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LEARNING TO WALK: A White Lady’s Opinion on Minnesota Nice, White Privilege, and Police Reform

Updated: Apr 3, 2021

I recently watched a series on Netflix called “Babies”. In it the researchers find that human infants, though unable to walk at birth, are equipped with everything we need neurologically to walk. It’s intrinsic, a built-in knowledge. The series tracks the stages infants go through in order to progress to walking upright. It’s quite remarkable. Everything we need is there! There are obstacles of course, like insufficient muscle mass to hold our body up, but we move through a variety of stages, acquiring the skills, putting all the pieces together, and before you know it, we are taking our first steps. It’s a clumsy business, learning to walk. It takes a lot of hard work. Babies fall all the time, but we keep trying. We bump our heads, shake it off and try again. Eventually we master the skill, learn to do it gracefully. Then we learn to run, leap, dance!

I like to think of the work we are being asked to do in our society today, to address the systemic problems in our culture that don’t allow BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) the same advantages that white bodied people have, is a bit like learning to walk. Everything we need to do it right is within us, we just need to put the pieces together. The obstacles in our way are mighty, but they are not insurmountable. It’s a clumsy business, breaking down racial barriers. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. We will fail, but we need to keep trying. Make mistakes, shake it off and try again. I believe that someday we will master this new skill, learn to do it gracefully. Eventually we will learn to run, leap, we will be able to dance a new dance.

I was born in 1967, grew up in Minneapolis in a nice neighborhood, raised by liberal thinking parents. I had Black and Latino friends, but they didn’t live in my neighborhood because I was bussed to school. I didn’t think much about race, partly because I didn’t need to. (This is part of my privilege.) I remember learning about slavery in school, feeling horrible for my black friends that is was part of their heritage. I learned about MLK and the civil rights movement and was glad that we were past all that. We celebrated Columbus Day, (Day off from school, Yeah!) and learned how nice the Indians were, that Thanksgiving was a tradition that reflected the gratitude of how the pilgrims felt about their Indian friends. Oh sure, there were some bad things that happened, like settlers getting killed because the Indians didn’t like them coming into their territory, but mostly it wasn’t too bad.

This is the history I remember being taught to me. The story I was fed was, Columbus was an explorer not a criminal who raped and pillaged. No one ever talked about a trail of tears, or Indigenous children being torn from their families and forced to go to Christian schools and stop speaking their native languages. As far as I knew as a child, American Indians were happily living on reservations, their own private land given to them by the government. It was mysterious, dare I say even romantic. Slavery had ended in 1863 and Jim Crow was long past. I was fed a story of half-truths and rhetoric. I had no reason to question it and no one was telling me any different.

I was blessed with an early life that allowed me to not have to look at the inequities in our society. I grew up “Minnesota Nice”, hearing sayings like, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” throughout my childhood. Seriously, this bullshit was pounded into us good little white Minnesota children. I didn’t start to understand what was really going on in this country until I moved away from MN at nineteen, and didn’t start my own deep dive into Equity, Diversity and Inclusion work until many years later. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there it is.

The term “White Privilege” is a prickly one for many people. I myself bristled at the notion when I first heard the term. I have had my fare-share of difficulties, more than my share in some areas, and the thought that I am considered “privileged” kind of pissed me off to be honest. I’ve scraped together pennies to buy groceries for my kids. I’ve had to drive shit-beater cars because I couldn’t afford a new one. That’s not privileged. But I quickly came to understand that the term isn’t referring to wealth or even status, it’s referring to an unearned advantage that I have simply because I was born into a white body.

I have white privilege. It was a birthright, handed to me by my white parents whether they knew it or not. It’s an uncomfortable notion for me, privilege. I don’t like that I have it. But I do see that what I’m being asked to do isn’t to deny it or cast it away, but use it to push the narrative, amplify the voices of BIPOC who have been screaming to deaf ears for centuries. Racial humility is the key. Not humiliation y’all, humility, the ability to be humble. As Robin DiAngelo asks us in her book White Fragility, “What will we do with our discomfort?” I choose to investigate, to look and see how I have participated. (If you are someone who is just arriving at the conclusion that you have a place in the work of dismantling racial inequity, GOOD! Welcome, and thank you, we need you.)

