Tuesday, March 6, 2012

North Minneapolis, Race, and My "Aha!" Moment (Part 1)

Post by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

Part One:  The Back Story

I take guitar lessons, and in those lessons I frequently have what my guitar teacher calls an "Aha! moment."  That's when I see a pattern in a chord progression, or learn a new aspect of music theory, and apply it to the music I'm listening to or learning to play.  Whether it's learning a new aspect of the geography of the guitar or finding out that every single pop song can be played with the same four chords, Aha! moments open up a whole new way of understanding what it is I'm doing, and can even fundamentally change how I approach my lessons.

Over the past week, I had such a moment in how I view the topic of (cue ominous, scary music here) race relations.  To really understand the Aha! moment about race, here's the back story:  Shortly after the shooting death of Terrell Mayes Jr., a community brainstorming session was held at the Warren on 44th and Penn.  That event was heavily promoted through the Get to NoMi Facebook page.  That page, which had roughly 1100 - 1200 members at the time, grew to almost 1500 as people kept coming to the site to talk about north Minneapolis issues.  It was even mentioned in an NPR piece about transit as a place where people in north Minneapolis were coming to interact.

Much of the discussions centered on racial issues.  Those exchanges weren't always pretty, but I (eventually, at least) found it fascinating and exciting that they were happening at all.  Not everyone felt this way, and some people were disappointed that the Get to NoMi page was no longer being used as this feel-good northside business promotion site.  The administrators, in a move I feel was ill-advised, opted to take the page down.  The discussions have now shifted over into the North Talk Facebook page.

I was tremendously disappointed to see Get to NoMi get removed in the way that it did, because I had my "Aha!" moment there.  Before the moment of revelation though, I had to really make a fool of myself.  That happened when...

...I came home one evening a few days after the brainstorming session.  I had been reflecting on the fact that the session, although attended by a mix of people, was made up mostly of White residents.  The vigil for Terrell was attended by a majority of Black residents.  I lamented this disparity on the Facebook page, and asked what it would take to get both kinds of events to be more reflective of our community in north Minneapolis.  As part of the exchange that followed, a fellow northsider named Roxanne called me a racist, and took great offense to that.

In fact, I took such offense that I said some not-so-nice things myself and then blocked her on Facebook entirely.  Perhaps that wasn't the wisest move, but at the time I felt I could not engage in a broader dialogue if the two of us were just going at each other's throats. 

So we kind of danced around each other's postings on the Get to NoMi site.  I couldn't see what she wrote, and vice versa, unless someone else showed the posts to us.  Roxanne started to send out a change.org petition on the Northern Metals pollution issue (more on that later, folks - we still need your help there) and friends and neighbors kept telling me how this woman was signing people on left, right, and center.

And one of my guiding principles is that I always want to make sure people know that what they do is appreciated.  This is especially true for the people with whom I am at odds with.  So when I heard this about Roxanne, I made a mental note to myself that the next time I saw her in person, I would just say "thank you."  I wasn't expecting anything beyond that.  When I did see her, I said, "Roxanne, I hear you've been doing a lot of great work around the Northern Metals issue in my community.  I just want to say thank you, and I want you to know that means a lot to me and that I appreciate what you're doing."

She said, "You know, we got along before all of this, right?  We can just be friends."

If you want to reconcile with someone and that person says we can be friends, the only real response you can make is "Yes."  So I kind of mumbled that.

And then Roxanne did probably the thing I was least expecting when she asked, "Would you like a hug?"

Who says no to a hug, right?  So of course I said yes.  We hugged, and while that wasn't the "Aha!" moment, it did trigger something in my brain.  When I went home that night to start reading the community discussion threads on Facebook, that hug planted the seed that allowed me to start looking at things in an entirely new light.

(Continued in part 2)

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