Column: Are you a racist? Welcome to the club

By Paul Wahl
Senior Managing Editor

Paul Wahl
Paul Wahl

Have you ever been accused of being a racist? Chances are if you’ve lived any significant period of time on this earth you have. It probably didn’t feel very good, did it.
Maybe your response was, “well I wasn’t a racist until just now.”
If we’re going to be totally honest, I believe each of us as a racist streak in us, no matter how much we protest otherwise. It’s human nature, and we are all humans.
I was a white guy editing a newspaper in a predominantly Hispanic community in Southern California for a number of years. I had the race card played on me almost every day.
It bothered me at first. These people didn’t even know me, how could they call me a racist?
But then my Hispanic co-workers would assure me that the individuals in question even called their own fellow Hispanics racists, so consider the source. By the end of my tenure there, I had received two rather prestigious community service awards, one from the Hispanic community and one from the Filipino community.
I also am a racist by virtue of the brand applied to my behind by the big daily to the east of us a while back. At one point, they termed every resident of Eden Prairie who had a problem with a school district attendance boundary redrawing that was written mostly in secret a “racist.”
Fortunately, in that case as in the situation in Southern California, I consider the source.
I didn’t experience my first real friend who wasn’t Caucasian until I moved to California at age 24. Growing up in one of the most rural areas of North Dakota, I was vaguely aware that Native Americans existed but seldom had any interaction.
I remember my junior year our school was excited to be welcoming an exchange student from Germany — a natural fit for an all-German community. When he arrived, he decidedly was not the German we all had envisioned.
He was Iranian, had jet black hair and olive skin. How could he possibly be German? Turns out, his parents had moved from Iran to Germany so his father could find work as an engineer in the mid-70s. That was my first lesson in stereotyping.
The natural tendency of people is to prefer their own kind, and the fact being pointed out to them makes for some uneasy moments. I believe this is one reason why so many leaders in our communities have difficulties with the concept of a Human Rights Commission.
Plymouth has downgraded its from a commission to a committee and the debate is ongoing there. Golden Valley has basically pulled the plug on its commission (also downgraded to a committee) after a knock-down drag-out screamfest a few years back and Hopkins jettisoned its human rights commission entirely.
That “just end it” approach to the issue more than any other seems to support the argument that a Human Rights Commission is needed … and needed rather badly.
Certainly that’s not the entire reason why cities have had open wars with their Human Rights Commissions. Sometimes it’s procedural issues, sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of the role of the commission. Sometimes it’s someone being just a bit too honest and outspoken.
But underneath all of the blankets beats the heart of people who really resent having their racial credentials questioned and who figure if they can have a hand in putting a stop to it, that’s what they will do.
And that’s not a criticism. That’s human nature. I might be tempted to do the same thing were I in their situation. Most of us would have the same reaction. We don’t want to be called names, we don’t like being called out because of our beliefs or actions.
Sometimes I think if there were a way for elected officials to get Velveteen Rabbit “real,” there might be more understanding all the way around.
The key is that we all recognize our propensity toward racism and do something about it, rather than living in denial.

Contact Paul Wahl at [email protected]