Minnesotans ridicule Confederate monuments and KKK rallies. I’ve heard “backward” used when Southern racism makes news. Yet, Crystal Lake Golf Club awoke to a swastika the other day. In February, a University of Minnesota student left a swastika in a residence hall. Prejudice lies beneath the surface here. Worse, we avoid “fuss.” We want things to remain nice, even when they aren’t. We shouldn’t.
A “Minnesota Stand-Off” is two people waiting on either side of an open door, each politely waiting for the other to make the first move. We overlook snubs or insults, call them misunderstandings. We prefer mollifying an upset person over challenging them, portraying complaints as indicative of no problem larger than passing anger. I’ve analyzed this culture as quite adaptive. In our current situation, however, “Minnesota Nice” becomes dangerous.
“Nice” overlooks “not-nice” things, in two ways. As community problems arise, we insist the community is a good one. When someone behaves harmfully, we insist they are a good person. We focus on things we feel good about, ignoring what we don’t feel good about. We believe our and others’ identities (who a person is, places we love) are good. They likely are. So we avoid focusing on bad things that happen. A perfect route through snips at family picnics. Catastrophe for social problems.
Two responses capture this perfectly. Of the U of M incident, the student’s old teacher said, “He does not have a hateful bone in his body.” Her commentary was titled “Matt Gruber isn’t a Nazi, he’s just a moron.” Note her focus: Who he is, not what he did. His identity? Forgivable idiot, not dangerous bigot. So, the ensuing conversation is about whether or not he’s an idiot. Not about swastikas.
At the golf course, someone told the press, “You know, this is a great place, and we don’t want to make a big fuss over it, really.” Their fear? “Fuss” threatens nice places. The swastikas? Not a threat, since “kids” likely made them. And the kids, well, they’re just idiots, not bigots, right?
Search your personal experience and find many such incidents. We ignore problems to avoid fuss. We focus on who a person is (which we believe is good), not on what they did or what happened (which we know is bad). A father neglects his children? Don’t call CPS. He’s a nice guy. We’ve known him and his family a long time. The business owner who rolls his eyes, silently joking with us when foreign customers enter? That’s just his way. Why make a fuss about it?
Because without fuss, we lose. What is lost? We surrender the hope of a truly “nice” Minnesota for a convenient lie.
Asking ourselves questions
Instead, dig deep. How do we really feel about what happened? Do we care enough to keep it from happening again? Get past “He’s a good guy, he just needs our patience”; and “All places have their little problems, but this is a good place.” Try “How do we deal with damage already caused?” and “Can we keep damage from happening?” The first two are statements, intended to end a discussion. The last two are questions, which keep difficult conversations going.
“Minnesota nice” remains adaptive when things are, well, nice. There are swastikas on our golf courses and in our schools. People assault Minnesotans because of their religion. Bombs go off in our houses of worship. Make things nice by talking about and resolving the not-nice things. Ask Do we care? In a time when Americans beat and shoot each other because they are different, How should Minnesota respond? Start with your family and friends, and finish at the Legislature.
Jose Leonardo Santos is an associate professor of social science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Metropolitan State University.
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