Clerks in Minnesota clothing stores were quick to offer help to Emily Otiso when she walked in the door. In fact, she noticed, they were almost insistent on it as they lingered from a distance.
In Otiso's jobs transporting the sick at local hospitals, patients often offered advice: With her 6-foot-2 frame, they told her, she should play basketball so she could get an education. They never imagined that she already had a neuroscience degree.
Otiso, who is Black, has endured plenty of racial slights in her 25 years living in several states, she said, but never as consistently as the three-plus years she lived in Minnesota. They have bothered her enough that she doubts she'll ever move back, now that she's left to attend medical school in Michigan.
"I think it's … a little bit because of the Minnesota Nice phenomenon. Everybody thinks that they're so nice, but it's really just passive-aggressive," she said. "They think … 'Oh, I'm being nice by telling you how you can get an education and improve your life,' but really it's an inherently racist statement."
Microaggressions — the subtle, often unintentional behaviors that communicate bias — are a key point between how Minnesota's overwhelmingly white residents see the state as a welcoming place vs. how many people of color see it as off-putting, Otiso and others say. Adding to the harm, Minnesota's nonconfrontational culture means bystanders typically either stay silent or brush off the comments, Otiso said.
Her frustrations came pouring out after hearing co-workers discuss George Floyd's death. The normally quiet Otiso found herself writing a public social media post about her experience being Black in Minnesota. Though friends and co-workers of color understood, recognizing the slights against Otiso because they had experienced them as well, Otiso said she felt disheartened.
Her post was shared nearly 6,000 times.
"What I want from everyone is understanding," she wrote, "an effort put forth to learn about what led us to this point, and open and honest conversations about the realities of race relations in America."
Otiso quickly felt relief when she moved to Detroit for school last month.
There, she said, "Black people aren't 'other.' They aren't a weird unknown to the white majority … They're just people, and so they get treated like people."
Otiso, who grew up the daughter of a Kenyan immigrant father, mostly in upstate New York, also lived in Pennsylvania and Michigan. She can easily recount unwelcoming incidents in her time in Minnesota.
There was the woman ahead of her in line at the suburban grocery store who started tucking cash from the cashier into her back pocket. Then she noticed Otiso behind her. She put the money in her purse and commented to the cashier that she wouldn't want anyone to steal it, Otiso said.
There was the dad in the hospital who looked directly at Otiso — not her white co-worker nearby — and told his two teenage daughters to study or they would wind up pushing patients around.
And repeatedly, when Otiso would tell people she was going to medical school, they would suggest she meant nursing school, she said.
"That idea that minorities can't also be academically accomplished individuals seems to be a very pervasive theme in Minnesota's form of microaggressions toward minorities," she said.
And then there were the countless times Otiso would go into clothing stores, gift shops and even bookstores, and clerks would pounce to offer help. If she entered with her mother, who is white, and the two stuck close, she said, the clerks would leave her alone.
Otiso's mother has seen it, too, watching from afar.
"Salespeople would insist that she tell them what she was looking for in a store, as if browsing was unacceptable for her, where it would be acceptable for me," Cynthia Otiso said. "The disparity in the way that we are treated is very evident and it's very painful to see, because Emily has the highest moral character of anyone I know."
While the Otisos know such incidents happen all over, they marveled at the frequency in Minnesota.
While everyone can agree overt racism is wrong, Emily Otiso said, "the microagressions are the ones that weigh much more heavily on me."
Indeed, research shows that experiencing accumulated microaggressions can damage mental and physical health, said psychology professor Kevin Nadal, who has written papers and books on the subject at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. People are likely to experience more microaggressions when they are one of the only people in their identity group, he said.
At the grocery store, the cashier gave Otiso a sympathetic look while the white customer tucked the cash into her purse.
After hearing the patient warn his daughters about working as patient transporters, Otiso's white co-worker said she thought the man must have been referring to all transporters, not just her.
While coaches have talked to her about playing basketball her entire life, she said, random people insinuating that basketball is her chance at an education don't sit well.
To her, it is "people assuming that I can just pick up a basketball and be this superstar athlete and that the only way that I can get into college is by using those innate athletic abilities," she said.
Acquaintances and friends likely thought they were trying to make Otiso feel better when they suggested that people making such comments are trying to be helpful, she said, but that made her feel worse.
"People say, 'Oh, don't take it that way,' and then it becomes an issue with you," she said. "Having people constantly invalidate your reality … leads to this overwhelming feeling of 'There's something wrong with me, I don't belong here and no one else sees it.' "
Friends of color were typically more understanding, Otiso said, because they had been through similar situations and recognized subtle racism.
"Unfortunately that happens a lot," said Charmaine Pogatchnik, who trained Otiso into her patient transport job. Otiso often mentioned incidents to Pogatchnik, who is biracial. Pogatchnik said she has faced outright racism — an elderly patient once demanded that someone white push the wheelchair, for instance — but subtle comments are more common. Typically, Pogatchnik said she just lets the comments pass.
"There's really not much we can do about that because it is a patient," she said. "We don't really have a support system when it comes to things like that."
At another metro-area hospital where Otiso worked as an emergency department technician, co-worker Falishia Washington grew tired of colleagues mixing her up with the three other Black women who worked in the department, even though they looked nothing alike. So she and the others made a joke out of it, calling each other "Brenda." When Otiso joined the team, they called her Brenda, too.
"They made it something that was a little bit lighter, but it's still because of the reality that people don't feel the need to tell us apart and learn our names," Otiso said.
Washington, a Michigan native who has lived in Minnesota for decades, said she sometimes turns to humor in such situations because speaking out can backfire: "If you speak up, you're being aggressive."
It's a sentiment both Otiso and her mother have noticed in Minnesota more than other places, too, they said.
"We noticed … people [in Minnesota] won't say 'no,' " Otiso said. Instead they tend to give long explanations, she said. "People can get away with more … because nobody is going to say something."
Nadal, the professor, said everyone is socialized to have biases and is capable of microaggressions. He said people can consult the many books and documentaries on the subject to recognize their biases.
Otiso said she is hopeful that Floyd's death at the hands of police may be prompting some change.
"I noticed … white friends going out of their way to learn more about their role in implicit bias, discrimination," she said.
In Minnesota and everywhere, she said, she hopes that momentum will continue.