Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My thoughts on the prejudice that threads through my Minnesota community April 19, 2018

A photo and comment by a visitor posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015, used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

TWELVE YEARS AFTER my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing the street to his school bus stop, my husband and I are still occasionally asked whether the driver in the hit-and-run has ever been found. The answer: No.

I’m OK with that. Caleb was not seriously injured and enough time has passed since the May 12, 2006, incident that my anger has subsided.

But now my anger has risen anew—not at the driver but rather at a recent comment made by an acquaintance. “Was it a Mexican?” the man asked of the unknown driver.

 

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate in the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

How do you respond to something like that—something so totally ignorant and racist and uncalled for that it makes my blood boil to think that someone in this day—2018—would even think that, let alone speak it. Why that assumption? What led him to believe the driver was a “Mexican” versus a Caucasian or even a green alien from Mars?

I can’t tolerate this type of blatant racism. About Hispanics. About Somalians. About anyone. Just days ago I heard negative comments about Somalians as it relates to parking issues in Faribault’s downtown business district.

 

A St. Olaf College student/staffer studies an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma” exhibit in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I didn’t grow up here. Once I was an outsider trying to fit into Faribault, where generations of families live, where many people are inter-related, where young people stay upon graduating from high school or return to after college. I’m not saying those are bad things. Faribault’s a wonderful place to live. But I suspect the hometown factor, the deep roots, may have something to do with the “was it a Mexican” type attitude some locals hold toward newcomers, especially those of color. There’s fear in the unknown, fear in change, fear in the prospect of a community becoming something different than it has always been.

 

Kids used markers to create flags from their native countries during the International Festival Faribault in August 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

Change oftentimes does not come easily. Yet, that’s no excuse for sweeping negative assumptions and racism. I am thankful for the efforts of many within Faribault who welcome newcomers. Like the Faribault Diversity Coalition and individuals who tutor, assist, teach, embrace immigrants and, yes, even welcome outsiders like me from Redwood County, Minnesota. I arrived here 36 years ago knowing only my new husband (also a non-native). It took awhile for me to fit in, to find my place here.

Today I consider Faribault home. I love this community and the many dear friends I’ve made here. But I don’t appreciate the underlying and sometimes overt prejudice I occasionally see and hear.

“Was it a Mexican?”

No, my son was struck by a blue 4-door Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica. Driver unknown. Race unimportant.

#

ON THE SAME TOPIC:

I find especially notable a comment made by Faribault Public School Superintendent Todd Sesker during an “AM Minnesota” interview with Gordy Kosfeld on KDHL radio. During that Monday morning interview, Sesker discussed the issue of 400-plus students open-enrolling outside of the Faribault School District. The district plans to survey families and learn why these students are choosing to attend schools elsewhere.

 

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School shows in this post commencement photo taken in May 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Sesker says, in part, “We know some of the rumors that are out there and some of the people that are complaining about our schools. We know about the cultural differences…”

“…the cultural differences…”

That tells me a lot.

According to 2018 enrollment by race/ethnicity data published on the Minnesota Department of Education website, more than half of the students in Faribault Public Schools are of a race/ethnicity other than White. Here’s the break-down on the three largest ethnic groups among the district’s 3,777 students, according to the MDE: 24.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 23.8 percent are Black/African American, and 47.4 percent are White.

I suggest you listen to the radio interview with Sesker by clicking here. Discussion on the open enrollment issue begins at about minute 13.

 

NOTE: All comments are moderated. Please be respectful in your comments and discussion. I reserve the right as author of this personal blog to decide whether or not to publish a comment.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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31 Responses to “My thoughts on the prejudice that threads through my Minnesota community”

  1. Mark Ritchie Says:

    Thank you for this powerful reminder of the daily work of taking care of each other, and challenging each other to be our best angels.

  2. Beth Ann Says:

    There is no place in this world for racism. I recall a comment made while I was checking out at a drugstore in New Mexico where a customer made a similar disparaging comment about Mexicans. I was aghast and just stood there not knowing what to say in response to her comment. When hateful words come out of someone’s mouth I always hope I have the right words to counter it but in this case I was so shocked and while I did not agree with her or encourage the conversation I also did not strike her words down. It obviously still bothers me that I had no words in my moments of disbelief.

    • I understand. I, too, have found myself hearing unbelievable words and then been so shocked I did not respond. Like you, I had regrets.

      However, one time I did respond to a disparaging comment and the guy got really hostile toward me. I was thankful for the public place and many witnesses. He scared me.

  3. Jena Says:

    Thanks Audrey. The photos from the exhibit are compelling. As for our problems- pray pray pray!

  4. Nicely done Audrey. I commend you for speaking up and speaking out! 🙂

  5. Almost Iowa Says:

    When I was a kid, my best friend was Reginald. He was black and my parents had no problem with that. His parents didn’t care that I was white either. Until my parents found out he was Baptist and his parents learned to their horror that my family was Catholic.

