• Derek Davidson

Texas vs. Minnesota

“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”

― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America


  1. You're not to think you are anything special.

  2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.

  3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.

  4. You're not to imagine yourself better than we are.

  5. You're not to think you know more than we do.

  6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.

  7. You're not to think you are good at anything.

  8. You're not to laugh at us.

  9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.

  10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.

  11. Perhaps you don't think we know a few things about you?

— The Law of Jante, Aksel Sandemose, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks


***


On one of my first days as a school administrator in Minneapolis, I was running a professional development session with my staff on Crucial Conversations, a book that aims to train people on direct, honest, communication in the workplace. There are many books like it that suggest that developing a workplace culture of honesty (neither brutal nor pussy-footing) will lead to trust and emotional safety and ultimately increased widget output. I like these books. They help me with my marriage. They make sense to me.


So I’m running a roleplay where participants confront a colleague about letting their class out late. Basic idea is that the colleague in question is bringing kids to your class five minutes late, and you have to have a conversation about it in hopes of correcting the behavior. People trying it in pairs, and several of my staff are struggling to bring up the issue, even in a roleplay. A couple are more intrepid, and their conversations go something like this:


Roleplayer: Hey, how are you?

Colleague: Good. Good.

Roleplayer: How’s your lessons going?

Colleague: Good. Good.

Roleplayer: And your pacing?

Colleague: *begrudging smile* Yeah, room for improvement there.


And scene. I was flummoxed. I stopped the room and nudged them towards honest and direct conversation, repeating all of the motivational reasons that this direct communication style will be helpful (it’s efficient and explicit and our kids cannot wait around for us to understand each other. They only get each day of their education once), and someone asks, “Well, how would you do it?” I obliged.


Me: Hey I noticed you’re consistently bringing the students late.

Colleague: Yeah, sorry.

Me: It’s not a big deal, but it does make it difficult for me to finish my lessons when we have less time than I’m expecting.

Colleague: Sure. Yeah.

Me: Please bring them on time.


Cut. The room is silent, wide eyed. Again, I am confused. My lone friend in the room, a midwesterner who had done this training before in another context spoke up: “Derek, can I do something real quick?”

“Sure.”

“How many of you were terrified by what he just did?”

Almost every hand shot up. I did not return to that school the following year.


***


I’ve been in the Midwest for six years now. My definition of home has always gone beyond just where you lay your head. Home is where you understand things—where you may not like it all, but you are rarely surprised. This ain’t it.


I do like Minneapolis. It’s a small city, big enough for a bit of culture and small enough to not drown in traffic. The city is laid out simply and well maintained. There is a fleet of snow plows that descend upon the city when it snows and leave safe conditions in their wake (at least, in Minneapolis. Glaring at you, St. Paul). The food scene doesn’t suck. Until recently there was Prince. And there are enough people here that you might imagine some real diversity. There isn’t any, of course. But you could imagine it.


The lack of diversity is mostly on account of a fierce de facto segregation that is supported by both public and private institutions. There are food and public transportation deserts, inequitable school options and the largest achievement gap between whites and people of color in the nation. Not exactly inviting.


Aside from the considerable systemic problems for people of color in this city, there is another, interpersonal, issue to contend with. Often, and almost always with regard to race, Minneapolitans just don’t say what they mean. It’s often called “Minnesota Nice,” and I’ve heard people call it “Minnesota Passive Aggressive,” but I think I would call it “Minnesota Insincere.” People are polite, but there is an invisible wall behind those niceties.


For instance, you’re at a party, and you meet a new person. You get along well. You meet their wife. They meet yours. You’re from out of town and are looking to make friends, so you say that you should get a meal together sometime. They smile, eyes lit up: “Yes! That would be great.” You drive home talking about it with your wife, and you’re excited because you made a new friend. But they never call. It never makes it on to a calendar, and you’re left wondering whether they’re flakier than a buttermilk biscuit or if they never really wanted to go out in the first place.


