“[If I were white] the cops wouldn’t always be pulling me over ready to whip out their guns even if I just blink. I’ve been pulled over just for the color of my skin many times, too many times.”
Jim, teenager, Minneapolis, American Indian, June 13, 1990
• • •
“If a black person cussed out a teacher, they would get sent to the office so fast it wouldn’t even be funny. If a white person cussed out the teacher, the teacher would say, ‘I’ll excuse that one.’ ”
Shana, 13, Minneapolis, black, June 13, 1990
• • •
“I wish I had been a different race than white, for mostly whites are racist.”
Anne, 11, Minneapolis, white, June 13, 1990
• • •
“Changing races would be like changing lives and worlds.”
Bridget, 15, West St. Paul, white, June 13, 1990
Those words were printed in the Star Tribune 30 years ago this week in a special Mindworks package that was part of the newspaper’s “race project.” Mindworks no longer exists, but from 1983 until 2001, when I moved to Virginia, I was the editor. Every month during the school year, I would present a topic and young people from first grade through senior high would respond. On average 5,000 to 10,000 mostly handwritten responses were received each month.
For a special Mindworks for the race project, I asked: Imagine that you MUST choose to become another race. Which race would you choose and why? What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a member of that race?
Thirty years later, the responses remain provocative.
The basic question, which was suggested by a writer who understood the power of imagination, was inspired. I had learned through years of posing questions about sensitive issues that often the truth comes out sideways. Answers to direct questions (Are you racist?) are often self-serving lies; indirect, multilayered questions can elicit more subtle, revealing responses.
This was not, however, the view of a couple of well-meaning administrators from the Minneapolis Public Schools who told me they would ban Minneapolis schools from participating. I don’t have a tape of the phone conversation, but I remember feeling as if I were Alice down the rabbit hole. One administrator told me that he was white but loved all things Asian, so why should he have to define himself as white? Another said I should consider expanding the options to include students who might want to be French.
That the questions were irrelevant because “there is no race but the human race” was also offered.
This might be scientifically true, but if this had been the prevalent attitude in 1990, I would not have needed to ask the questions. If this were true in 2020, George Floyd would be alive and Minneapolis would not have burned.
That I was requiring the writers to identify their race was an especially sensitive issue. I doubt very much this topic or the identification would be allowed today, and I do not see that as progress, especially in light of recent events.
I understood the naysayers’ impetus. This was a time when Minneapolis was striving to be “colorblind,” a policy rife with good intentions and riddled with ignorance. For a while, if I remember correctly, crime suspects were identified in the media without regard to their skin color, as if a victim wouldn’t notice if her assailant was white or black or Asian or Native American.
I thought at the time, and still do, that humans are observant creatures who notice the colors of birds, flowers, cars. Of course humans notice another’s skin color. The observation isn’t wrong; it’s the racist attitudes formed and racist actions taken on the basis of that observation that are wrong.
The context at the time
Fortunately, Minneapolis students did respond. Unfortunately, the numbers were lower than expected. Only about 3,600 responses were received from the entire state, and the preponderance were from white students.
Social context matters. The students were writing before the now-ubiquitous social media, smartphones, Google and 24-hour news, and before the first black president, so the primary influences on these young people were relatives, neighborhoods, schools, TV and movies.
Cultural context is critical as well. According to movie listings, on June 13, 1990, Minneapolis moviegoers could see “Another 48 Hrs.” featuring Eddie Murphy as an ex-con teaming up with a white cop; “Driving Miss Daisy,” about a white Southern woman and her black chauffeur, and “Glory,” an account of an all-black regiment in the Civil War, which was led by a white officer.
That night after watching “Brewster Place,” about a black inner-city neighborhood in 1967, TV viewers could tune in to the black-hosted “Arsenio Hall Show.” A showcase of African music was featured that night at First Avenue.
Clearly, blacks and black culture were highly visible in that era, and yet the racism was palpable. Thirty years later, despite an exponential increase in black visibility — even a black president — that racism remains.
Racial attitudes had appeared in previous Mindworks. Students said they were hurt by being called “niggers” or “chinks” on the playground when the topic was about feelings. To improve education, a Native American teen from Minneapolis suggested eradicating the racism between teachers and students, and a 10-year-old from Minneapolis wanted the whites and blacks to play together at school.
In this particular Mindworks, a common perception was that changing races would come at a social and economic cost for those choosing a minority race, especially black, but also Asian and Native American. They would lose opportunities, power, friends and security.
Ann, 11, of Blaine, wrote, “If I was black … I would be sad because all my friends that were white would hate me and wouldn’t want to play with me.”
For those choosing to become white, a bittersweet option for some, the change would offer an easier life filled with better jobs, more money, political power, social acceptance, and homes in which children had their own bedrooms and puppies.
Jane, 14, of Burnsville, who described herself as mulatto, wrote, “I would be white because I have been made into nothing. … It seems like you are never good enough unless you are white.”