    That ended that.

    But let’s talk about immigration but let’s talk about the downside of it, because that is the hardest to talk about honestly. In Saint Paul, the influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Myranmar, Somalia, South Sudan and Central America has dramatically changed neighborhoods, affected crime rates, disrupted businesses and depressed property values and the list goes on and on.

    But it always has.

    This is the nature of change and it can hurt like hell to lose a community that you loved, see businesses disappear, are no longer able to communicate with neighbors and feel that you have lost the center of your life.

    This is the very nature of change.

    It is hard to talk about these things because people do not want to talk about these things – and often the voices of the bigots are loudest and voices of people who speak out against bigotry seek to silence any dissent.

    And it only makes matters worse.

    Time takes care of everything, but time takes time and it would ease the passing of it if we would all take a little time to listen to each other and truly listen without hearing what we think someone else is saying.

    What bothers me most about immigration in Minnesota, is that we never really get to talk about it. It just happens and then we develop warring camps over what already has happened.

    We need to do a better job of preparing our institutions, for instance, exactly how does the influx of sixteen new languages (and countless dialects) into outstate towns impact schools, hospitals, first responders, welfare agencies and their already strained budgets?

    This is not an argument for or against anything – but it does call for planning, forethought and discussion – something that is in very short supply.

    But let us also speak to a greater problem – there are 60 million refugees in the world today and there are 200 million people who would flee if they had a place to go.

    Bringing refugees into the first world is not a solution to THAT problem and that problem is a problem from hell. At least in my thinking, the ethical approach is to do the most good for the most people.

    Again this is not an argument against taking in refugees but let’s not forget the 60 million or the 200 million or the billion that live in desperate poverty.

    • Greg, I appreciate this thoughtful comment. You touch on the issue much more deeply than I did in my brief post. I could have written pages, too. Thank you for highlighting all of the other facets of this topic, especially for reminding all of us about those refugees living in poverty. Well written, my friend.

    • lisasimons12 Says:

      Almost Iowa, I totally agree that it’s hard to talk about change and the problems about immigration. However, what you did not mention is that earlier immigrants have come here and then done quite the opposite–I’m talking about the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Italians, etc, from the 1800s and 1900s. All the ones you list are non-white, and many are new to the country (ie. our Somali population has been in my town maybe 10-15 years). So I agree with you–we need to have the conversations about change, we need to prepare our institutions, and we need to understand that millions will come here in poverty. Moreover, we need to stop the lies and the propaganda about immigration from such hate groups as FAIR. But then with each new generation, there is more education. There is more understanding. There are more job opportunities and therefore wealth. There is more acclimation. I think of the Hmong population in St. Paul and what they’ve accomplished in two or three generations. I think of my new Somali student at the high school where I teach–his mom is a doctor. She can’t practice because she can’t access the English language, but her son is bilingual and biliterate. So, yes, we need to keep doing the most good for the most people.

      • Almost Iowa Says:

        I used to work on the East Side of Saint Paul. One day I found myself standing in line at the Walgreens pharmacy counter behind an older Laotian woman and her daughter (grand-daughter). The pharmacist was instructing the older woman on her medications while the younger girl translated. The older woman wore traditional clothing and “sensible shoes”, actually they were boots. The younger girl was a quintessential Minnesota teen, tapping away at her smart phone and sighing in disdain at the world around her (read teen angst). She also had a pitch-perfect Midwestern accent.

        So here is the question.

        Where did the young woman pick up her pitch-perfect accent and mannerisms? They do not teach teen angst in school. She got it all from her peers. Kids are malleable beings and they become who they hang out with.

        In this case, the young girl did not carry forward the culture, the religion, and the values of her homeland. Sure, she still might be a Buddhist – but not an old country one.

        That is assimilation and is an American success story.

        On the other hand, other immigration stories are not successful. In the suburbs of Paris, Brussels, Berlin and now Stockholm, there are second and third generation immigrants who have not bothered to learn the language and have not assimilated socially and culturally.

        In the United States, we have a serious problems with crime in the immigrant population as well as anti-social behavior. Some of this can be explained demographically, for instance the largest undocumented immigrant cohort is skewed heavily toward young males and young males have the highest crime rate.

        There are other factors that are often not taken into account. In most places it is not the law that constrains social behavior. In Laos, Somalia,or Guatemala you do not call the police to report a crime because the cop is more likely than not to rob or abuse you.

        There, social behavior is constrained by the community. It is the people who know you, who you have grown up with, who keep you in line. By its nature, immigration breaks this constraint.

        It will take generations to build it back.

        My thoughts on immigration is that it needs to be done carefully, not haphazardly. For instance, my wife and I looked into immigrating to New Zealand and despite our professional credentials were told that “we were too old.” We were in our 40’s at the time.