I watch people of color try to navigate this. In Minneapolis, everyone is pleasant. Everyone is surface level kind. And to some extent, the political leanings are liberal with plenty of woke millenials about. Still, in a social setting where insincerity is a norm, how is a person of color to know what these smiling white people really think? The city itself is no indication of some current of great white activism—there are plenty of long-standing inequities entrenched in this “liberal” community.


The summative effect of the minor insincerities, micro-non-aggressions, is one of a deep insecurity. There are meetings before and after meetings to discuss the subtext bubbling up between pauses and yes-no questions answered with the word “Sure.” The racial segregation in South Minneapolis (Latinx) and over North (Black) makes a whole lot of sense when you imagine the toll all that uncertainty would take on even the most assured person. I mean, I’m already feeling uneasy in most conversations with Midwestern strangers or acquaintances, and all I’ve endured are a few false positives for fast friends. It makes me miss Texas something fierce.


***


Texas is my home. I grew up in Houston, went to school in Austin, and like any respectable Texan, I know my way around the whole state, both geographically and anthropologically. I know Texas gets a bad rap outside of the state, and I also know that it deserves much of it. It is inhospitably conservative in some spaces. It is a disproportionate energy suck on the environment. We’ve also got a hand in the gun problem and even the concussions that young football players suffer. Then there’s Ted Cruz and Bush Jr. and Rick Perry in all of his “Adios Mofo” idiocy.


Despite those negatives, it is my home. In Texas, I understand the bad as well as the good. I never worry about being misinterpreted by someone or vice versa. This could be a function of my quarter century spent there, and maybe Minneapolis will be less anxiety producing over time. I’m sure it will. But the other reason is nestled in what it means to be a Texan.


I am a Texan, through and through. Dear Reader, I regularly remember the Alamo. But if I had to distill what the fundamental value or characteristic of a Texan is, I would land on honesty. It is not that people do not lie in Texas. They do. And cheat and swindle, I’m sure. But there is a shared understanding of what those actions mean in Texas and an equally shared understanding of what their absence means as well. To be a Texan is to understand that honesty is intrinsic to respect. If I respect you, I will tell you the truth, both verbally and non-verbally, even if that truth is not likely to be your favorite thing to hear. My honesty is more important than your comfort, and moreso, you being able to count on my honesty is more important than your comfort. Honesty values the quality of the relationship in the long term over a pleasant interaction in the moment. This, to me, is what it means to be Texan.


It’s also a big part of why Texas has the reputation it has. We are outspoken and honest as a people. Most of us are reasonable and outspoken. Some of us are crazy and outspoken. You can imagine which group gets broadcast outside of the state.


In fact, many of the stereotypes about Texas run directly contrary to the experience of living in a Texan city. Houston is the most diverse big city in the nation and the first city to elect a lesbian mayor. Austin is a blue oasis amidst the red rural counties surrounding it. San Antonio (along with much of both south and west Texas) champions its Hispanic heritage. Dallas… well, Dallas is a pustule on the anus of Texas inhabited by the spirit of corrupt oil men and women with robocop shoulderpads in their dresses and hair that is closer to heaven than most preachers. But it’s still a more honest place than most.


***


So my transition to Minneapolis has been a difficult one. Small talk here feels almost entirely like bullshit—things people say to build ease into the social interaction with little to no intention of following through. Small talk in Texas is… well it doesn’t really exist. I mean, you talk to people about small things, but every interaction holds the full force of your integrity. You don’t say things you don’t mean. You might share real intimate things with a stranger, and you’ll get their real opinion in return. And you could disagree more completely than oil and water but shake hands, smile, and mean it when you part.


Initially, I thought this was clearly another of the many indicators of Texan superiority. Honesty is better than dishonesty. Good vs. Evil, Houston vs. Dallas, etc. But as I’ve spent time here, I have begun to understand it a bit differently. My understanding stemmed from an argument with my wife.

I was driving through North Dakota on a road trip, and she wanted me to stop and get gas. The gauge had just hit a quarter tank, so I figured that we were fine for another 50 miles, easy. But she insisted. And insisted. So I acquiesced. In our debrief, my wife explained that where she grew up, running out of gas in the era before cell phones could mean death by exposure. People stepped out of their cars thinking they could walk to a gas station and froze to death in a whiteout mere yards from the car.


