When home is new — and scary

The two things I did not expect to be surprised by when I got home are (1) the cold, and (2) the prejudice.

I’ll start with the first one. From the moment I stepped outside the airport, the dry frigid air hit hard. Waiting on the light rail platform, I fished for gloves and a hat I did not want to take off once I was inside. Over the past month, it has only gotten colder. This fluffy white thing called snow started to fall from the sky. Then it rained and all the snow disappeared and the streets became gray and sad and covered with ice. It’s about 30 degrees outside now — zero degrees Celsius.

Instead of scouring the Internet for jobs as I should have been doing, I watched Rick Steves’s European Christmas one afternoon before the holiday. In some cities I recognized, people were carolling and strolling through charming markets, but there was hardly any snow to be seen. It snowed once in Paris during my year there — a mushy translucent slush that vanished an hour after the frantic afternoon storm that brought it there.

The thick coating of snow we received in mid-December. By New Year’s, it was replaced by slippery ice.

So, the fluffy white stuff might be more literal here than in southern Europe, but it’s definitely an issue in both places, in other ways.

That brings me to Number Two. All bundled up on the train leaving the airport, taking a seat with my fellow Minnesotans just as I might have on any other night before I had left the state, I felt my mindset start to slip. I already found myself looking at my surroundings not in the way I did in all these new places over the past 15 months, but exactly how I had before, or rather, had been taught to before.

Namely, when I stepped off the train and walked to my bus stop, I did not just feel cold. I felt threatened.

Rewind for a second: Over the past year, I waited for many trains and busses, usually alone, often in places I had never seen before, often in the dead of night or early morning before the sun came up. These were in places where I did not necessarily speak the language. They were cities as all-encompassing and diverse as Paris, Marrakech, Granada and Berlin. For 15 months, I walked calmly throughout their streets, vigilant but not worried, and never once harmed.

I’m not saying it’s perfect there, or that people are more or less prejudiced there than they are here. I even wrote about how observing upper-class Parisian prejudice was among the most important lessons I learned. The difference is that over there, I was free of the societal prejudices I grew up with. For 15 months, the voices of elders telling me that I should think a certain things about certain people stopped knocking on the door of my mind and I was able to just focus on seeing.

So why did I feel nervous catching a bus four miles from my home? The glaringly obvious one might be that I was home and that I was not as blissfully ignorant about my surroundings. But then I started to think about what my schooling; my family; the media I grew up with and general white Minnesotan society had taught me about my surroundings:

One: never to walk alone at night. As a woman alone, you’re a target. Two: bad neighborhoods are full of bad people. Cue all of the racial profiling that growing up here makes you disgust but implants so deeply in your system that it takes work to fight it.

Three: In America, people can buy guns. If someone for whatever reason wanted to harm you, they could more easily than in any other place you have been.

And four: Because of one or maybe all of these things, people don’t walk around outside the way they do in the places you came from. Sure, it’s dang cold, and that’s part of it. But the houses are spread out here; the streets are not social walkways but arteries for cars. It’s not even that normal to be walking out on the sidewalk at night; someone without a car might be up to no good … .

Mac Grovelend, St. Paul: our streets are wide and white, and our doors are closed — especially in the winter.

To be clear, I don’t condone these ideas. I did not before I left, but they had always been there around me and I had been used to their constant knocking. I’d gotten good at not letting them in. But that night, they all sprang back to my mind as I shivered and waited for that bus to come. And I was instantly very interested in how a place can bring on racism and prejudice; that while individuals may have certain prejudices that are all their own, coming back to a place can push those prejudices back toward you, especially if you grew up among them.

White Minnesota’s ideal winter looks a lot like the wide shots in Rick Steve’s Christmas special: cheerful, snowy just when it’s convenient, and populated with other happy white people. Minnesota whites are Minnesota nice; calm and non-confrontational, especially when it comes to their own prejudice. Though they rarely vocalize racist thoughts, they turn blind eyes to their deeply embedded prejudices. With a history of segregated neighborhoods, Twin Cities whites trick themselves into thinking there is not a race problem here because they don’t see much color in their communities.

