Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Speaking up against prejudice in my Minnesota community April 28, 2014

AWHILE AGO, I DECIDED I would no longer remain silent.

And Saturday afternoon, while purchasing a Betsy Bowen print and greeting cards at the Northfield Senior Center thrift store, Used A Bit Shoppe, I spoke up.

While I waited for my framed print to be wrapped in newspaper, I chatted with the friendly woman behind the counter. We talked about the spinning glasstop table crafted from three monkey statues—“hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”—and the other unique recycled merchandise in this jam-packed shoppe.

I’d never been here, I told her, didn’t even know that this place existed, that I didn’t live in Northfield. The business had moved not all that long ago, she said, to this larger location.

About that time a hulk of a man wedged in beside me and interrupted, adding that he remembered the old store, that he used to live in Northfield and now lived in neighboring Faribault.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

A Somali family waits to cross a street in downtown Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2010.

But he wanted to return to Northfield, he said, “because of all the Somalis in Faribault.” Disdain colored his words.

He’d just said the wrong thing to me.

I turned, looked him in the eye, and told him I did not appreciate his disrespect for Somali people.

That set him off. I can’t recall every word spoken, but I do remember the bit about his grandmother being a war bride and speaking seven languages. Not once did he explain why he so disliked Somalis. Not that an explanation would have mattered.

As his agitation grew, I began to feel threatened.

“Sir, I don’t want to argue with you,” I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “I’m just sharing my opinion.”

“I don’t like you forcing your opinion on me,” he responded, ever-growing anger tinging his voice. “When they (Somalis) respect me, I will respect them.”

He finally walked away, edging toward a cluster of other shoppers, including my husband, who’d overheard bits of the mostly one-sided conversation.

I turned back to the elderly clerk, picked up the four dollars and some odd cents change she’d laid on the counter.

“Welcome to Northfield,” I said. “Oh, that’s right, he’s from Faribault. I feel sorry for people like him who cannot respect others.”

Then I exited this shoppe where a “speak no evil” monkey hunches with a hand clamped across his mouth.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


36 Responses to “Speaking up against prejudice in my Minnesota community”

  1. Ken Deacon Says:

    Well done for speaking up

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    We live in a day and age where “one sided conversation” opportunities abound…..Facebook, Twitter, etc. The ‘rants’ are given ‘support’ via other “anonymous” writers and embolden those who made the initial statement/observation. It is a very short step to the ‘real world’ and making such statements to ‘real’ people in ‘real’ time. The anonymity of the internet, and the safety of such arm chair comments, has successfully dehumanized people and led to a general air of disrespect/lack of respect or value for others and a self-aggrandizement that is not beneficial (nor safe?) for anyone! The sad, sometimes scary, result of such situations is a violent or aggressive posture to promote one’s viewpoint. And the “god of this age” prowls around this earth seeking to devour…………………………………

    • Once again, your thoughtful comment rings true to today’s reality.

      On Sunday I attended worship services at my sister Lanae’s church, St. John Lutheran in Waseca. In his children’s message, Pastor John Omans said, “When people from other countries help, care, share and listen to one another, it’s called peace. Peace begins with you.”

      He then prayed that the children at his feet would learn to care for one another.

      I found his message especially memorable given my experience of the previous afternoon. But I would add that we all need to learn to care for one another, no matter our age.

  3. Dan Traun Says:

    Good for you. There is too much ignorance in this world that breeds much hate – most of the time for no or very stupid reasons.

  4. Thank you for acting and posting Audrey!

  5. Marilyn Says:

    Thank you, Audrey. You are a blessed woman as evident from Matthew 5: 10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . 11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven:

  6. Beth Ann Says:

    You took a stand and even if that man did not agree with you–you took a stand. Too often we don’t. I am guilty of that many times but your willingness to do the right thing was just that–the right thing. I am sure that those who heard the exchange were given something to think about for quite awhile. Bravo, Audrey, bravo.

  7. Dee Bjork Says:

    Educating that person is important. Most of the time those opinons come from lack of information. We were thrilled when the East Indian Doctor saved my loved one’s life. The Hispanic little girls comes by everyday and delivers joy. My french friend Sarah is my best friend. Love is colorblind. He apparently did’nt get the memo. So sad for him. He misses out. Good for you Audrey!!!

    • Oh, Dee, I know how you are mentoring and loving those little girls. Thank you for all you do in our community of Faribault. Truly, your friendships know no color, only love. That all should embrace your approach to others.

      Perhaps one person at a time, we can make a difference. And, yes, I think you are correct in that education is important.

      I think about my own great grandparents and how they arrived in this country speaking only German. It wasn’t all that many decades ago that worship services in my hometown Lutheran church were still conducted in German with men on one side, women on the other. My forefathers did not immediately speak English upon their arrival in America nor did they immediately assimilate to a certain expected way of living. It seems now days too many people expect immediate assimilation and adherence without the understanding of challenges faced by those who are new to this nation. Patience and compassion at times seem non-existent.

