I am white. And senior (a nice euphemism for old). And thanks to circumstances of life and hard work, a member of the slightly upper middle class.
Late in life, I wonder if the opportunities I had would have come to someone whose skin was a different color? Maybe, as a reader, you want to stop right there, ready to color me naive, even cloying.
And believe me, I am fully aware that anything I say as a white male may not sound right, may in fact be the wrong thing to say. I’m still learning how to talk about race.
And for those who do not know me, allow me to say that I’ve had leading roles in colleges, in state government and in the nonprofit world, plus a long period of writing for newspapers around the country and co-authoring four books.
But in recent years I’ve wondered whether my views on race and color were too convenient. Too limited. Perhaps just wrong.
I grew up mostly in Houston, Texas. I remember signs over water fountains and restrooms that read “Colored” or “White Only.” I noticed but did not worry over these. It was the culture. I accepted it, went on.
Arriving in Minnesota in the early 1970s, I bought the myth that Minnesota was an island devoid of racism. “We’re different,” people said. “We’re tolerant, welcoming, not judgmental.” That’s about how I thought of myself then.
But I cannot forget the black friend I had in the 1980s who came to the Twin Cities for a corporate job and left after three years. I asked him why he was leaving. His answer was brutally myth-shattering. It’s the kind of racism here, he said. It’s subtle, not in your face, but there all the time. “You don’t see the blood until you get home and realize you’ve been stabbed.” It’s what people don’t say. It’s where you don’t get invited.
When I was with the Citizens League, I recall a leadership meeting called to discuss something; I frankly don’t remember what. But I do recall Gleason Glover, then the head of the Urban League, saying something that didn’t make any sense. No one said anything. An awkward silence ensued, followed by someone changing the subject.
The discomfort of that experience stuck with me until I called Gleason (remember, this was before e-mails or text messages) and made arrangements to have lunch together. He brought the awkward moment up right away. He remembered it too.
My lasting memory of that conversation was Gleason saying: “When people don’t tell you what you’ve said is foolish, they’re just showing that they don’t respect you at all.”
We both realized it was the culture we were working in. Maybe it would never change. But the myth was gone. It was obvious that Minnesota wasn’t really much better about race than other places. Until demography began to change, we hadn’t had much practice. And we found the challenge difficult.
Personally, I began to understand that my way of thinking about race was part of the problem.
Recently I found the school district where I live under constant siege from a conservative organization that imagines itself to be Minnesota’s think tank. It’s made headlines objecting to the schools teaching awareness about white privilege. I realize I was thinking it’s about time kids growing up learn about what’s been different about being white in this country.
And it is not too late for me to come to the same understanding.
Having served on the board of trustees for the Bush Foundation for more than a decade, I have learned much from the successful effort to populate the board with people from different races and backgrounds. Those different voices have had a profound effect on me. I slowly changed the way I reacted to events, the way I processed events that made news.
One day a little over a year ago, an African-American board colleague turned to me, in the middle of a discussion about race relations, and told me, “Get over it. It’s your problem, not mine.” She was right.
Perhaps I do understand better now. While I cannot undo my past, I do recognize the geography of this journey now. It’s taking me to a better place.
Curt Johnson, of Edina, is former executive director of the Citizens League, former chair of the Metropolitan Council, and former chief of staff to Gov. Arne Carlson.