In the past two weeks, our city, and in fact our entire country has been thrust into the conversation about racial inequity, police brutality and the need for police reform because of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. At one of the press conferences last week I noticed several city officials using the term “peace officers”. A feeble attempt to shine light on the fact that their JOB is to keep the peace. But the biggest word on squad cars around here isn’t “peace”, it’s “police”. They are about the business of policing. The attempt to control the narrative at that press conference failed.

The fact that the president of the police union in Minneapolis is a Trump supporting White Supremacist has escaped no one. In the words of former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, "Bob Kroll is a cancer on this police department, on this city.” Kroll, who grew up in St. Paul, is the president of the police union, a position he must be voted into by the members of the union, which says that the majority of the police officers wanted this guy representing them. That is a reality. Kroll is of my generation, he was fed the same white washed story that I was. The difference is he ingested it and it became part of him. And there are far too many “Krolls” in the MPD.

I'm certain there are good cops in the police force that didn't vote for Kroll and don't hold the same set of principles. Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo (Rondo as he is known by many) is a friend of mine, we've known each other since Jr. High. He is a good cop. One of the best people I know, with deep rooted integrity, compassion for all people, and optimism that is inspiring. He also happens to be a black man in charge of a deeply racist police force. He didn't get to decide who would lead the police union. It wasn't up to him.

The fact that Kroll is there is a symptom of the deep seated racism that has been there for a long, long time. Kroll continues to send his messages of hate to what is supposed to be OUR police force, not HIS, not the government's, OURS. We pay their salaries, they are supposed to work for US, to protect and serve US, plural, no qualifiers. We the people. But that's not how it works in reality, which is why we need to reinvent the system.

Our city council is now saying they will defund the MPD in favor of other community-based forms of peacekeeping. This has many people outside of the BIPOC community, white people to be exact, concerned. Many of them don’t see the same issues because they are treated completely differently, they don’t recognize a broken system because it works pretty good for them. They don’t understand that the very foundation of policing in this country is built on the premise of controlling black people, starting back in the 1800’s. It is, at its core, bias and unfair to BIPOC. The officers of the Third precinct, where Floyd was murdered, have now been exposed as a dangerously radical bunch that have been enforcing law under their own set of antiquated racist rules. I’m sure this is not a unique situation and every major city has at least one such collection of officers that see themselves as above the law.

In addition to the corrupt elements, our Police officers are asked to do multiple things they aren’t trained to do. It appears that the main instrument in the toolbox of the “peace officers” is a hammer. If you need a scalpel you sure as hell shouldn’t be grabbing a hammer. It seems that those officers who are skilled with multiple tools are vastly outnumbered. We need a variety of tools to address a variety of problems, to transition to a system that is more nuanced. Investing in community efforts that can address those things is a smart move in my opinion.

The police should not be called in for a fraudulent $20 bill, or someone acting “odd”. They aren’t mental health professionals. Do we need some kind of protection against violent crimes? Of course we do, because violent crimes aren’t going to just stop. I think it would be unwise to pull the plug on the department entirely, it would create a vacuum. But I don’t believe that is what will happen. It can and must be a well-orchestrated transition to something more effective for everyone.

Systems like what community leaders and organizers are proposing exist successfully in other places in the country; Austin Texas, Portland Oregon. I listen to people like local artist and activist, Ricardo Levins Morales, and journalist/author Ta-Nehisis Coates, and I’m so inspired. They give me hope. I highly recommend looking up their work if you aren’t familiar. They speak so beautifully to these issues and the shift that can happen from the system we currently have to one of fairness and equality. It isn't going to happen overnight. It's going to require a lot of hard work on behalf of community leaders, citizens, and political leaders, and people who love their city and want nothing more than what is best for every single resident.

The people of Minnesota are beginning to evolve, to regurgitate the story we were fed and fortify ourselves with truth. “Minnesota Nice” is a construct, based on a story we have been telling ourselves for decades to make us feel like our polite, quietly judgmental and covertly racist ways are acceptable. But there is a new truth coming to the surface as a result of what has happened here. People are coming out of the woodwork to help each other, from all over the state. Cleaning up after the looting and burning, bringing food to people who don’t have access to what they need, watching each other’s properties through the night to protect them from being burned to the ground by White Supremacist groups. That is the deep-down, true spirit of Minnesota. We should change the slogan from “Minnesota Nice”, which is pretentious as fuck, to “People who give a shit” because that is what I’m starting to see. We are finally learning to walk, so we can dance.

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