  8. You are BRAVE and Speaking Up Matters and is Important 🙂 My mother taught me to not judge a person by the outside and get to really know the person on the inside. I tend to ask questions when I do not understand certain things and for the most part it has been successful. Every once in a while it is not and taken as a judgment or challenge and that is surely not my intention at all. It can get heated and become a battle of opinions and feelings get hurt. I have been told that I am insensitive and do not care and that just rubs me the wrong way and irks me to no end. I do care and I am sensitive when discussing things and simply want to learn and educate myself. Thanks for the reminder – share and spread the kindness for sure! Happy Week 🙂

  9. Jackie Says:

    Thank you for sharing, your example may just help all of us to be more bold in those kinds of circumstances. Even though the man seemed untouched by what you said, I can bet he will be thinking about it, maybe that little seed of compassion and truth will spark something in his hardened heart and he will change his thinking….we can only hope 🙂

    • “We can only hope…” how true. I do not like confrontations and, obviously, he took it that way. But I will not remain quiet when I hear a comment such as his.

      • Norma Says:

        How admirable of you Audrey. I don’t know if Marc has told you about our family, but we have several Mexicans. You met Esther at the wedding. Her husband is Mexican. (second husband) Three of my grandchildren are married to Mexicans. My oldest daughter is married to a black man. Almost 40 years.— One grandson is part American Indian and Filipino. Of the 14 greatgrandchildren, 9 are mixtures of those races. I am blessed.

      • Love colors your family, Norma. I am blessed to have your beloved Marc as a son-in-law. Blessed.

  10. I am so glad that the situation did not get out of control. You must have felt a little threatened. Good for you for being brave and speaking up.

  11. Marilyn Says:

    I have been mulling over this post since I first read it and just returned to read it again. Some of the other comments have grabbed me as much as the original story. The need to stand up and be “real people” as opposed to anonymous conformation to the downward drifting ethics is a challenge we all need to personally accept. Like you said, it really must be a heart decision to stand firmly for the right and the Rights of our fellow citizens. Doing right makes a peaceful heart.

    • Thank you for returning with additional thoughts, Marilyn. Yes, the comments that have poured in on this post have been invaluable. I so appreciate the additional insights offered. We can all learn and grow from one another.

  12. hotlyspiced Says:

    Are there really that many Somali’s living in your town? It seems like such an odd choice for them to move there as not only is there a language barrier but the climate! I don’t know a lot about Somalia but I imagine it’s very, very hot. I’m sure they must have trouble adjusting and I’d have thought they’d prefer to move somewhere with a climate that more resembled their own. Good on you for speaking up but I guess some people will always feel threatened if they feel their town is changing and not in the way they want it to! I’m glad the situation didn’t escalate xx

    • Yes, we have a huge population of Somali, Sudanese and Hispanic families within our community. Minnesota, as far as I know, remains home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. Jobs, I believe, brought these immigrants specifically to my community of Faribault.

      What people do not understand, they often fear. And, yes, then fear would equal feeling threatened.

  13. Bless you! 7 plus years living in Moorhead MN, my kids were blessed to spend that time in a very culturally diverse community. I have witnessed, and heard such negative remarks in my own small community area here.
    Love the comment from Marilyn–“doing right makes a peaceful heart”
    The golden rule applies to all persons on this earth!

  14. Carstens Says:

    In 25+ years of teaching adults and in prisons, I have seen racism cut in all directions and have had to field comments far stronger than what this man apparently said. I have found that shutting someone down by saying their opinion isn’t welcome (implying it isn’t valid) doesn’t do much to remedy the situation. I’m sorry, but I think the lesson here was that you felt better for having disagreed with him and maybe that was a big step for you. But he has walked away holding the same opinion as before and now, he has an added dose of simmering resentment. That’s not really progress.

    “I’ll respect them when they respect me” sounds like the key issue. You were standing at a counter in a store and it wasn’t appropriate to dig further into what prompted that comment. However, a response along the line that cultural differences are very difficult, especially in small communities, or that acculturating takes time and his mother set a pretty impressive standard that few others can live up to, acknowledges that his feelings are real. More important, it plants the seed that others may not mean to disrespect him and it encourages him to have some patience with those who are different.

    Mediators know it is vital for people to be heard before they can change their position enough to compromise. I hope you will consider taking a deep breath and hearing others out, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Then maybe others will pay more attention to what you have to say.

    • You offer some points worthy of consideration, Carstens.

      That said, I didn’t respond to his comment to feel better for having disagreed with him. It was a matter of not ignoring the very vocal disrespect he expressed for Somalis. To remain silent was not something I could do.

      I did not “dig further” into his comment about “I’ll respect them when they respect me.”

      Could I have said something different/something more? Yes. But I felt, given his growing agitation in this mostly one-sided “conversation,” that it was best not to say anything more. So it was not a matter of not hearing him out and being uncomfortable. To do so would have been fruitless at that point.

      Your suggestion to respond that cultural differences can sometimes be difficult is a good one. Thank you for suggesting that.

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