Where does a person of color encounter racism?

by Catherine Dahlberg

I am a minority member of society. Having lived in both California and Minnesota, I have encountered racism in both states.

Identity – Foreigner in their own Land

Once someone that I do not know much asked me this question: “You have an English name, but you don’t have an American face. Where did you get this name?” 

I do not perceive a conflict between my name and my face. Aren’t they both a small part of the sum of me? But this person does. A few repeated incidents later, I come to the conclusion that being questioned about my name will just be a life experience for the rest of my life. It is time for me to plan on how to live with this reality.

Imagine another Catherine who is born as a Caucasian. That Catherine never has to explain about her name. Unfortunately, that Catherine is not me. Somehow the responsibility falls on me, particularly when the asker cites curiosity “I don’t mean to offend; I am just curious”. I have found out over time that there is clearly a divergence between how I see myself and how others see myself. Because of that conflict, I have to tell people more about me in order for them to come to better understand me for who I am. 

I tell strangers about myself. I learned many languages as a result of life experience. In each language I learned, there is a different name for me: Chinese name, English name, German name, and Swedish name. They are all my names. 

My English name, Catherine, was given to me by my teacher, Mr. Wei on the first day of school. All of my classmates have a Chinese name and an English name. There is nothing special. 

The question about my name has been part of my life experience living in the U.S, both in California and in Minnesota. That includes my ex-husband who joked about my English name. In an inappropriate joke, he describes me as planning to engage in illegal activities under a pseudo identity. That remark hurt me emotionally. In their mind, having an English name is the last thing available to someone who is not born speaking English language. 

Contrary to how they see me, I have a very positive view about my ability. I have a wide range of interest, and I have a wide scope of abilities. Speaking English is such a tiny part of who I am, that I never linked it with identity. I link “Chinese” with identity. On the U.S. census form, I check both the box “person of color” and “Asian”. If there is an “other” box, I will write down “Chinese”. I am Chinese. To me, “person of color” is an identity. It says up front that people do not treat me the same way as they would a white person.

Encounter – Minnesota Nice

I had been living in Duluth, Minnesota for 10 years before moving to the Twin Cities with this AmeriCorps job. The issue around racism has been my life experience. 

First of all, nobody associates racism with Minnesota. A resident of St Paul said:

“Horrible racist things happened 50 years ago at other places of America. I am glad that it does not exist in Minnesota.” 

When I complained at a public event about unfair practices discriminating against Chinese speaking participants, this resident of Minneapolis was stumping his feet. He said: 

“No way could any one of our volunteers be a racist!”

What is my personal experience as a minority living in Minnesota? Did anyone experience racism in this state? I surveyed eight residents of Minneapolis in 2016. Four people said that they were never targeted. The other four said that they were a victim of racism.

Among the 50% response saying that racism exists in Minnesota, one says “Many acquaintances have made racist jokes or comments to me.” I myself was targeted as a victim.

I met up a friend in a Kowalski grocery store.  She and the shop assistant were talking. Upon my arrival, my friend and I immediately made body language cues that says “I am here”. Their conversation did not stop for me, so I patiently waited. My eyes followed their conversation by reaching their faces in alternating turns. Two customers approached. Thinking to make room for approaching traffic, I changed position by walking from my friend’s right side to her left side. All the while, the shop assistant was talking only to my friend without acknowledging me. 

I was still waiting. Feeling bored, I glanced at the price tag. A customer picked up extra fancy lemons near me. Finally my attention drifted from waiting. I looked intensely into a lemon. Then I touched it. All of a sudden, that same employee who never noticed me now stopped talking. During that brief silence, she turned her head. With eyes still directed toward my friend, she quickly glanced in my direction. She politely said:

“How can I help you?” 

At that moment, I thought, did this white employee just serve me a famous Minnesota nice? She probably thinks that I attempted to steal a dollar-worth lemon from her store. This employee equates me with thief because all she could see in me is the color of my skin. Her account is based on the dominant stereotype on race. Today, she saved Kowalski with skillful customer service. She helped a white customer and deterred a non-white thief – doing all those within just a few minutes. To add insult to injury, Kowalski’s star employee does not even know that her white customer is actually a friend to that suspicious non-white criminal.

Minnesotan Style – from Explicit to Implicit

Racism in Minnesota is not explicit. Some channels of racism are already exposed: inappropriate jokes, slurs, Minnesota nice, and police brutality. The impact of racism is felt across the board, whether it is white or non-white people. My interviewees have an example at an all-white social party.

“This man began making racist jokes about African-Americans and, later, Jews. He received disapproving body language and was told point blank by at least three people that the jokes were inappropriate. Instead of quitting racist jokes, this person defended himself by saying he was only getting a rise out of people, that the jokes didn’t reflect his beliefs, and nobody was harmed because party attendees were all white/non-Jewish.”

In this example, clearly white attendees asked the white racist to change his behavior. A confrontation exists. People with anti-racism view say that racist jokes hurt not only referenced people but also people who hear them. In my opinion, attendee push-back is enough power to demand a behavior change from this man. However, it did not work at this party. This man dismissed criticism by denying the impact of jokes. 

That got me thinking. Telling a racist that his or her behavior offends you is only the first step. After that, we still need to address this person’s bias and values. To address bias, we have to dive into white culture. I will write a separate blog on that. 

Attitude – Resource for Change

Even if he or she does not speak in a racist way, a white person may still be influenced by discriminatory opinions. The white culture that is out there never stops persuading the mind. The conscious mind may absorb racism as acceptable norms. To fight racism, we have to reach the mind, thoughts, and opinions. By fostering a new environment and shifting People’s attitude can we create a space to address racism. My interviewees recommend open conversation on racism as an important tool.

“I think a white person is responsible to address racism in other white people. Strike a two-way conversation to first listen to them and try to understand their story, then ask questions in a way that make them re-examine their biases. I also emphasize ‘intent versus impact’: that just because someone said something racist does not mean that they are a horrible person."

“Understanding why people are engaged in uplifting racist structure is an extremely useful tool. By learning people’s narratives and ask questions, you can reach them in a way previously not possible. Your effort in understanding them puts pressure on them in unique ways to change their behavior and thought process.”

My interviewees address both systemic racism and personal bias. They are committed to always examining their own bias and educating people around them, including our next generations, about implicit racism.

“What I have done is to make a commitment to be open minded, learn from friends and peers of color, and be an advocate and ally for diverse communities.” 

“I confront it directly when racism happens. Also in my family, the parents prepare children on this issue. We talk to our children about how they should respond if they witness or are subjected to racism.” 

“For structural and implicit racism, I am working to understand how I reinforce those systems so I can make conscious decisions to opt out of structures that propagate white supremacy.”

I also know a few great tools and resources:

Credit: These people contributed to the writing of this blog

  • Amee McDonald (Jabber Logic),
  • Andrew Bocher (AmeriCorps VISTA),
  • Bridgette Springer (individual),
  • Eriks Dunens (University of Minnesota Extension),
  • Jon Pratt (Minnesota Council of Nonprofits),
  • Kate Fridley (AmeriCorps VISTA),
  • Michael Prideaux (AmeriCorps VISTA),
  • Tim Odegard (Global Minnesota)

Citation and quotes: