The following article is created from (and inspired by) a collection of answers to questions originally posted to Quora.
Racism and Narcissism
People who perpetrate hate crimes do so based solely on their own interpretation of race. If the perpetrator hates community X and you are a member of community Y but, according to the perpetrator’s definition of X, you ‘look like x’ then you will experience the full brunt of hate crimes committed by the perpetrator against community X. In other words, when faced with race-based crime, ‘race’ is defined by the perpetrator’s perceptions.
Racism At A Wisconsin Roller Rink
I was in the 7th grade, so it was the 81-82 school year (if my math serves me). All of the girls in the 6th-8th grade classes were going on a field trip with the 6th-8th grade teachers, who were also all-female. It was an official girls-night out! The plan was to go roller skating and out to eat (pizza, if I remember correctly).
I was attending a small private school, so this was a rather small group. The racial makeup of the group was white women, white girls, 1 black girl and me.
We were standing in line at the roller rink, waiting to buy tickets to get into the building, rent our skates and hit the rink. The man selling the tickets leaned out the window. He was a white man with blond hair, angry eyes and one of those no-one-gets-anything-past-me smirks. His eyes fell on the black girl…and me.
His faced twisted in disgust when he looked at the black girl. He stared at me for a long time. He had very angry eyes. He turned to the nearest teacher, pointed to the black girl and said she couldn’t enter the roller rink. No blacks allowed.
Then he stared at me for a long time…again. The other girls physically stepped away. It was an instinctual action on their part. I had no choice but to face this man down, alone. Fear compounded by confusion was tangible. He made another face of disgust. Less twisted but no less ugly, and gave his permission. I could enter.
The teachers looked at each other, clearly stunned, confused and completely at a loss for what to do. One of the teachers volunteered to take the black girl home. The rest put not-real smiles on their faces and returned to ushering the remaining girls into the rink.
I spent the rest of the evening skating with the feeling of eyes glaring at my back. It was just a feeling. I don’t know if I was actually being watched. I also spent most of the evening skating alone. I wasn’t the only one feeling the fear and it directly and negatively affected the experience for everyone involved.
How This Illustrates White Privilege
- The undeniably white girls got in without question.
- I got in after uncomfortable scrutiny.
- The black girl went home.
What the teachers did in this situation was wrong, there is no denying that, but I hold no ill-will towards them. I do not condone the choice they made but my memory of these events is one of floundering not malice – they really and truly did not know what to do.
Having said that, I believe this is an opportunity to explore one of the reasons why racism and antisemitism are so difficult to address in the Midwest: Minnesota Nice.
Mid-westerners are highly non-demonstrative and indirect. People in general, and women in particular, do not make a spectacle of themselves. They do not (generally speaking) address problems in a forthright manner or say mean things to another person’s face. They put on a smile, drop hints, use Midwestern-talk to issue warnings or establish boundaries and talk behind closed doors (or gossip behind your back).
For example, among Midwesterner’s the word ‘different’ is an insult. If someone declares someone or something to be ‘different’ then (make no doubt about it) both an insult and a warning have been issued because you are standing right on the edge of the proverbial line. If a Midwesterner declares someone or something to be ‘weird’ then you have crossed the proverbial line and gone knee deep into the danger zone. For most of the rest of the United States ‘different’ and ‘weird’ barely register as insults, much less warnings.
This lends power to overt racism because people do not know how to handle someone being so…obvious. It also fosters a culture of racism that can be hard to see or define. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say dreadful things in private conversation and…when I called them on it…toss off my concern with comments like “we all know [nasty statement] is true but we’re not going to tell [race/community] that.”
As illustrated by the roller-skating story, some people express overt racism; but (generally speaking) this kind of behavior is discouraged because it is overt. Midwesterners don’t act like that in public. The knee-jerk cultural response to this kind of situation is to find a way to bring things back to acceptable non-demonstrative social behavior. Therefore, these teachers put on their smiles and did what it took to make it appear as though nothing was wrong.
Despite the name, Minnesota Nice is a cultural norm throughout the Midwest. The association with the state of Minnesota is primarily due to the popularity of the National Public Radio program Lake Wobegon Days.
For more information on Midwestern culture and racism see:
- MN Public TV explains Minnesota Nice in foreign travel educational video style (it’s supposed to be funny but the information is actually quite accurate): How To Talk Minnesotan
- Twin Cities Daily Planet: “Minnesota Nice” and Minnesota’s Racism by Andrea Plaid (11/05/2015)
- Star Tribune: Minnesota Nice? It’s like ice by Jerilyn Veldof and Corey Bonnema (07/11/2014)
What Are You – Really?
This is me in the late 1970s.
If you are looking at this photo and wondering how or why anyone would think I was anything but white – that’s good. Sit with that for a minute.
By Midwestern standards my physical appearance is considered borderline.
Another fact that the average Midwesterner will refuse to discuss: Those who don’t like People of Color (POC) almost invariably include Jewish people in the POC category. Anyone who is considered borderline (like myself) tends to be placed in the ‘Jewish’ category.
Many years ago I learned to never EVER bring up the hate crimes, racist activities or antisemitic actions I witnessed or direly experienced. Since my physical appearance is close enough to acceptable or “real white” (so I’m told) I am allowed to ‘pass’ as white most of the time. During those times when I was dealing with the aftermath of a negative experience I was always told that people are going to do these things to me (teachers and other adults: “Of course they did that!”) but it didn’t count because I’m not really Jewish or a Person of Color (POC).
I guess that makes me target practice. (Lucky me.)
Clearly placing some people into an in-between racial racial category, creates fertile ground for enforcing the particular type of racism that exists in the Midwest. This is done (very effectively) through surprising and terrorizing people who make the mistake of trying to befriend someone whose appearance is borderline. For example:
I was sitting at an outdoor picnic table, taking a lunch break at work, when a coworker sat down beside me and pulled out an envelope of family photos. She started showing them, one-by-one, and commenting on how similar I looked to her relatives. Honestly, she was right, I did look like many of her family members.
A secretary interrupted our pleasant conversation with some nasty commentary about my family lineage, implying both mixed racial heritage and Jewish culture. It was unusually overt for Iowa (where I lived at the time) but it was effective.
The woman with the photos got very nervous and started trying to discretely slip everything back into her purse. After getting everything packed, she made a stuttering denial of my physical similarity to her relatives and left the area as quickly as she could. No, my family isn’t that. No need to look here. she never spoke to me again.
Technically, I could have (and probably should have) reported this experience to my employer’s human resources department, but I was still operating under the belief that I was not allowed to address these things because I’m not ‘really’ a Person of Color (POC) or Jewish. Therefore, I did not have a right to report a problem because the problem couldn’t possibly exist.
Another fact about the Midwest: Violent hate crimes occur with far more regularity than anyone realizes and those crimes are perpetrated against anyone who is considered POC, including those who are perceived as being Jewish. These crimes frequently go unreported, or unrecognized (by the police and other authority figures), so they remain off the official books.
No REALLY…What ARE You?
For those who simply must know my ‘real’ racial identity, feel free to review the genealogy postings on this blog () and make your own damned decision.
If you decide you hate ‘what I am’ then get in line.