So imagine immigrating to this Gothic Prairie—a land as frozen and barren as Minnesota can be during the winter. You’re in a small group of people, a community, and it’s fundamentally you vs. the elements. If you, for any reason, developed a bumpy relationship with those around you, you risk ostracism, maybe even exile. One cannot abide exile in a place where the land itself could kill you. So you don’t rock the boat. I get it. You get to not telling the truth about small things, and it becomes easier to eschew the truth about bigger things in the interest of harmony and togetherness. I am reminded of Garrison Keeler’s signing off statement for the Prairie Home Companion: “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Keeler lets us in on the joke by claiming something both pleasant and impossible, but I doubt anyone would correct him here. It would be too discordant.


I believe the fundamental cultural value in Minnesota is harmony. You let the little things slide because ultimately it’s your community as a whole vs. the land. It is in your best interest to maintain a smooth interaction rather than upset someone, even if it might be the right thing to do. Eventually, the skillset required to diplomatically but directly disagree with someone is lost in the sands of time and a room full of educators is stumped by a simple workplace interaction. I wonder if the by product of this practice is a shift away from opposing the land and towards your (white) community vs. outsiders. I do not think it is a coincidence that the achievement gap here is so very wide.


I’ve taught younger children who thought that talking about race at all is racist. Kids who carefully call me caucasian rather than white. Young black children that avoid saying the word white like a millenial whispering black at a party. I tried to explain that it was just the opposite. Talking about race is how you make sure you don’t fall prey to it. Jay Smooth once talked about the hygiene model of discourse around racism. You have brushed your teeth before. But they are not permanently clean. You must brush them everyday to maintain your cleanliness. Similarly, we must scrub the racism from our thoughts, habits, interactions, etc. Together. I am convinced of this.


But I’ll be damned if it isn’t difficult in this city. People here just don’t talk about race. And when they do, you have little to no certainty that the beliefs espoused are actually held with any conviction. More than any other place I’ve been, this cultural climate calls for people to move beyond not being racist and to instead become anti-racist. Passivity in the face of inequitable circumstances is always a sin. But here, that passivity might look like tacit agreement (whether agreeing with an anti-racist or the inequitable status quo).


There are people here doing the work, and in many ways, it takes more courage than it might in other contexts. Fear of exile seems embroidered into the social fabric here, but there are activists kicking ass all the same. Unfortunately, it feels like the activists of color and white activists don’t spend a ton of time supporting each other, but perhaps I have yet to find those spaces. I could look harder.


Texas will always be my heart’s home. But my body lives in Minneapolis. My daughter was born in Texas, often referred to (by me) as the first and best gift I could give her. But she lives here and will have been raised here. Her parents are direct and to the point, and she has a mouth to match. Our directness is not often appreciated here. I might imagine someone thinking “Finally” with a sigh. “Someone said the thing that needed saying!” In reality it is much more often met with side eyes and a whispered, “what a dick.” I’ve juggled the issue of Minnesota Nice around in my head enough to come to terms with and convince myself that I understand it, but I cannot imagine ever practicing it.


Maybe I won’t have to. On the first day of professional development after I founded my high school, I stood in front of a middle and high school staff and asked every person who identified as white to raise their hands. Carefully, looking around, almost every staff member raised a hand. Then I shared the demographics of our student body, almost entirely people of color and, unlike many charter schools in the Twin Cities, an actual diverse mix of kids rather than an overwhelming majority of a single community of color. Before I could lay out the plan for building ease around race in our classrooms, for understanding ourselves to the extent needed to be secure and helpful allies, I heard teachers around the room talking about how important it was for us to do this work. I gave my staff a chance to write their thoughts out and read several people who were uncomfortable but leaning into their discomfort to be better teachers, better people. And I’ve watched so many of them follow through in front of kids. It’s encouraging. We . . . I still have work to do, because we’re never permanently clean. But it feels good to look some Minnesotans in the eye and know they’re speaking from their hearts. It has given me a tiny slice of home in this strange land to the north.

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Minneapolis, MN

©2020 by Esoteric Derek