weak.
We — and here I’m talking to white folks in Minnesota — have a problem when it comes to the way we look at people who don’t look like us. This is not a thoughtful observation; this is a data-supported conclusion — here’s a link to a statewide study unequivocally showing this by way of traffic stop and search documentation, which is a startling source given recent events in our state.
This is not a cop problem. This is an us problem. It stands out as a problem for cops because (newsflash) they’re human, too, and we tend to hold them to a higher standard. And rightly so — peace officers are people we look up to, people we admire and respect. When my leaders make mistakes, they seem to matter more than my own screw-ups. When my leaders tell me they haven’t made mistakes, the trouble escalates. They are, after all, still human.
Do we need to talk about legal reform? Yes. Always. If we refuse to adapt we become irrelevant. (We’d still be drowning witches.) But if we stop there, the systemic problem won’t go away.
And we can’t wait any longer to talk about this.
I’m pretty much the furthest thing from an authority on racism, but this topic won’t hold until we feel confident that we’re a good enough people to talk about it. So, without further ado, here are the things I do to not be racist.
First I ask myself a lot of questions. Am I turning down this date because I don’t like the guy or because of his accent? When a person gives me instructions, does their race factor into how well I follow them? Do I listen to complaints better when they’re spoken without an accent? Do I feel like more of an authority than I actually am? When someone takes my stuff, do I look at people with different skin colors first?
I also try to talk about racism, about myself, about how I treat other people. It’s awful. Writing these words is like driving a needle into my fingertip really slowly, and I already know people will tell me I’ve said too much and not enough. The words we use incriminate us, and mine show up in print. But if we don’t talk about it, we don’t change — and we need to change.
And I try to ask questions. This is probably the worst one — maybe it’s part of the square I stand on, the bootstraps northerner and fix-it-yourselfer in my veins that makes me feel like asking for help is somehow shameful. But I know I can’t do this on my own.
So if you have advice, or a correction, hit me up.
We need to make the change.

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