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For people of color, Minnesota Nice is reminiscent of racism we’ve experienced

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.

photo of article author
Adnan Ahmed
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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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/04/2019 - 09:25 am.

    Thanks for the observations and for acknowledging your experience as “reminiscent” of racism as opposed to the conduct itself being racist. Nuance is increasingly important and increasingly ignored.

    A frank conversation can be hard to find in Minnesota, whether in or out of the workplace.

    • Submitted by Rachel Boersma PhD RN on 12/04/2019 - 11:32 pm.

      Thanks Dr. Ahmed for your insightful post.

      A dear and brilliant friend educated me about this phenomenon when I considered moving Minneapolis.

      I am not a person of color but I experienced a phenomenon in Grand Rapids MI that was similar.

      My first encounter there (and of course not expressed to me directly) was that I could “pass as Dutch in Grand Rapids and that they would pray for me because I am Roman Catholic.”

      I was irritated and confused and decided moving ti MI was out for me.

      Wanting to be open mined I would like to hear from other non-lifelong, natives of other mid west areas.

      However as a mental health provider I am quite familiar with group think and group polarization so MN & MI are out for me and I plan on staying in New England.

      Thanks again

  2. Submitted by Wilj Flisch on 12/04/2019 - 11:15 am.

    As a non-white Minnesota native, I’ll be the first to assuage your concerns. Don’t worry, when people are being racist toward you or your friends it will be obvious – and you will know (and I’ve never experienced this where I live now in Minneapolis).

    For what it’s worth, I’ll also throw my observation out there that people really aren’t any more impressive in the rest of the country either. I think that ‘fitting in’ is perhaps the most complicated endeavor humans undertake – many appear to be largely unsuccessful, I might add. Race complicates this, but I don’t think it’s a primary factor of the overall difficulty.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/05/2019 - 09:44 am.

      Old and Caucasian, this is my third metro area of residence, and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few instances of “reverse racism” (emotionally difficult, but intellectually very interesting, and providing some real insight into the minority experience), but I think your 2nd paragraph is the strongest. It’s hard to fit in anywhere as a newbie, regardless of ethnicity, religion, occupation, etc. I had the easiest time on the Colorado Front Range, but I’m inclined to think that at least part of the reason for that is because so many Coloradans were new arrivals in the past generation – it sometimes seemed that everyone I met was from somewhere else originally. Colorado still has a rather small minority population, which might influence those initial encounters as well.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/04/2019 - 01:14 pm.

    As a longtime Minnesotan, I recognize the passive-aggressive meeting behavior. But usually it was when someone came up with some off-the-wall idea that everyone knew was stupid, but everyone was too polite to say.

    It very well may be racism in your case, but its hard to know without actually knowing the subject.

  4. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 12/04/2019 - 01:48 pm.

    I would love to hear the perceptions of others in the group. I would never presume your perceptions are automatically the “correct” one.

    For example, you said “the racism of being penalized for being opinionated and assertive.” Depending on how you expressed yourself, it may have absolutely nothing to do with race, but the manner in which you expressed yourself. A lot of people are turned off by the President’s opinions and assertiveness. And that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with being arrogant and rude.

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/05/2019 - 12:39 pm.

      Mr. Cage … well said and I agree with your comment. It often seems, that any behavior exhibited by a minority or person who is different than the majority (regardless of race, religion, etc.), is supposed to be accepted and liked …. and if it is not, it is racist. Your example, of questioning not liking someone who is ‘opinionated and assertive’ as being racist, is right on. I imagine, at some times, someone has not liked me because of being ‘opinionated and assertive’ – I certainly can’t say that is because of racism. It is the behavior that isn’t liked and, if exhibited too often, the person is not liked. If we can be honest, there are differences in cultures (both good and bad) and behavioral differences (both good and bad) in cultures-Mr. Ahmed identified that himself in his article about the generalization of ‘Minnesota Nice.’ And …. we may not accept or like certain behavior occurring repeatedly from an individual or group. Again, Mr. Ahmed wrote about that himself in his article. Isn’t his attitude, about ‘Minnesota Nice’ a generalization and therefore ‘racist?’

      Maybe the question should be discussed “Are cultures and groups of people truly different? And, if so, what are the correct, generalized differences, not that ALL members of that group show those differences. And, are those identified, correct differences desirable, acceptable or unacceptable?” In all honesty, I do not like a person or a group of people who are strongly opinionated and overly assertive … that has nothing to do with race….. I just do not like that group’s behavior. I do not like a person or group of people who commit a large percentage of crime. That has nothing to do with race…..I don’t know that it is wrong to not like or accept that behavior from a person or group.

      • Submitted by Deon Love on 12/05/2019 - 07:03 pm.

