This Is a Personal Statement

I’ve never been accused of using too few words to make my point. I hope that I at least have chosen my words carefully in this long piece.

In the past weeks, I’ve seen many thoughtful posts about the systemic racism and lack of justice for people of color, especially Black Americans, on blogs and social media as well as in email messages from organizations. I’ve liked the posts, shared them, followed their authors, and learned from them. But I haven’t written my own words—until now.

This is my personal statement, with a few borrowed words from others included to show how they connect with me.

Statement from Sons of Norway International Headquarters

As a descendant of Norwegian immigrants to the United States, I have been a member of the Sons of Norway organization for 15 years. Its mission is to promote and to preserve the heritage and culture of Norway, to celebrate our relationship with other Nordic Countries, and provide quality insurance and financial products to our members. What does that have to do with the current status of protests against injustice in the United States, you may ask. I’ll let their words answer. From the Sons of Norway international headquarters:

We are deeply troubled by the senseless murder of George Floyd in our organization’s hometown—a product of unchecked systemic racism and violence, and a direct assault on the values we hold most dear. We mourn with our neighbors and community members in this time of nationwide distress and injustice; when our communities suffer, we all suffer. It is our collective responsibility not only to hope for a more just, peaceful, and inclusive society, but more importantly to strive for it through our words and actions.

Eliminating racial prejudice and social injustice is everybody’s business. Correcting systemic racial policies that led to inequality of treatment of any group of people must be addressed by all people.

The death of George Floyd shocked me. The shock came not only because I, like so many people, saw it on TV as a bystander’s cell phone camera caught the image of one police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck while at least one other police officer stood, doing nothing. The angle of the view I saw didn’t include the two other officers on the other side of the car where George Floyd lay on the ground and took his last breaths. That such an event happened in Minnesota, not New York, not in the South, or not in one of the nation’s largest cities, that shocked me.

The shock regarding the place of the horrendous death of George Floyd was personal. The place—Minneapolis—made it impossible for me to continue to sit back somewhat reassured by the thought that there is evil everywhere, but not so much in my neighborhood. I was removed from it. That place—Minnesota—is the place where I learned my values, a place where I thought everyone else shared my values.

I grew up in Minnesota—in the northern half of the state, on the border with North Dakota. And years later, for seven years I lived in Minneapolis suburbs.

My first 20 years in Minnesota involved my struggle to get away. I felt my home was boring. Nothing ever happened there, at least nothing like what I saw on TV. I had no opportunities for adventure like Ken McLaughlin in My Friend Flicka, Joey Newton in Fury, Jeff Miller in Lassie, or even Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver. Those TV kids didn’t live in big cities either, but their stories were interesting enough to be on TV.

I wanted to live in the world, not be stuck in small town Minnesota where the most significant conflict was between Catholics and Lutherans, followed closely by the Norwegian Lutherans vs. the Swedish Lutherans. Time seemed to be the antidote needed to resolve, or at least lessen, those conflicts. But time isn’t good enough to address systemic injustice.

Even as an elementary school pupil, I saw from the newspaper headlines that the rest of the country wasn’t like my home. I learned the meaning of words like segregation, desegregation, and integration by asking my parents after seeing photos of crowds of people whose skin was darker than mine being hit by police officers holding clubs or shooting high-pressure streams of water from fire hoses.

After college, I went as far away from Minnesota as I could go without having to get on an airplane or a ship—California. After five years of working and studying there, I grabbed an opportunity for adventure that allowed me to travel, live, and work outside the United States.

When I returned from adventures in two countries with very different histories, culture, and governments, I returned to Minnesota, to Minneapolis, the star of the state. And I saw Minnesota through new eyes.

Where I had previously seen boredom and sameness, I now saw stability and community. And I celebrated those qualities. My travels to and working in far away countries where the people had little or no say in how they were governed propelled me to get involved with local politics, an arena unlike the larger national and international politics. Minnesota has been known for its Minnesota nice quality. Neighbors help one another out, even if they don’t know one another all that well.

Eventually that political involvement led me back to an international lifestyle. After seven years of taking the annual Foreign Service exam and occasionally passing it, I decided I would continue to take it every year thereafter whether I passed it or not to ensure that I kept up with events about the world. After the last pass, I was invited to join the US Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. For the next 30 years, I lived and worked in countries on four continents.

During those years, I saw people in Yemen struggling to stay alive while food and medicine were in short supply due to a war being waged in their country by outsiders, and people in Eritrea where no one was safe from being rounded up and forced into unlimited military service or into prison without their families being informed. Those were injustices worth fighting for, but I was in those environments as a representative of the US government. And my time there was limited. What could I do to make a difference, I thought and then put away the thought.

Statement from Foreign Policy Magazine

Already, the debate has underscored the fact that, while social justice has not been a traditional focus of foreign-policy thinkers, it should be. As Bishop Garrison and Jon Wolfsthal argue in a recent FP essay, “The United States cannot claim to be a beacon of freedom in the world if it continues to witness and accept the ongoing murder of innocent black people. … If the national security community only seeks to address global threats but refuses to confront the sins that hide in plain sight at home, there will never be lasting progress in either area.”

Many of the organizational statements I’ve received included calls to action. As a result, I’ve watched movies, documentaries, TV series that I had previously overlooked when they first appeared. The 2019 TV miniseries When They See Us, about the falsely accused and imprisoned Central Park Five; the 2016 documentary 13th, detailing how the abolition of the institution of slavery didn’t result in the freedom for former slaves; the 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro, featuring powerful words from James Baldwin describing his reactions to the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., a film produced 30 years after Baldwin’s death.

I’ve taken part in Zoom panels with young Black leaders of organizations dedicated to changing the status quo, with Black actors and behind-the-scenes personalities in the world of theater. I’ve been excited to see so many participants and then disheartened when many reported being either the only Black person or one of only two in the larger organizations they represent.

What Have I Learned?

I’ve been listening for a call to action that involves more than making a donation or signing up for a newsletter or taking time to read books on the subject of systemic racism. I do not reject those responses, but I want to do more. Two ideas hit home for me.

Seek Structural Solutions

In one of those panels, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change pointed out that too often in the past, charitable solutions have been proposed for structural problems. As an example, he pointed to sending bottled water to Flint, Michigan, instead of cleaning out the pipes and providing sufficient funding to replace them. Donations that go toward charitable rather than structural solutions waste resources.

I will dig more deeply into the goals of the organizations and programs seeking my donations to identify those that offer structural solutions.

Pay Attention to the Narrative

Rashad also pointed out the importance of paying attention to the words used in any narrative. An example I noticed in 13th is the narrative that after the abolition of slavery, former slaves left the South for big cities in the North and West for better opportunities. The narrator in 13th pointed out that the cause of the migration was flight from an area where the former slaves were oppressed, making their journeys more similar to refugees than migrants.

That made me wonder whether the narratives about my immigrant ancestors have overlooked the main cause for their migration, allowing the overarching story of the pull of the promised land instead of the truth to serve as the explanation. As a society, we may need to reevaluate our immigrant stories in order to better understand how they compare with those of current day immigrants.

I hope that I have chosen my words carefully here and that I will continue to do so in the future.

Image credit: photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

2 responses to “This Is a Personal Statement”

  1. Well done! Thanx. JimC

    JAS Comeau

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Jim. These are interesting times, right?

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