I’d wager that an overwhelming percentage of whites here have cars, too.

I got on the bus. Apart from the puffy winter clothing, it looked about the same as any bus I had been on in the past year: people of varying ages, colors and financial situations sitting tired and absent-eyed, waiting to get where they needed to be — probably home. I cursed myself for the thoughts flooding through my brain as I searched for a place to sit, after having spent a year not thinking twice about where I sat down, because for some reason over there, it did not seem to matter.

Here I was, and suddenly, it mattered much more than I thought it had; than I thought it should. If I am from here, a product of being raised in white middle-class St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was thinking such prejudiced thoughts, was this my prejudice or just that of my home? Or are they one in the same?

When you’re foreign, even if you speak the language and are trying to understand the culture, the embedded belief system does not own you. Not after just one year, at least. You can look at it and observe it and decide what about it is right and wrong, according to your own terms.

The belief system back at home is far trickier to escape. Because you can’t always tell where it ends and you begin; what judgement is your own and what comes from the mind frames of those around you who perpetuate that belief system.

Scary homeland

What might come as less of a shock than the fluffy white stuff is the fact that all of the Europeans I spoke to this year disliked Donald Trump. When he was elected, many people asked me to explain how it had happened. I tried best I could to explain that he found a way to capitalize on people’s fears and use them to gain popularity — because fear is a more powerful force than we realize.

Just over a week into his presidency, Trump has signed executive orders following through on that fear. He says he’ll be building that wall along Mexico’s border and already has halted entry into the states for people from some predominantly Muslim countries and for Syrian refugees.

It is a scary time to call the U.S. home, and even scarier for those at risk of being shut out of it based on bigotry.

This was clear in the cold moments before I reached home that first night back, and it has sunk in way further by now.  Just growing up here has laced me with fear, and now the administration is acting on the kind of hatred that comes from that.

How can we here find a way to not let these times take our humanity?

Rather than shutting the voices of prejudice out and ignoring them; pretending they’re not there, I think it’s better to listen. Accept that they’re there, understand them, and then do everything possible to not let them affect real actions. Call whites, and yourself, out on these fears. Stay vigilant during these times. Operate with compassion, and hand that down to the next people who grow up here so they do not have to come home to a cold city full of white bullshit.

Let’s hope this time somehow gets us to a much better one in which we’ve learned from our mistakes.

It was an honor, but mostly a privilege, to go away. I know that the opportunity to travel comes from my white privilege. And if nothing else, this priviledge has taught me to see with fresh eyes. Now that I am back, I am going to try to never forget that, and to not slip back into the old way of seeing things. I will not let fear bar me from it.


Photos: Sights of snow

For anyone reading in Europe, here are some more pictures of winter in Minnesota. For anyone reading in Minnesota: sorry to rub it in.

A personal winter favorite of mine: Nordic skiing.
A snowdrift covers some rocks the day after a snowstorm.
My street during the 4 p.m. dusk when snow first started to fall.

4 thoughts on “When home is new — and scary

  1. In addition to the privilege of living deeply in another culture, you have been given fresh insights into our own culture. You are an excellent writer and thinker and I’m sure you’ll find ways to make the best use of these insights.

    I was “privileged” to teach for three summers in Western Europe and, even in that short time, I always returned as a “stranger in a strange land.” My students grew immensely during those five short weeks as well.

    Keep up the good work, wherever you go!


    1. Thank you, John. I appreciate you reading and commenting. What a privilege it is to see other parts of the world and learn from them. Teaching during the summer in Western Europe seems like an adventure both there and to come back from. We’ll see where these insights take us — hopefully somewhere good in these challenging times. Take care and thanks again for reading!


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