Jennifer Heimlich had some cautionary advice for the mostly white crowd that filled the auditorium at Hopkins Center for the Arts: Talking about race is not easy.
“One of the first rules of having courageous conversations about race ... is that we should expect and be willing to feel uncomfortable,” said Heimlich, who has taught a diversity seminar at Hopkins High School for 10 years.
What followed on Monday night was a discussion by Heimlich and three local panelists who shared how skin color has affected their experiences in Minnesota. The community forum, “Is White Privilege Real or Imagined?” was organized by the city’s Race and Equity Initiative.
The panelists were clear on one point: White privilege, and the lack of awareness about it, is absolutely real.
“There are things that I don’t necessarily have to think about or worry about simply because of what I look like,” said Heimlich, who is white. “If we can’t acknowledge that this historical thing called white privilege exists, our friends of color aren’t going to see the white folks as being truly part of the conversation and truly authentic.”
About 200 people attended the forum, including city leaders from other western suburbs. It was the latest in a handful of events about race organized this year by the initiative, a partnership among Hopkins Public Schools, the Hopkins Police Department and Gethsemane Lutheran Church.
Henry Crosby and Janice Downing, black panelists who live in Golden Valley, said that some of their most important experiences with white privilege came from interactions their children had in the school system.
“The scenarios began to unfold every time we went somewhere,” said Crosby, executive director of the YMCA at Heritage Park in Minneapolis. He recalled salesmen ignoring him and his wife, or tense interactions with agents at airport security checks.
Paul Spies, a white panelist and professor at Metropolitan State University, said the effect that race has on personal behavior can be seen in the strained relationships between police officers and blacks.
He referred to Philando Castile, a school nutrition services supervisor who was fatally shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights last summer.
An audience member asked about the incident in Edina a couple weeks ago when a white police officer stopped a black man walking on the street. The confrontation, which was videotaped by a bystander, led some citizens to raise questions about the approach used by the officer.
“I felt that the police didn’t even begin to understand the relationship with this man and why he was there,” Crosby said. “There wasn’t a chance to connect; a judgment was made by that guy.” He was briefly interrupted by a man in the audience who wanted to hear the officer’s perspective.
Downing asked for people to be aware of the language they use and to consciously work against simple categorization. She made a plea for people to engage with cultures and races different from their own.
That might be difficult to do in the suburbs, she acknowledged. U.S. Census Bureau data show that the Twin Cities metro area is more than 80 percent white.
She suggested that members of the audience occasionally take the bus, volunteer or eat at new restaurants. “Most of all, talk to a millennial, because they will tell you where to go,” she said.
Spies agreed, adding that for white people it may require reeducating themselves on the history of race in the United States.
“It’s very important to be in diverse environments as white folks,” Spies said. “We need, with others, to ... use our privilege for justice.”