Note: This Lent, Mount Olivet is doing a community-wide book read of A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota. Info on discussion groups and a reading schedule can be found here. Each week this blog will feature a reflection on one of the stories we're reading. It is our hope that by reading this book and engaging in conversation, we can build empathy for those whose race is different than our own, increase our commitment to racial equity, learn about ourselves and the role race has played in our lives, and listen for God speaking through the stories that are shared with us. Please contact Pastor Joel for more info (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I was at a Bible study with a group of pastors last month and we were talking about the story where God calls a young Samuel, and where old Eli, Samuel’s boss, fails to recognize God’s voice. One pastor, near to retirement, said “I have always identified with Samuel in this story – possessing a call from God, and wanting to change the world because of it. But I am realizing that I am also like Eli right now – I’m getting older, and sometimes I get in the way.”
This man took a familiar story, a story that had helped guide his actions and anchor his identity, and saw it in a new – potentially uncomfortable – light. I was thinking about this pastor when I read David Lawrence Grant’s “People Like Us” in A Good Time for the Truth.
I grew up in Minnesota, and so I know the power that “Minnesota Nice” carries with it – especially for many white Minnesotans like me. Though it’s amorphous, Minnesota Nice is more or less a collection of stories we have told ourselves about ourselves: “We are polite. We help our neighbors. We welcome newcomers. We do the right thing.” Believing this story of Minnesota Nice gave me a positive self-image when I was young. In other places in America people still had trouble caring for others, or would judge others for being different, but not me! I was Minnesota Nice. Minnesota Nice told me “You are tolerant and accepting. You have things figured out.” And I listened – who wouldn’t latch on to the chance to believe this about themselves?
This is why “People Like Us” is so hard for many of us to read. David Lawrence Grant is doing more than sharing his personal story with us, he’s asking us to reconsider the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. More bluntly, he’s telling us that the stories Minnesota Nice tells us are failing the current moment, and that they do not fit the truth.
Something in Minnesota is not adding up, he says. If we who are white all are so well intentioned and welcoming, then why are racial disparities in Minnesota among the greatest in the nation? Why has David Lawrence Grant and others who look like him been profiled and brutalized by law enforcement? Why is it that breaking silence around systemic racism is seen as worse than living quietly through it?
To Grant, it’s because Minnesota Nice, for all its positive attributes, has had a chilling effect on conversations about race. “The culture of Minnesota Nice has meant that the face of discrimination has almost always been much more subtle here. But the kind of subtlety that underlies Minnesota Nice – extreme and highly nuanced – only makes racism harder to fight. A subtlety this deep is denial’s best friend – makes it too easy to slip into a state of constant denial and remain there.” (201)
What Grant is asking those of us who are white to do is to learn how to tell a new story about ourselves and the place we live in. This new story must start with an honest assessment that we do not know the answers, and that the road ahead will be difficult and filled with mistakes, however well-intentioned they are. The new story Grant is inviting us to live will be filled with less subtlety and more truth telling, but also a deep and compassionate listening to the stories of others in our midst who have not gotten a chance to speak and lead before.
Remarkably, Grant doesn’t abandon the concept of Minnesota Nice. He ends his essay with a moving reflection on how he and a white mechanic connected across their differences, and suggests that “Minnesota Nice can be really nice.” (212)
I think about that pastor at the Bible study. He didn’t throw out the entire Bible and despair of himself because he no longer felt like Samuel. He just changed the way he saw the story, and changed the way he saw himself as fitting into it. I wonder if we can do the same for Minnesota Nice as we learn to tell ourselves a new story about ourselves.
What if Minnesota Nice grew to mean that we were brave enough to admit our faults around race, because we were nice enough to be honest and forgiving of one another? What if it meant that we made it our commitment to strive for race equity, because the disparities here are not nice at all? What if it meant that we stopped keeping one another at arm’s length and got to know people deeply, especially people who are different from us? What if it meant that when someone shared their pain around race that we sat with the discomfort rather than offering some variation of “quit your belly aching,” as Grant suggests we often do? What if we let people of color and immigrants tell those of us who are white what Minnesota Nice would need to look like in order to actually feel nice to them?
I don’t have any hard and fast answers here at the beginning of writing a new story in Minnesota together. But I can tell you what words I’m travelling with as I’m learning to write it, words from David Lawrence Grant: “Bridging the gulf between us is hard. It takes courage and effort. And the effort often results in an encounter that can be both unrewarding and unpleasant. But what alternative do we have?...If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start by talking less and listening more…Collectively, we can learn to tell a story that includes all our stories – fashion a mosaic-like group portrait from those stories that we all can agree truly does resemble people like us.” (212)
May it be so. Amen.