A few weeks ago, the Minnesota transplant proposed an idea in a meeting. Greeted with head nods and smiles, the transplant mistakenly thought that he had consensus, only to find out later that people thought that his idea was “interesting.” That’s Minnesotan for “not good.”
They talked about it. Just not with the transplant. Confused and a little hurt, the transplant asked for clarification only to feel as if now he had really crossed a line. While the transplant was seeking to understand what had happened, the Minnesotans took this as a sign that the transplant was angry and probably seething with rage. The transplant had to be avoided at all costs, until the Minnesotans could be certain that he had calmed down. A few days later, the Minnesotans would slowly and cautiously test the waters by reinitiating contact. Typically, this is done by discussing neutral topics like the weather. If the interaction is successful, all would be well again in the Minnesota workplace — that is, until a crucial conversation must be avoided once again.
The transplant in this case is me. I have lived in Minnesota for six years. I have a running joke with my Minnesotan coworkers that it takes me weeks to figure out when they do not agree with me. On an intellectual level, I know that the Minnesota Nice passive aggressive style of non-communication is cultural and not personal. On an emotional level, however, it feels deeply personal.
How does one begin to understand the mysterious language that is Minnesota Nice? There are no respectable courses offered on how to read minds. I often commiserate about this with other transplants, including people who are white and from minority backgrounds. Most of us agree that Minnesota Nice feels like a microaggression. For many people of color, however, Minnesota Nice is injurious on a separate level. It is reminiscent of the racism we have experienced in our lives. The racism of being snubbed, the racism of being ignored when we have sought information and the racism of being penalized for being opinionated and assertive. When the offending behavior comes from the dominant group and in effect otherizes minorities, it comes across as racist.
As with many people of color, my lived experience has taught me how to identify racism. I recognize a behavior as racist when I sense that I am being disrespected — either explicitly or implicitly — for no obvious reason other than my ethnic background. It brings up feelings of indignation and humiliation. The same feelings of indignation and humiliation come up when I encounter Minnesota Nice. The emotional part of my brain refuses to differentiate because doing so would be antithetical to my survival in these times.
It is no secret that Minnesota struggles to retain workers from minority backgrounds. While employers have had some success in creating visual diversity, they have been less successful creating inclusion and retaining people from diverse backgrounds. Creating inclusion would require engaging with, rather than avoiding, those who are different from us. Well, that’s different! Only Minnesotans would know if they are ready for that and if they told us what they knew and felt, we would not be having this conversation.
Adnan Ahmed, MBBS is a community psychiatrist in Minneapolis.
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