        Toni Bergner I think maybe you miss the author’s point. The racism he describes, being penalized for being opinionated and assertive, is not about expecting the minority opinion to be accepted as right. In the (not so distant) past, Black Men were lynched for being opinionated and assertive in interactions with the majority, even that assertiveness was simply asking to be respected. Today that racism is more subtle. It can take the form of being labeled difficult to work with, and being excluded from additional opportunities. Either way it can negatively affect them professionally. In many situations the White Men who are opinionated and assertive are labeled as Alpha Males, and are rewarded.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/05/2019 - 04:55 pm.

      Agree completely.

      As I have gotten older and maybe wiser, when everyone in the room disagrees with me, I now first ask myself whether its me that is wrong as opposed to everyone else. Maybe everyone with whom this guy works is indeed racist – that certainly can happen – but there are other, more likely explanations.

  5. Submitted by lisa miller on 12/04/2019 - 01:58 pm.

    I am sorry you experienced this. I have lived here all my life and yes the issue of sidestepping opinions is frustrating. For some, it may be a cultural thing of not wanting to hurt anyone or being taught to be assertive. Even for those in the majority, they may too at times be penalized for having an opinion, even when expressed respectfully. It’s hard to know where someone is coming from if they won’t talk about it. And in the workplace there is a fear of being labeled the difficult child for having an opinion. It’s a topic workplaces should address–multiple perspectives strengthen a workplace.

  6. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/04/2019 - 05:20 pm.

    Dr. Ahmed, thanks for a good read. When I first moved to Minnesota I would hear the oft spoken phrase, “well that’s different.” Little did I realize I was being talked down to (as an outsider) in a politically correct Minnesota Nice manner.

    Your last paragraph speaks volumes to it.

    If you’re waiting for things to change I hope you have a lot of time. I wish you well.

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/04/2019 - 06:33 pm.

      Add, if you perceive it as thinly veiled racism, maybe so. But I (a caucasian male) see it as treatment aimed at outsiders regardless of ethnicity.

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/06/2019 - 03:32 pm.

      Help me understand please ….. so ….. if a minority person makes a comment or expresses an idea and another non-minority person says “Well that’s different’ … it is racist? As an evidence based society … what is the data that supports it as racist (I am sorry I am being ridiculous). Isn’t the perception of racism ….. just that ….. a perception …. and that varies from person to person to person, etc. If a minority person expresses the same opinion/idea and a minority reacts with the comment “Well that’s different …. that is OK …. or not? If a non-minority person expresses the same opinion/idea and receives the same response from a minority person …. what is that? If a non-minority person expresses the same opinion/idea and receives the same response from a non-minority person …. what is that? Now add the variable that the people are women. Now add the variable that people have different religious beliefs. Now add the variable …….. It all gets so confusing. When can we have and express the idea ‘Well that’s different?’

      • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/08/2019 - 01:22 pm.

        It is generally accepted by native Minnesotans to be a passive aggressive reply and an “inside” joke. It is a thinly veiled insult to a person considered an outsider by those who buy into the “native Minnesotan” concept wholeheartedly

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/04/2019 - 09:03 pm.

    I worked for the facilities department of a large public employer until recently. At the headquarters building, in the course of my work, I noticed that many of the fluorescent light fixtures had the bulbs removed. This is not surprising, as I’ve learned that plenty of people hate fluorescent lighting. But my job was to make sure that everything was ship shape, so I needed to know if any particular fixture with the bulbs removed was supposed to be that way.

    Typically, I’d approach an employee at their desk or cubicle in as friendly a manner as I could. “Hey, how y’ doin’?” “Did you have a good weekend?” etc.

    Then, I’d mention the fixture without the bulbs, & ask if that was the way they wanted it to be. I would emphasis that if that’s what they wanted it, that was the way it would be. My job was to give them the best work environment that I could; it was totally up to them.

    After I had been at this for a couple weeks, one woman gave me some insight. She said that some of her colleagues had told her that they just told me what they thought I wanted to hear, and when my work in that building was done & I was gone, they were going to ask the custodian to change it back the way it had been.

    I couldn’t believe it. I could not have been more accommodating or communicated more clearly. The woman who clued me in said “It’s a Minnesota thing”. Mind you, I’m a white native Minnesotan.

    But the joke was on them. I mentioned this to the custodian, and she said, “Ha! If they aren’t going to tell you while you’re here I’m not going to change anything when you’re gone!”

    • Submitted by richard owens on 12/05/2019 - 03:41 pm.

