Marlene’s Interest in Race

My interest in race began when we moved to Deal Park. I was thirteen and in my final year of grammar school. Before that, we lived in Belmar, a tiny town, approximately one square mile. The small Black population largely lived within a one block area along the western border of town. My grandparents lived on the block where the Black neighborhood began. The grammar school that I attended was integrated, primarily because we had only one class per grade. I went to school with Black children and because I walked to my grandparents’ house for lunch when school was in session, I walked to and from school with Black classmates. Although none of my Black classmates visited my home (my white Christian school friends didn’t either), I spent time playing with them at recess. So it was odd for me when we moved to Deal Park, a fully segregated community. Not only were there no Black families living in Deal Park, but unknown to me, many adults in town worked together to ensure that Blacks could not buy property there. In my last year of grammar school, 8th grade, I had no Black classmates. The absence of race made me begin to think about race.

Ashbury Park High School

Although Deal Park was part of a new regional school district, the high school was still under construction, and students continued to attend Asbury Park High School (APHS), which was integrated. APHS had a substantial number of Black students but only one Black boy was in my classes. At that time, students were tracked by professional interests (college, business, vocational/technical) and academic ability, which was apparently assessed by a standardized test and prior grades. Few Black students were in the college track, and only one was in the advanced academic track that I was in. Even though I was beginning to develop a consciousness about race, I never questioned why my Black classmates weren’t in academic classes with me (we did attend homeroom and gym classes together).

Althea Gibson

Our house in Deal Park was directly across the street from the Deal Golf and Country Club, which didn’t allow Jews or Blacks. As a Jewish family, we talked about this a lot. When Althea Gibson, the Black tennis champion, retired from tennis, she joined the professional women’s golf tour. One of my most powerful memories from our years in Deal Park was watching a helicopter land on the driving range across the street to drop off Gibson who was playing in a tournament. This was not because she was a celebrity but, rather, because of racism: Althea Gibson wasn’t allowed to use the clubhouse or any facilities because she was Black.

Malcom X

When I was fifteen, I went to New York with friends and snuck into the Les Crane Show (I was underage), a television talk show. Malcolm X was the guest that night in one of his last appearances before he was assassinated. I was captivated by this tall, soft-spoken Black man. His ideas seemed reasoned and reasonable. He didn’t espouse violence by Blacks; rather, he said Blacks had the right to defend themselves in situations where the police and other law enforcement did not protect them. The man I listened to that night was in every way unlike the man I read about in the news.

Bobby Seale

In college I took a course in “The Rhetoric of the Black Power Movement.” I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bobby Seale’s Soul on Ice. A friend gave me Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land. These books gave me a glimpse into the lives of Black Americans and made me aware of the racial discrimination they faced. I was so moved by Seale’s rhetoric that I wrote my master’s thesis on the trial of the Chicago Eight, who were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Seale was tried separately from his seven white co-defendants, and I focused my thesis primarily on a comparison of the language of Seale and the presiding judge, Julius Hoffman, concluding that they—as Black and white men– had different experiences and world views. Yet, despite all of my reading and writing about race, I still hadn’t made a connection to my own life and how my privilege both shielded me and made me complicit in perpetuating racial inequities.

I continued to write and teach about race as my career progressed but didn’t fully see my role in maintaining white supremacy until Fern and I adopted our sons, one in 1989 and the other in 1991. The experience of becoming an interracial family and parenting Black sons taught us about white privilege and about the myriad ways that Blacks confront racism in education, criminal justice, health care, and simply living day-to-day. Yes, I was still a white person shielded by white privilege. But I began to see how racial identity was shaping our young sons’ lives. When the boys were young, they were often protected by our white privilege, but as they ventured out on their own, without our protection, we began to see the stark outline of racism in their lives.

Fern’s Interest in Race

I grew up in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota—just three blocks from the northern city limits of Minneapolis. The population was white—all white. Diversity meant Protestants and Catholics.

George Floyd Memorial, Minnesota Monthly

Fast forward to May 25, 2020 and the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer on a Minneapolis street. How could this happen in the city I love? I felt shock but not surprise. Shock because of the brutality and brazenness of Officer Derek Chauvin’s actions while he was being videoed. Not surprised because Minneapolis made headlines in November 2015  when police killed Jamar Clark (African American). What came next occurred in a suburb of St.Paul in July 2016 when police oficers shot and killed Philando Castile. That put two Black men from the Twin Cities on the growing list of those who died in confrontations with police.