        There is a lot of ignorance and a lot of prejudice surrounding this issue – but there is also a lot of magical thinking. People do not automatically assimilate, nor do they automatically get along.

        I do not like what is going on in Europe today.

        I am definitely NOT a believer in multiculturalism. I have been to places where various ethnic groups have lived side by side for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years – and they routinely slaughter each other.

        Anyone who believes in multiculturalism needs to spend some time in the Lakes region of Africa.

        Culture is not about costumes, food and interesting accents, it is about values and fundamental interpretations of the world, when people disagree on these things, they go to war.

  6. I moved to husbands hometown 15 years ago on May 1st. I have yet to meet someone who I’d consider a close friend. I talk to my in-laws, my neighbors, my husbands co-workers, and teachers & staff at the school and I socialize with my family and friends back home. I still consider myself an outsider in a town where everyone is related to each other. I admit that this is partly my fault because I am shy and introverted I don’t tend to seek out social activities anymore. In the past I’ve been snubbed by people who are friendly only when my husband is around. I see several of your observations in this town too. You are right people are afraid of change and stuck in their ways and routines.

    • I’m sorry you’re dealing with this feeling like an outsider. But I certainly understand. Even today, 36 years after moving into this area, I sometimes feel on the outside. Someone will start talking about someone or an event like I should know the person or the history, but I don’t. I didn’t grow up here.

      What worked for me was finding a smaller community within this much larger community. I found that in my church. My church is my small town, my family really. Even there it took awhile to fit in given the larger size of the congregation. But when my husband joined the church softball team, we began to connect with people. Now we are both very involved in our church. I cannot imagine life without my church family. Through my blogging I’ve also formed friendships within the Faribault community.

      I hope that eventually you feel more at home and welcomed in your husband’s hometown.

      • I agree! A church community would be a great way to meet like minded people if I’d only open up and talk to them.

        I’ve made a few great friends via the blogging community and the knitting community. They’ve both been great outlets during some of the harder times in my life.

      • I’m delighted that you’ve formed those strong friendships through the blogging community. I’ve made many friends that way, too, friends who have become “in-person” friends.

        I have been part of a small group bible study at my church for many years. They have become my family. We have been there for each other through many joys and challenges in life. I hope you, too, can some day find that circle of local loving and supportive friends.

      • Luckily home is only 35 miles away so I don’t have far to travel to spend time with loved ones.

      • Oh, that is great. My hometown is 2 1/2 hours away, but none of my immediate family lives there anymore. Just several aunts and uncles.

  7. “Is he Mexican?”
    Sounds like something Mr. T. would ask.
    Are we ever just going to love one another? Will that ever be enough?
    Why do we care about race, gender, religion?
    I’m actually racist against the people who judge other people! Such ignorance! Such yuckiness! Such poor role models.
    Once again, thank you for that VOICE of yours, which resonates w/ many readers. xx

  8. Valerie Says:

    We cannot be reminded enough to be careful in what we say and how we speak to one another. Thank you Audrey for bringing this to our attention as a powerful reminder.

  9. Valerie Says:

    I agree!

  10. Littlesundog Says:

    I grew up with parents who despite thinking they were not racist, they sure mouthed off a lot of name-calling that spoke differently. Somehow I managed to stay true to inner thoughts of knowing that kind of remark was not right. And over the years I had my own experiences with people, learning to be more sensitive and cognizant of how simple words spoken thoughtlessly or humorously, weren’t funny at all. It’s a matter of seeing someone as a person with feelings – even when they’re speaking opposing views. I liked what Doug had to say. There are so many facets to this problem. We need to be willing to look at everything and be open to making better choices about how we see our connections with all people.

  11. lisasimons12 Says:

    Audrey, I am disgusted by this person’s question. Absolutely sickened. Usually, I hear people in Faribault complain about Somalis driving, not Mexicans. Why is this, because all Caucasians are perfect drivers? REALLY?? Like the Caucasian man who hit the 13-year-old Somali girl crossing the street *in the crosswalk* last October on her way to catch the bus, causing permanent damage? I believe she spent months in the hospital. Why is that accident forgotten when people disparage non-Caucasian drivers? Like you said, why on earth does race matter in this case of your son getting hit? It doesn’t, unless someone had seen the driver, then that person could’ve used race as an identifier to the police, as well as age, hair color, eye color, clothes, etc. I am all about differences because they can enrich our lives and help us grow as human beings, but in this case, that question was flat-out racist, crass, and inappropriate. It’s 2018. Our community is changing. Our world is changing. Discrimination, prejudice, and racism should be the ones to go.

  12. Bella Says:

    Very thoughtful insightful responses from your readers-each making good points.
    I liked this sentence you wrote:
    Yet, that’s no excuse for sweeping negative assumptions and racism.
    It’s all around us and so many have preconceived notions. My worry is the racial profiling that exists by the police who are supposed to be more tolerant and accepting. For those of color they do need to worry because they are not necessarily kept safe from harm.,.


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