      Not to detract from your experience, but as an aside to fluorescent bulbs:

      Temple Grandin, a famous professor of veterinary medicine in Colorado and a writer of several books on autism (she is on the spectrum herself) has explained why many autistic students get severely agitated in classrooms with fluorescent lighting. Conventional core-coil magnetic ballasts result in flicker at twice the frequency of the electrical supply (60 Hz in North America, resulting in flicker at 120 Hz). It is sensitivity to that “flicker” that makes some people agitated and want to escape the pulsing light.

      In extreme cases, light pulses that are undetected by most people can cause seizures in others.

      Off topic, I know.

  8. Submitted by Sonia Gracescott on 12/05/2019 - 11:28 am.

    Dr. Ahmed, I too appreciate the frankness of your commentary. I am Native, and prejudice has also become a part of my lenses of perspective.
    Though I am not a transplant, I had the opportunity to live away from the region for a few years and learn that the communication style here is isolating not only for people coming from different areas, but also for those that have always been from here. The words alone are not always harsh, but the tone and insinuations are cutting. I have learned to be very direct and am now comfortable with the silence that comes with standing firm in honest assertiveness which often renders people assuming that I must be from somewhere else.
    I stand with you. Keep hope that with directness, people will learn accountability and pass the message on to their cohorts.

  9. Submitted by Denis Novak on 12/06/2019 - 08:28 am.

    Sorry, this does not make sense to me. You’ve arrived at some new place and, instead of learning the cultural code of this place, you accuse locals to be racists because they do not want to use the code you are comfortable with.
    If I will take your approach, I should call a racist each American who does not speak with me in my native Russian.
    I always believed that the greatest strength of America is it’s melting pot. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, as they’ve said in another multi-cultural empire.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/06/2019 - 11:49 am.

      I don’t think the author is accusing Minnesotans of being racist. I think he is referring to the perception, justified or not, that people of this state tend to be less than welcoming towards newcomers.

      I’m a native, but I’ve heard from other transplants that it is difficult to make an entree into Minnesota social circles. I don’t know how many ex-Southerners have told me that people make fun of their accents, or dismiss them as stupid because of it.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/06/2019 - 08:53 am.

    It’s kind of weird paradox. On one hand direct insults have gained considerable social approval, while in another hand direct communication is still alarming and uncomfortable.

    You’re not alone in these encounters Dr. Ahmed. While I won’t deny the racial aspects of these social reactions and expectations, I would suggest that our societies obsession with “comfort” zones is underlying foundation of these reactions.

  11. Submitted by ian wade on 12/06/2019 - 12:26 pm.

    “Minnesota Nice” has always been a misnomer. The first clue is to realize that it’s a designation placed on Minnesota by it’s own residents. That’s about as valid someone giving themselves a nickname.
    As someone who moved here 37 years ago, I’d say Minnesota Passive-Aggressive is much more accurate. I still love it here though!

  12. Submitted by Toni Bergner on 12/06/2019 - 03:48 pm.

    I have difficulty understanding racism. So … a minority man (Dr. Ahmed) …. can express that he has observed and experienced and does not like Minnesota Nice behavior because it is often racist. The name Minnesota Nice seems to imply that all of us Minnesotans are Minnesota Nice. So … Dr. Ahmed groups all Minnesotans as Minnesota Nice and all are therefore racist. Isn’t that racism? I don’t intend to be a smart alec (is that truly a word?), but it seems that minorities have such a strong voice and influence in our culture simply because they are the minority race. Is it true that ‘the squeaky wheel truly does get the grease?’ It seems that we are moving toward a society and culture with a greater and greater priority of all wanting to be the ‘squeaking wheel’ in order to have influence within our society. And we, Minnesota Nicers, are not squeaking wheels. And … I am rather proud that we are Minnesota Nice …. not perfect and we make mistakes, but …. it is pretty good (see, I am Minnesota Nice as it is only pretty good) that we are nice.

    • Submitted by Katherine White on 12/06/2019 - 08:59 pm.

      I’m going to beg you really hard to read this over and over again until you can understand it. He is not saying that MN nice is racist…but that it invokes the same isolation that racist incidences bring up.

      “the emotional part of my brain refuses to differentiate because doing so would be antithetical to my survival in these times.”

      It’s isolating (for anyone) when you present an idea, and people pretend to be considering your viewpoint thoughtfully, or appreciatively, then wait until afterwards to push back against it when you’re gone. And if you’re the only person of color in the room, can you imagine while that would FEEL like a racist incident? Can you imagine how hard it would be to process through that when you weren’t raised to feign approval.

      “the emotional part of my brain refuses to differentiate because doing so would be antithetical to my survival in these times.”

      He’s saying that emotionally the IMPACT is the same. not the intent, but the impact.

      His emotional senses have to be stirred each time, because that is the way that for someone who is at risk from actually intentional racism needs to be alert for someone who actually wishes them harm. Now, he can leave the meeting, and rationalize it away as he learns what the intentions actually are, but until he knows for sure why people are behaving like that he’s necessarily going to be on edge.

