Skirting the Issues: Lily White
I walked past the window display and something grabbed, making me stop.
There it was: a poster-size page of the Minneapolis Star-Journal for August 14, 1945, on an easel, with the headline, “Truman Announces Jap Surrender.”
“Jap.” It hit me like baseball bat.
Disclosure: I have two daughters who are Korean adoptees. Second disclosure: I really like Asian people. Maybe Disclosure 1 and 2 are related.
The easel and headline were housed in a skyway picture-frame shop in downtown Minneapolis, which I pass every day on my lunch hour. Last Christmas, I bought some delightful picture-word montages from there.
Who got those montages?
My Asian-born daughters.
Appalled by the “Jap” headline, I entered the picture-frame shop and approached the owner, a man in his early seventies. Here’s how it went:
Me: “I’m sorry to say this but do you know that ‘Jap’ is a derogatory term?
Store Owner: “Jap? Great word! My father served in the Navy in World War II. Jap! Good word!”
Me: “That’s horrible! I know you may not understand this, but ‘Jap’ is very offensive to many people.”
Store Owner: “’Jap!’ It’s a great word.”
Me: “I’ll never buy another thing from your store again!”
As I stormed out, the store owner hounded, “Jap! Jap!”
I ran to the skyway knowing only one thing.
I moved to Minneapolis in early 2010 with hope, energy, and innocence dreaming to make my mark. Not long in, I realized there’s something wrong here relative to race.
Statistic: the Minneapolis high school graduation rate for African-American males is 40 percent, a figure worthy of third world nations.
In many places, this would spark protests, write-in campaigns, and calls for resignations.
But not in the Twin Cities.
We tolerate it.
I co-chair the Hennepin County Bar Association Diversity Committee, which has given me tremendous insight into the racial disparities that plague the Twin Cities. For example, out of approximately 8500 lawyers in Minneapolis, less than 30 attorneys of color hold partnership positions.
This is in a metropolitan area where minorities make up 37 percent of the population.
What is it about this place that fosters intolerance?
I wish I knew. Some say it’s “Minnesota Nice,” but I think the racial/ethnic issues go deeper. Class, religion, ethnicity and skin color all factor in. We have an incredibly small black middle class. Often, a person of color never sees another person of color in business meetings or social gatherings.
All of this makes it easy for a shopkeeper to believe there’s nothing wrong with displaying a racial slur in his store window at lunchtime.
Now for another other date that holds meaning here.
On October 6, 2013, I was up before dawn to walk with my brother Mark to the start of a 15K race. The course took Mark and 15,000 other people from downtown Minneapolis to the statehouse in St. Paul.
After cheering Mark as his flight started, I drove to St. Paul for the finish. I got there early, and stood 100 yards from the finish line.
Not far from me, a group of musicians wearing red Target Corporation jackets played Dixieland tunes. Families held homemade signs. The scene was festive; applause and the sound of cowbells (also courtesy of Target) were abundant.
As the runners appeared, there was one or two, then clumps of four or five, and finally waves. The runners were young, old, male, and female.
And almost uniformly lily white.
The absence of racial diversity was so painfully obvious that I counted the non-white runners.
In fifteen minutes, I saw eight non-white faces.
I’m not a demographer, nor do I know anything about the runner culture (maybe it only attracts white people?). Yet, in a metropolitan area where more than one in three people is of color, something—some unspoken rule or social contract—accounts for the lack of diversity at such a highly public event.
It’s not that the Twin Cities can’t embrace diversity—heck, GLBT people hold many high profile corporate and government jobs. In barely six months, we beat the anti-marriage amendment and then voted in gay marriage.
For some reason, though, race and ethnicity are more difficult. Until we figure out why that’s the case, I suspect a certain shopkeeper with keep hauling out an old newspaper headline on V-J Day.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at [email protected]