There's a lot to love about Minnesota - the pristine lakes, rivers, and streams (we've got over 90,000 miles of shoreline, dontcha know), the festivals, the clean streets, and our ever-inventive ways to stay busy through long winters come to mind. But we also have serious issues. Knowing that Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation when it comes to things like education, jobs, and incarceration doesn't exactly put my mind at ease.
I recently traveled to Washington, DC for a training. Being there opened my eyes to an entirely different dynamic: race and class and nationality, all mixed together. I ducked into the Chinatown Panera to receive an important call. Having just come from a meeting, I was wearing a smart navy blazer - weave on point, eyebrows on fleek. Seriously, I looked good. Inside, the security guard, a West African man, briefly glanced at me as I purchased a self-serve coffee. A young Black American woman came in, followed by an older white woman. She approached the steps to access the seating area.
"WHERE ARE YOU GOING? You can't sit at the tables unless you're a PAYING customer!"
The security guard then turned to the white woman, saying, "Sorry for the inconvenience ma'am, steps are this way."
The young Black woman turned on her heels, incensed. "Why shout at me about being a paying customer when you know you can seat yourself and order your food from the table? Why are you falling all over yourself to help this white lady? She's my AUNT. I'm treating her to lunch! Why are you typecasting?"
Instead of digging a hole deep into Panera's tiled floor and throwing himself away for being so discriminatory, the security guard doubled down. "I'm not doing anything wrong! You people come in here, this is for PAYING customers. I have to make sure you can PAY."
It was bad.
I caught up with the woman briefly, offering to back her up with a complaint to the manager. I asked, "Does this kind of thing happen often around DC?" Her answer: "Hell, yeah."
Granted, I'm aware of the tensions that can exist between Black Americans and African immigrants. My first year of college, an Ethiopian friend of mine once complimented my hardworking nature by telling me my "Nigerian side won over". (What? As if my Black American ancestors weren't forced to work for free, for hundreds of years). My interactions with recently-immigrated Africans versus US-born Black Americans have been fraught with confusion. This is further complicated by my having a Nigerian immigrant father and a Black American mother. I recall being called "African Booty Scratcher" by Black American kids and people mocking my name. But I've also had Africa-born folks swear up and down to me that the racism experienced by Black Americans is self-created and totally in our heads.
Still, witnessing the Panera ordeal was surreal.
The inter- and intracultural issues among Minnesotans of color are complex. Really complex. For some reason, I'd assumed that the "crabs in a bucket" school of thought wasn't as prevalent in places where people of color aren't in the extreme minority. The Panera incident shook me out of my naive stupor.
I loved seeing so many people who looked like me walking around DC. The men and women wearing suits, having big conversations, making power moves. I thought, "That could be me, changing the world." But what of the scores of people who also looked like me, but were sleeping on the sidewalks in the shadows of our nation's monuments? Or being wrestled to their feet by surly Black and brown police officers after sitting for "too long" in the metro station?
What of the people who look like me, but who are unable to convince others of their innate humanity just by virtue of wearing a designer blazer - even if it DID come from a thrift shop?
In Minnesota, I am Black, period. I am never allowed to forget it. But when you live in a place where being Black isn't treated as some freaky anomaly, what are you to people? And more importantly: how do you respond when the person mistreating you looks just like you? What, then?
And I do listen. Specifically, to self-narrated memoirs. I jumped into the audiobook world when my work commute grew from a quick 25-minute ride to a nearly hour-long ordeal. Now, instead of grumbling about the glut of Minnesota drivers, the snow, ice, and general misery of commuting, I can laugh and learn my way down the highway.
Here are some of my recent favorites:
You haven't seen Black Panther? Close your browser immediately! To the theater with you - quick quick, yeah?
Black Panther was everything. As I'm not a card-carrying comic book or superhero expert, I'll just say this: the story and representation of different African cultures was on point. Seeing these cultures combine and swirl around to create the fictional world of Wakanda? Your faves could never. The complex, layered approach to Blackness and African-ness will no doubt be dissected and analyzed in future university courses. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there are so many ways to be Black in this world. I hope to discover them all.
And hey - there's no need to let the euphoria of Black Panther die. Keep the party going with some good reads:
My father traveled a lot for work during my formative years. I'd eagerly await the small trinkets and souvenirs he'd bring back from faraway places - clogs from Amsterdam, intricate South Korean key chains, foreign currencies. I didn't quite know what engineers did; In my mind, dad was probably having the time of his life making friends and going on crazy Indiana Jones-esque adventures. As an adult, I would come to find that my rosy view of work travel was wholly inaccurate. Turns out, business trips are kind of a drag. Gray or beige conference rooms, bland box lunches, and hours of endless meetings followed by nights of silence are the norm for many an employee.
But not this one.
I've gotten into the habit of requesting later return flights for business trips. As long as you cover the lodging costs for your off-work time, most human resources folks don't care when you come back. If your extra days happen to fall on a weekend, you don't even have to deal with taking extra vacation days. And if you already have a pug-sitter lined up? It's all gravy, baby.
And so it was with Austin, Texas. I attended the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Quality Conference and spent three days surrounded with engineers, air dispersion modelers, meteorologists, policy wonks, and communications strategists like myself. The charge? Figure out a way to make people care about air quality and the connection between air pollution and public health. Having spent years working with engineers, I didn't exactly expect a knee-slapping good time. But I was pleasantly surprised. I met some truly talented minds and came away with a renewed energy to communicate tough science in better ways. I was also reminded that it's total nonsense when people say they can't have a racially and ethnically diverse staff because there aren't qualified people of color in STEM. (There are. I saw them. Fight me.)
Still, three days of uninterrupted air talk left me itching to cut loose. Once the conference concluded, I left my swanky hotel and moved across town to a hostel on The Drag.
Now is a good time to mention that I am an extreme introvert. I may also be some kind of masochist, for why else would I voluntarily stay somewhere with shared bedrooms, bathrooms, and common spaces? To be sure, the constant activity took some getting used to.
I spent the first half of my free weekend wandering Austin alone, listening to my most recent read: Company Man, by John Rizzo. I also picked up a copy of Helen Oyeyemi's What is Not Yours is Not Yours at Book People, a local Texas bookstore. I even had an impromptu group brunch at a neighborhood cafe with four perfect strangers. Texans are friendly, y'all!
By day two, I was even braver. I chatted up the French dude who was sleeping in my room, Laurèns, and connected with some of the other hostel residents. This singular moment of courage quickly led to an hours-long whirlwind adventure with my new tribe, exploring the bustling Dirty Sixth Street (I drank! I danced - in public!) and weaving through the city to the laid-back Rainey Street (I drank more! I coolly bobbed my head!)
My new friends and I regaled one another with stories from our homes - Perth, Australia, Brooklyn, NY, Fort Wirth, TX, Kansas City, KS, Miami, FL - and Minnesotan Me. We connected over our love for Swedish power metal band Sabaton (I saw them live in 2016!), Tim Horton's, and of course, pugs.
We laughed. Ran. Drank. Posed. Jumped. Hugged. Ate. And a mere 12 hours after meeting, we said goodbye forever.
(Just kidding! Since it isn't 1978, we dutifully followed one another on Instagram and Snapchat)
Business trips shouldn't mean entrapment in beige prison cells with a succession of terrible PowerPoints and overpriced stale muffins bearing down on one's tired soul. They can be so much more. I'm happy to have had a small part in keeping Austin weird.
Was 2017 good to anyone? I'll be the first to admit I have a curmudgeonly streak, but this year was ridiculous. However, I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to reflect on some of this year's bright spots: