“So can we talk about race?” asked Vivian Jenkins-Nelsen to a nearly all-white League of Women Voters gathering at a south Minneapolis restaurant. Jenkins-Nelsen said structural racism is alive in Minnesota because people don’t talk about it enough.
When she grew up in Selma, Alabama in the ’50s, she experienced overt racism and Jim Crow laws. Her father, a minister, helped fight for voting rights. “Our holy grail,”Jenkins-Nelsen called it. “Dad publicly challenged the voter registration process.” Literacy tests — which were common across the South — were conducted in Latin and some in Chinese. Her father had to take a literacy test in Latin. He translated the phrase, “E Pluribus Unum,” after which the white clerk said, “Is that what it means?” “His civics and preaching classes helped him to recite the amendments to the Constitution until the same clerk got tired and told him to stop.”
In 2016 Minnesota there aren’t Jim Crow laws and literacy tests, but there is white privilege and “Minnesota Nice.”
“Whites automatically benefit from from the structural element of racism without choosing to,” said Jenkins-Nelsen, who is co-founder of the INTER-RACE Institute, a diversity think tank located at Augsburg College. “So don’t get hung up in that part of it. OK? But you have a responsibility to change the culture in which you operate.”
What is white privilege?
Video above: Vivian Jenkins-Nelsen talks about Minnesota Nice, Structural Racism and White Privilege
Video at bottom: Entire League of Women Voters Civic Buzz event
“White privilege means you can be ‘articulate’, and I hate that word, and well-spoken without people being surprised.”
“It means you can speak on any particular subject without being the sole representative for your entire race. They did not elect me.”
“It means not being followed, and yes I have been, and watched by sales staff in stores.”
She described running a small, no traffic, stop sign in Plymouth, MN. She was pulled over by the police; as she watched in her rear-view mirror, she saw the officer unsnap his weapon. Her husband had been a military police officer and he told her whenever people have guns available to them, they will use them.
White privilege “means blind acceptance of the privileges of being white and of the benefits that come through the structural racism built into our social economic political systems,” said Jenkins-Nelsen.
“Whites need to believe that their experience of the world is different from the experience of black Americans and that change is possible. I say that again. Change is possible.”
How to make change
“A primary way change can begin for people is to talk explicitly and carefully across lines of difference.” She then quoted Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, where he said the “white moderate who is devoted more to order than to justice” might be a bigger stumbling block to black Americans than the Ku Klux Klan.
“Let me say this, and I think I can speak for black people. Black people are tired of empty talk. Can I say that again? Black people are tired of empty talk.”
“The elephant in the room is the apology for enslaving us — there isn’t one. There. I’ve made it personal. From our point of view, everyone has gotten apologies but us.”
“Reparations? Yes, I believe we are owed some things. How about a public education that works for our children? How about free college? I’ll settle for that.”
Minnesota Nice Can Be Minnesota Nasty
“But we’ve got to talk about ‘Minnesota Nice’. Is it real? Is it a stereotype? It is very real in race relations — and has become our own version of political correctness.”
“We don’t want to embarrass somebody by speaking up even when they’re doing something reprehensible. Not embarrassing them can become more important than doing right or doing justice.”
So how does Minnsota Nice affect race relations in Minnesota? “We don’t talk about race when we should. We let Minnesota Nice become Minnesota Nasty. When the jokes are told and people are being scapegoated. We accuse others of being obsessed with race when it makes us uncomfortable. We get into a defensive mode instead of listening from the other person’s point of view.”
“So what do we do about Minnesota Nice? We need to remain civil. That’s what the civil rights movement was about — being positively civil. And if that means PC to you, fine.”
“So let’s accept that we have racial biases. OK? We do, I do, you do. OK? Let’s accept that we’re going to make mistakes. I make them, big ones.”
To rid American of institutional racism, Jenkins-Nelsen said you have to understand how we got here.
She quoted Jim Wallis, who wrote America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, who said the most controversial sentence he ever wrote was, “The United States of America was established as a white society founded on the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”
“This country began with the slaughter of indigenous people and the theft and forced removal from their land and the importing of Africans into slavery,” said Jenkins-Nelsen. “This beginning has had lasting effects on the systems and structures of American life.”
Or, as social justice activist Bryan Stevenson once put it, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.”
So the discussion of race has been going on for some time, but only recently has it become a national conversation with some urgency. Jenkins-Nelsen says that’s because technology has put it squarely in front of us. “We are now witnesses and we can’t look away. We cannot unsee the passing of Philando Castile — his blank stare as he bleeds to death. We can’t unhear the small voice of a four-year-old comforting her mother from the back seat.”
Jenkins-Nelsen put the onus on organizations such as the League of Women Voters Minnesota, the group for which she was once co-president. “We have been talking to ourselves as policy wonks. Now we have to start real dialog with each other.”
“We have to have some difficult conversations about what it means to partner with organizations of color. We cannot do this work alone.”
“Are we going to do this or not?” she asked the nearly all-white crowd. They responded with loud applause.