The city where I grew up – San Antonio, Texas – was majority Latinx, but by no means unsegregated. The East Side was predominantly poor and Black, and much of the South and West Sides were poor and Brown. If you were an upwardly-mobile POC, you moved to the city’s whiter, more affluent northern suburbs. That’s where my assimilated, single mom – originally from the West Side – raised me, with help from her Mexican immigrant parents and, eventually, my SoCal Chicano stepdad.
As a white-presenting mestiza (raised in white suburbs, no less) I am, in the words of Leslie Arreoloa-Hillenbrand, “both colonized and colonizer.” To be white-presenting is to live a duality: to both benefit directly from racism and be privy to the psychic pain it inflicts. It’s an eternally uneasy place to live.
When I was 31, I moved to Minnesota, and it was nothing short of culture shock. Exposed to people and cultures with which I’d had no prior experience – Somali, Hmong, Ecuadorian, Ojibway, Dakota – Minneapolis made me realize how diverse San Antonio actually wasn’t. New to me was the experience of feeling my whiteness so blaringly.
Shortly after arriving, I landed my first job in public media as an administrative assistant at Minnesota Public Radio. At the time, I was one of very few ethnic minorities or people of color at MPR. There were a few – I bonded early with another Tejano colleague, a fellow Black assistant who eventually rose in MPR’s ranks, and a rotating-door of Latinx journalism fellows – but there weren’t many. At one point in my ten-year tenure, despite Minnesota being home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., the only Somali in the building was on the janitorial staff. New to me was the experience of feeling like the only minority for miles.
Minneapolis was also the first time I’d witnessed acute segregation. Months in, I learned that the city’s predominantly Black North Side was a kind of island, when three consecutive taxis refused to drive us to a friend’s house there. I knew San Antonio’s East Side suffered grave inequities, but I’d never heard it spoken of as if it were some dangerous other country.
To be clear, racism and the inequities it creates are global; Minneapolis is not unique. But, for me, my ten years spent in the Twin Cities was eye-opening and oftentimes uncomfortable, even with the protections my whiteness afforded me. There were things I loved about the place, too, which made leaving – when I took a job in Texas – feel like the end of a failed marriage. On my last ride to the airport, I watched the buildings of downtown Minneapolis shrink in the car’s rear window and thought: Welp, we tried.
Last month, I sat in the safety of my Austin living room, phone in hand, watching video footage of a gas station burning two short blocks from my last apartment in Minneapolis. I felt a lot of things – sadness, anger, worry – but surprise wasn’t one of them.
* * *