      The isolation was the same for me as a white girl, and I relocated because of it. It was too painful for me, but I didn’t have the ADDITIONAL Question as to whether people were doing it because of my skin color.

      Imagine what THAT’S like. Imagine what that’s like on a day when (as happened to my brown-skinned son last summer in Bismarck) a stranger approaches you and tells you to go back to your “own country”. Imagine what it’s like when you’re already an outsider.

      The behaviour to which the author is referring isn’t niceness.

      Minnesotans, in their best days are some of the kindest, warmest most helpful, generous and thoughtful people that I have known, but not because they PRETEND to accept things they don’t accept, especially in a business environment.

      You can do that with my hairstyle, or my strange dress, or my singing voice. “Well, that was really something!” I get the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”…but it’s not any nicer when you save the harshness to share later with the “in crowd”.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/09/2019 - 11:15 am.

        Interesting, “It’s isolating (for anyone) when you present an idea, and people pretend to be considering your viewpoint thoughtfully, or appreciatively,” Some of us business folks, would push folks to tell us what is wrong with our idea/plan etc. Better to know early than to get into the deep water and find out the idea is an anchor in disguise! Suspect different folks can take the criticism and some can’t. Look at the white house as the epitome of “can’t take any criticism”, Its always beneficial to have a relationship with folks to get an idea on what are the acceptable common ground bounds. Some folks can take it and some folks can’t, regard;less of race, sex, creed or national origin,

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2019 - 09:13 am.

      “The name Minnesota Nice seems to imply that all of us Minnesotans are Minnesota Nice. So … Dr. Ahmed groups all Minnesotans as Minnesota Nice and all are therefore racist. ”

      Actually, the practice of manufacturing artificial prejudice and using that artificial prejudice to claim that privileged and entitled majorities are the REAL victims of oppression and prejudice is a perfect example of institutional prejudice.

      What we see here is a wonderful example of twisted logic and reasoning that seeks to frame Minnesotan’s as victims of prejudice at the hands of “minorities”… just because we’re nice people! Yes, the prejudice and oppression I suffer every day as a white Nordic guy just trying to be nice to everyone is crushing my soul. Will it ever end?

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/07/2019 - 09:38 am.

    My conclusions regarding “Minnesota Nice” after decades of discussions and observation:

    To begin with, it’s a stereotype, and as such impervious to real analysis. It’s like arguing about Santa Claus.

    You can explore the origin of the stereotype if you like, but you’ll most often find that it emerges from social expectations that promote superficial cordiality and pleasantries.

    People who complain about MN nice are typically referring to a tendency to limit social interactions to superficial contacts while avoiding deeper or more involved relationships. We all smile and say hello but we don’t invite “new” people over for dinner. A lot of people complain about this but frankly I’ve never been able to figure out whether or not it’s a legitimate complaint. I see some “transplants” forming new relationships more successfully than others but what if anything that actually has to do with MN nice isn’t clear to me.

    If you talk to people who do consulting of any kind on a nationwide or worldwide basis they’ll tell you that communication problems are not unique to MN or the Midwest. I’m not sure our superficial cordiality is any greater than that you find down South where cashiers will call you “sir” or “honey”. “Southerners” can be polite and formal, but isn’t that just a different version of “nice”?

    Having said all that it makes sense that we have a Midwest culture of some kind, and whenever anyone moves into a new culture transition can be problematic. One intrinsic feature of cultures is that they can be alienating and more or less difficult to adjust to.

    I think that sense of alienation and disconnection is the feature of racism that Dr. Ahmed is referring to in these examples. It’s the enduring experience of being the “other” in an alien culture.

  14. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/08/2019 - 01:26 pm.

    Where does the expression, “A Minnesotan will give you directions to anywhere except his (or her) own home” fit in the scheme of things?

  15. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/09/2019 - 10:35 am.

    When I first moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I was taken aback at how everyone’s emotions seemed to be right upfront. If people were angry or thought I was being stupid, they said so, often in very clever ways. But on the other hand, if they liked me, they were quite effusive about it.

    Then I went to Japan for research, and it felt very familiar, the same indirectness and reluctance to express overt disagreement or anger, only more so. Seeing the consistent politeness in stores and restaurants, I once remarked to another American, “I guess no one in Japan ever has a headache.”

    Moving back to Minnesota after nine years away, mostly on the East Coast, I was now too “Technicolor” for my family, because I had unconsciously absorbed some of the upfront emotional style.

    The West Coast, where I lived for 19 years, is somewhere in between, with an added dose of the “Whatever!” attitude.

  16. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/09/2019 - 03:46 pm.

    Couldn’t we all just be polite introverts?

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