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).
Taiyon Coleman, toward the end of her essay “Disparate Impacts,” uses the term ‘microabrasions’ to describe the racism she’s experienced in Minnesota as a Black woman. She hasn’t experienced shocking hate crimes or the public presence of overtly racist symbols. Instead, there’s been a steady stream of pokes, jabs, and assumptions that have left her feeling out of place. A slow build of paper cuts that over time have drained her of a significant amount of blood. At that moment, when she said ‘microabrasions,’ something clicked for me.
You see, I have been trained to view racism as something external, ugly, and easily identifiable: A confederate flag. A burning cross. Angry white men carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville. Viewed this way, racism is relatively easy for a white person like me to avoid. I simply have to treat others kindly, refuse to believe in the superiority of my own race, and accept the presence of people of other races and ethnicities in our society as a positive good.
Coleman is saying racism is more than that. Yes, the highly visible, easily identifiable racism of racist slurs and hate groups is racism for sure. And that kind of racism is alive and well in many places in Minnesota. But Coleman is saying that the racism runs much deeper than that. Racism is a shape-shifter, able to hide itself in any culture. It’s cunning and stealthy, able to occupy someone’s mind without them realizing it. In the American South, racism might look like a confederate flag. But in Minnesota, Coleman is saying that racism looks more like climate change.
Let me explain. I heard on NPR the other day that the North Pole is clocking temperatures of over 50 degrees this winter. FIFTY DEGREES in the MIDDLE OF WINTER at the NORTH POLE! Something isn’t right, here. The reporter called a scientist and asked her whether or not these temperatures could be attributed to climate change. The scientist said something like this – “We can’t actually say that this one incident of unusually high temperatures at the North Pole is a direct result of climate change. But what we can say is that incidents like these are growing more frequent, and when you take them together, it is climate change. One fluctuation in temperature like this could be explained by other variables, but the overall pattern points to climate change as the culprit.”
I think Coleman is saying something similar about racism in Minnesota.
Take, for instance, her account of her confrontation with her white creative writing professor at the U of M. If you’re white like me, perhaps you had this thought – “What if her professor was just having a bad day? Or what if her professor didn’t mean anything about her race by their comments? Is it possible that Coleman is just misinterpreting this faculty member?”
Perhaps. Just like the balmy weather at the North Pole, incidents like these in Minnesota, where race lurks just beneath the surface, might be able to be chalked up to other factors. But it’s not just this one confrontation with her professor that Coleman has had to live through – it’s the unsolicited advice about her parenting, the lack of professors who emerged to mentor her, the students who looked away from her after she stood her ground, the dismissal of her writings on race as trite and having already been done before, all while the university used her photo for promotional materials. Eventually an undeniable pattern starts emerging. You could explain each individual incident away as not relating to race if you really wanted to, but taken together, they’re all about race. How many painful incidents like this does Coleman have to go through before we who are white start believing what she already knows – that racism is at work, even among the well-intentioned white people who are trying so hard to not be racist?
And this Minnesotan flavor of racism, which hides behind the promises of “smiling faces” and “open classroom doors,” and which exerts itself despite the noble conscious intentions of white people who would bristle at the suggestion that they were being racist, makes it even more aggravating and exhausting for Coleman to exist freely here. Not only does she have to be reminded that Minnesota is “resistant to me calling it home,” she is unaware of when and from whom she might receive such a reminder (41). And when she is made to feel unwelcome as the Black woman she is, she has a tough time pointing it out because many of the white Minnesotans she talks to refuse to believe that racism might look like anything other than a confederate flag, racist slur, or hate group. This seems exhausting to me, like she’s simultaneously running headfirst into invisible walls, coping with the pain that she feels from running into them, and trying to convince a skeptical group of people around her that the walls do in fact exist.
In the end, Coleman longs to live in a place where she can at least see the “clear lines of demarcation and warning,” like the South (41). If she must live in an America with racism, she’d prefer to at least be able to anticipate when it’s coming, and for all parties to agree on whether or not something is racist.
This is unsatisfying to me. I don’t want her to have to choose which kind of racist world she wants to live in, I want her to live in a world free of racism. And that means I have to help take down those invisible walls she keeps running into. But how can I help take them down if I don’t know where they are?
Even though my initial instinct is to act, perhaps in this case it’s better for me to first listen deeply to the stories of others whose experience of the world is different from my own. Part of what I’m learning from this book study is how much I don’t know, how much racism is invisible to me because I’m white and it’s not directed at me. I’m not yet in a position to be able to have answers for how to undo centuries of American racism. But I feel like listening to others whose race is different from my own and believing them when they dare to share the hard parts is a good first step. They are the ones who can show me what I can’t see, and then together we can start taking apart the invisible walls that have been causing them pain and keeping us apart.