However, disadvantages of such a transformation were noted as well.
“I would choose white,” wrote Vang Yee, 10, Asian, of Minneapolis. “The advantage is that you can do more things and the disadvantage is that you are not nice.”
The power of privilege
What most struck me then and strikes me now is how much what is now called “white privilege,” the unconscious sense of white power, ran through the submissions.
Large numbers of whites assumed that if they became black, they would be the leaders — the next Martin Luther King Jr., or maybe the first black president. They believed they were the ones who would finally bring respect and equality to the black race. The same was true of some white students choosing to be American Indian. They would be powerful chiefs or, in one case, an Indian princess. A white teen said he would become an Indian activist and start a movement that addressed native issues.
A white teen from Grand Rapids said she “wouldn’t mind going back in time a little ways” and being a slave because after that experience, she would write a book about the experience and change everyone’s attitude.
Because his school and community had no African-Americans, Patrick, 14, of Arlington, wrote that he would choose to become black. “People are often afraid that what they don’t know can hurt them and this fear can lead to … prejudice. I could teach everyone that blacks really are the same as whites. … Maybe I wouldn’t be able to stop prejudice entirely, but I’m sure that I could help.”
This attitude that if white people were a different race, the only change would be cosmetic was not limited to those young people. I’ve had conversations about this topic with white adults who say, almost glibly, they would choose to be black. They seem to think that nothing would change, the 400 years of racist history would leave them personally unscathed. They would still have their college degrees, their occupations, their lovely homes in nearly-all white neighborhoods, their power.
It is a failure of imagination.
Another revelation was that for many of the Mindworks writers, regardless of race, the word “American” was synonymous with “white.” It still is.
I recently retired after 15 years of teaching higher-level ESL reading and writing at a college in northern Virginia, where I taught students from more than 110 countries. My classes met for two hours a day five days a week, so I knew my students well.
About midsemester, I would ask, “Would you marry an American?” All or almost all hands would shoot up without hesitation. Then I would ask, “Would you marry an African-American?” and the hands would go down.
Perceptions then and now
This Mindworks was filled with perceptions beyond those I’ve mentioned. For instance, stereotypes abounded — to be Asian would bring an increase in intelligence and academic success or the ability to be a ninja. To be black would mean being more athletic, being able to dance, having soul.
Also, some white writers clearly understood the inequalities between the races, including Arika, 13, of Plymouth. She wrote, “In our Constitution it says, ‘All men (people) are created equal.’ Well, maybe they are created equal, but that’s where it stops. After they’re created, it all changes.”
Many said they were proud of their race. Black 12-year-old Wali of Minneapolis wrote, “Once I really wanted to be a different color, but my mom talked me out of that nonsense. Since then, I never wanted to be a different color.”
It isn’t just rereading this Mindworks that is unsettling. The other article published in the Variety section that day was about how to talk to children about race, in which Frederick Jefferson, an education professor in New York, said, “One of the first things that needs to be learned is that to ignore racism is to allow it to continue.”
Thirty years later, whether it be a “Sesame Street” CNN special or innumerable articles in virtually every medium, including this newspaper, the exact same question is being addressed. When does it end?
I was anxious the day the Mindworks on race was published, cognizant of the rawness of some of the responses and of the enormity of the responsibility. What sustained me was the reaction of an African-American editor before it was published. He wrote that this Mindworks would make some people gasp and other people cry.
What happened on a Minneapolis street on May 25 made people all over the world gasp and cry.
I now live in Virginia, the birthplace of the Confederacy. When the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, less than a three-hour drive from my home, the world took notice but did not erupt.
What set the world on fire was a video of a black man being murdered in slow motion in a city not in the South but in the Midwest, in a city with a reputation of being progressive and “nice,” a city that a white Minneapolis school counselor with a history of civil-rights activism always told me was far more racist than I or most white Minneapolitans could — or wanted to — imagine.
The writers in the long-ago Mindworks are now in their 30s and 40s, some the same ages as Derek Chauvin, 44, and George Floyd, 46.
I wonder how they would answer the question today.
Misti Snow is the author of “Take Time to Play Checkers,” a compilation of Mindworks essays and her commentary, and a former Bush Leadership Fellow. She lives in Falls Church, Va., with her husband, Jim Dawson. E-mail: email@example.com.
THEN AND NOW?
If you recognize yourself as one of the children whose essay response to the original Mindworks query was quoted in today’s article, we’d like to hear from you. How you would answer the same questions today?
For reference, the original prompt was: “Imagine that you MUST choose to become another race. Which race would you choose and why? What do you think would be the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a member of that race?”
Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include “Mindworks update” in the subject line. If participation is sufficient, we’ll compile the answers and publish them in a future Opinion Exchange article.
Please answer in 200 words or less. Include your full name and city of residence for publication, and let us know which original quote was yours. Also include a phone number and e-mail address (neither for publication) where we can contact you.