The Insidious Power of Rural Racism

My head is spinning as I watch the news headlines.

My heart hurts as I scroll through my Facebook feed.

So much anger. Confusion. Frustration.

I intentionally lived in the poorest neighborhood in Minneapolis as a college senior. My wife and I bought our first home in St. Paul. I planted a church there. My three oldest children were born there.

Minneapolis/St. Paul is still my city.

I grieve for her today.

I grieve for my friends and family who live there. I grieve for all the strangers whose injustice I’ve never experienced; whose pain I can’t understand; whose voices I haven’t heard.

Yet, I feel so detached from it all.

Fourteen years ago, I moved my family from St. Paul to a “town” of 65 (that’s not a typo) two hours north where the greatest diversity was among the names (Ander-, John-, Peter-, Eric-, etc.) placed before “son.”

I served a small country church there. We lived in the parsonage on 5 acres surrounded by woods. It was a beautifully bucolic setting free from the busyness, crime, and diversity of the city.

Sixty-four of the sixty-five residents were white (the only exception being the Hispanic woman married to a white man). Our church was 100% white (except on the rare occasion when the Hispanic woman didn’t have to work and was able to come church).

Yet, racism was alive and well in the country.

Left unfiltered by the presence of real people of color, the derogatory jokes flowed freely. The pervasive worldview that saw “those people” as the problem worked its way into frequent conversations.

They don’t look like us, talk like us, or act like us. Thank God they’re not here. We’re safe in our little white world.

From there we moved still further north, further removed from the threats of the city, to a thriving micropolis of 8,000. Here in the northwest corner of Minnesota, racial tolerance means celebrating both Swedish and Norwegian heritages.

Sure, there’s the African American football players at the community college, the Liberian nursing students, and the seasonal Mexican workers at the turkey plant. But these people don’t live here. They’re just temporary residents “sentenced” to the frozen tundra for a season or two.

This makes it easy to exclude them, ignore them, and not put any effort into getting to know “those people.” They’re not from around here. They’re not staying here. They’re not us.

Then there are the Native Americans. Surrounded by reservations, it’s virtually impossible to go anywhere without driving through one. The first thing I can remember being told upon traveling to this town for the first time is, “DON’T STOP ON THE RESERVATION.” And for two years I didn’t. Not to eat. Not to get gas. Not anything. Just look straight ahead and drive on through.

Then I became good friends with a white dude who grew up on the reservation who dispelled many of my fears. I didn’t even know white people could live on the “rez.” Huh.

My point is not that all country folk are racists, just as not all urban people are racists. My point is that racism is not “their problem.” It’s not a “big city issue.” It’s our problem. It’s our issue.

Racism is a people issue. Not matter who you are. No matter where you live. The subtle and insidious power of racism is alive and well in many hearts, including mine.

So here’s my plea to my fellow country folk: Let’s not trivialize the issue with ignorant social media posts. Nor let us exacerbate the issue by hurling insults and accusations at unknown “enemies.” And certainly don’t turn a deaf ear to the cries of injustice or a blind eye to the anger and violence.

Instead, let us sit and listen. Listen to their experience. Listen to their pain. Hear their cries. Don’t minimize, trivialize, justify, or dismiss. Just listen.

Let us stand and watch. See the injustice. See the anger. See the violence. Don’t close your eyes. Don’t look away. Look into their eyes and see.

Let us stop and examine. Examine our own hearts. Reflect on our own privileges. Explore the reality of our own biases. Ask God to break your heart for what breaks His.

Lastly, let us move and act. Look for opportunities to tear down barriers and build bridges between races and cultures. Stand against the subtle and overt racism in your community, stand up for the poor and oppressed, and stand with those who are different than you.

Small towns can be a place of healing. Not by ignoring, but by embracing.

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