Downtown Minneapolis

My description of Minneapolis to those who haven’t been there always includes the words “welcoming,” “beautiful,” and “progressive.” That’s all true. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer, magnificent architecture, sparkling lakes, rich with arts, and home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. Yet Mr. Floyd’s killing was no surprise. This has happened in so many other places, why not Minneapolis?

“Minnesota nice” is a term used to describe how people treat one another in this upper-midwestern state. Many people heard that term when Minneapolis hosted the 2018 Super Bowl. But systemic racism and racial injustice run through the state’s history, just as elsewhere. It just took me a long time to learn about it.

My personal experiences growing up white tell a story repeated in so many places. My first memory about race is from elementary school days. A “Negro” family with two kids purchased a house on the modest block where my family lived. I heard my parents talking about a meeting of the neighborhood men—all white of course. Soon after, the Black family was gone. When I asked why they moved, I was told “they” would be happier living someplace else. End of story. I knew there weren’t any other Black kids in my school but must have thought that was “normal.” Much later I learned about “housing covenants” and “redlining.”

Lincoln Junior High School, Eric Mortenson, Minnesota Historical Society

Brooklyn Center had only an elementary school so we were bussed into the city for grades 7-9. I went to Lincoln Junior High, which drew from a combination of white students, including a sizeable number who were Jewish, and Black students—many of whom lived in public housing. Students were tracked by academic potential. In my years at Lincoln, not one Black student was in any of my classes. I must have accepted that as “normal.”

Brooklyn Center opened its new high school in time for my class to enter as sophomores. No Black students. In fact, no memory of any students who were not white.

Minneapolis Riots

I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when America’s “long hot summer of racial unrest” hit in 1967. Fed up with discrimination, inadequate jobs, housing, and city services, Blacks who lived in the northside neighborhood near Lincoln rose up and violence erupted. Minneapolis exploded along with many other cities. My reflections on race in the city started to emerge as I learned more about why there was so much unrest. Although the university was overwhelmingly white, I briefly dated one Black man from Alabama who had been recruited on scholarship and another from Venezuela. Now I recognize that I didn’t learn much about their lives “back home”(I guess I didn’t think to ask); the only detail I remember is that the man from Alabama told me his little sister wanted him to buy her a piano when he graduated from college.

Next came Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois where I went for my master’s degree. I recall zero students of color in my classes who were from the U.S., although there were some from African countries. Yet I was engaged by the unrest of the times: the continuing battle for civil rights, critiques of capitalism, and the growing women’s liberation movement. I wrote my thesis on the rhetoric of an underground newspaper in Chicago.

When I returned to Minneapolis for my Ph.D. work, I lived in a building next to a police station not far from where Mr. Floyd was killed. It was a low rent district, with a mix of white and Black residents. Sirens roared constantly, but I knew little to nothing about the people who lived in the neighborhood. My apartment was robbed twice, but the “nice officers” came quickly, told me the robber was likely after drugs or cash (code for “Black”), and helped me file a report.

I have since learned about the racial unrest and policing in my beloved “home city.” I am profoundly sad and ragingly angry for both what happened and my ignorance in not knowing what was going on for such a very long time. Whatever merits got me into the highest track at Lincoln Junior High, my racial IQ was low.

Education brought me to my senses. Interested in language diversity, I learned that what so many people dismissed as uneducated and sloppy English when spoken by many Black people was, in fact, linguistically systematic and carried the language genes of generations.

Over the years I learned about race and ethnicity through reading, teaching, and interacting with Black and brown people and those of Asian ancestries. My commitments to racial justice were firm, and I felt that I had a voice that spoke up for the importance of diversity in my profession broadly and in the classroom.

Then came Marlene’s and my experience adopting and raising African American sons. I was repeatedly both shocked and surprised to see racism and racial thinking in action in ways that I had not seen or heard before. Some of it was blatant, and some of it was coded. I was also shocked and surprised by what I personally didn’t know or missed. Everything we hear today about structural and systemic racism, about microaggressions, about racial stereotypes: it permeates our country, and it’s time to talk about it honestly and with complexity.