I flew into Grand Forks, North Dakota, a few days ago to participate in an open house for the psychology program at the University of North Dakota. I have been eager to experience Grand Forks for myself as I have been considering moving here for several years. While normal concerns, such as the weather and the quality of academics at UND have been on my mind, I am also concerned about the prevailing culture in the area, especially in regards to race relations.
While I am half-Dutch I am also half-Filipino and am very clearly part of an ethnic minority. I have been curious to know how I will be treated and perceived in such a community. I have not had to wait too long to get a rough gauge for Grand Forks in this regard.
My host family is Native American. In our time visiting I expressed the fact that I had never experienced racism first hand growing up in California but knew it was different elsewhere, and asked them what their experience had been. I listened to their many stories about experiencing racism and discrimination because they are Native American. Stories of Native children being locked in closets at schools by teachers. Stories of being harassed on their own front lawn in front of their children. Stories of their children being bullied. Stories of being discriminated against as they searched for a place to live. Stories that spoke to the prejudice against Native Americans that is too common in the area.
I also heard a number of stories about more broadly known issues, such as the controversy over the “Fighting Sioux” logo and mascot being used at UND. Some, perhaps most notably Ralph Engelstad who built a shrine to himself in the form of a hockey arena at UND, have strongly insisted that this racist practice be continued. And before I even came out here I had already heard about the graffiti at UND employing ethnic slurs against Native Americans.
While I have been out here a few high school students from Grand Forks thought it would be appropriate to dress up in white robes and white hoods that intentionally or unintentionally resembled KKK garb to a hockey game. Even if one extends these students the benefit of the doubt and assumes there were not advocating the values or agenda of the KKK, the fact that youth from this town would not stop to think about their choice of apparel and no one at the event would talk to them about it is quite telling.
Just as important as their behavior was the reaction to their behavior. This issue only became noticed when a picture was spread on Twitter and so far no official action has been taken. There has been no apology from the school, no reprimand of the students involved and no condemnation of the act. While some have expressed dismay and disbelief at this act, Fargo Public Schools Athletic Director Todd Olson, and certainly others, have dismissed this behavior as an acceptable part of a “white-out,” a tradition of wearing white to hockey games.
The experiences of my host family, the controversy over the logo, the actions of the students at the hockey game, and the ambivalence towards or excusal of the behavior of these students all point to something that I am all too familiar with: a level of acceptable racism tolerated within a community where the people of reference in the United States, white Christians, are the majority.
Grand Forks is roughly 90% white and 80% of those who identify as religions identify as Christian. Anytime such a majority exists, dealing with discrimination against minorities and racism is bound to be a low priority. The impact of such discrimination is felt by only a few people with limited political and social clout. Those in positions of power are themselves most often part of the majority and personally unaffected and under no pressure to act from the majority of their constituency. In this type of environment, racism against ethnic minorities and discrimination against minorities in general too often enjoy passive acceptance as it is denied, downplayed, excused or even encouraged. The fact that the North Dakota state legislators recently rejected a ban on workplace discrimination against the LGBT community is but another example of this problematic situation. Such dynamics are all too familiar to me as they mirror those I grew up with in central California.
In the end it is simply far easier for the white Christian community in Grand Forks (or my hometown, or elsewhere) to dismiss these incidents of racism as one-off mistakes or blame minorities for being too sensitive to these issues, than it is to wrestle with centuries of white privilege, colonialism, and a rather hypocritical acceptance of racism given Jesus’ teachings.
If we as a society are going to make lasting change a reality in Grand Forks and similar environments, and truly move towards more equitable race relations, condemning one act or one behavior is not enough. Condemning the landlord that mistreated my host family, or the hecklers who drove up to their house is not enough. Castigating those that want to keep the Fighting Sioux logo even though it is racist and condemned by the American Psychological Association is not enough. Condemning the youth that wore the costume that resembled the KKK’s outfits is not enough. These would be treating the symptoms of the disease and not the disease.
The real issue is a culture that has grown too comfortable in its dominance and too comfortable with exerting that dominance so that the complaints of minority groups are seen as inconvenient gripes rather than true cases of injustice. The real issue is a culture that makes space for a level of acceptable racism and therefore never fully eradicates it even as it professes to pursue racial harmony and equity. Wrestling with this culture will require much of those in the majority who have little impetus to change, but it is the only way to truly change the present state of race relations in Grand Forks and elsewhere in any meaningful way.