When we were kids our parents told us to “be nice” and “play nice.” Nice was the same as doing the right thing. No one would complain about someone who was too nice. If you were extremely nice someone might even say “aww you are so sweet and nice.” You might even get recommended to others as the nice guy or nice girl. You were rewarded for being nice.
As a young kid growing up in Detroit, I was also taught another side of nice. I was taught by my dad and grandmother to be leery of adults that are “too nice for no reason.” I was also taught that if an adult was too nice they may want something in return of their niceness. They may have something they are hiding from you. The reason for hiding something could be that they want to pretend like they have your best interest at heart when in fact they don’t. My grandmother concluded my lesson by saying that people being nice for no reason sometimes avoid the truth, avoid confrontation and sometimes are just being nice to get something from you. Being nice was not always a good thing.
When I arrived in Minnesota in 1992, I was presented with Minnesota Nice. People smiled at me. They cheerfully said hello. They invited me to lunch and coffee, but not so much dinner and never their home. They told me they were glad I am working with them and invited me to old Irish bars and taverns for drinks, although I did not drink alcohol and was obviously not Irish. They were Minnesota Nice and proud of it. I knew that some of the nice had to be because I was the only black or brown person in the room, in the company or in the professional community. The Minnesota Nice was specifically directed at me, but was it a good thing to be nice or was it what my grandma warned me about?
Is Minnesota Nice, Not So Nice? Does it depend on your understanding of cultural proficiency or cultural humility. Does it depend on whether you are a person of color, Indigenous person or from an underrepresented group? Is Minnesota Nice having a negative effect on Inclusion and Equity.
Minnesota Nice – Intent vs. Impact
Let me start with this premise. I do not believe Minnesota Nice or those that embrace Minnesota Nice are evil or have an opposition to Inclusion and Equity. Some people who engage in Minnesota Nice believe that it is a great thing for all Minnesotans. They do not have an intent to do harm. However, I do believe that those who adopt Minnesota Nice as their go-to engagement strategy do not take the time to listen to those who receive their Minnesota Niceness and determine the impact of their actions or words.
My grandmother always said actions speak louder than words. You can say all the right things, but your actions demonstrate how you really feel. She always said believe people and how they treat you. When it comes to Minnesota Nice in communities of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ communities, Minnesota Nice can be seen as a passive aggressive way of dealing with issues. The Niceness avoids confrontation and conflict and still keeps the status quo. A status quo that results in continued disparities and racial inequality. One example of Minnesota Nice is the adoption of Conversations about Race and Equity. These conversations have been described in many ways and had many “experts” deliver the message or facilitate discussion. As my friend St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter describes this term, expert means someone from out of town. These conversations have great intent to make change, but the Minnesota Nice portion of these conversations lead to only more and more conversations. Never Action and never sustainable changes. The intent is good, but the impact has never had long lasting impact. Conversations are not bad, but they must be accompanied by concrete action steps that sometimes cause pain and discomfort.
The People of Color, LGBTQ, Indigenous People and People with Disabilities Dilemma
It’s is now 2019. By now Minnesota Nice should have led to substantial changes in Minnesota as it relates to Equity. In a state that aggressively practices Minnesota Nice, we should not lead the nation in racial disparities or unequal and inequitable outcomes for other populations. However, we continue to lead the nation in these categories. Can we blame this on Minnesota Nice? Let’s take a look. A good friend recently made a FB post and she said that she would adopt some of these behaviors in her upcoming posts: 1) not make anyone feel uncomfortable or less than; 2) keep her (true) opinions to herself; 3) tiptoe (and not speak directly) about challenging conversations or issues; 4) not ask thought provoking (or controversial) questions: and 5) not ruffle any feathers and remain extremely neutral. Under closer examination of these behaviors my friend summarized very well the problematic nature of Minnesota Nice.
Minnesota Nice may at times avoid activities, conversations or actions that make people feel uncomfortable. This may mean failing to take a stance on discrimination, police brutality, institutional racism, etc. The comfort gained by inaction is in fact a passive aggressive action that causes more discomfort to marginalized communities than being direct. Minnesota Nice also manifest itself around keeping true opinions secret and avoiding challenging conversations or issues. On more than on occasion, I have heard many communities of color and disability communities make this statement, “I wish people would really tell me how they feel about race/disability, because if they did we could address the real issues.” Minnesota Nice does not promote direct expression because it could lead to loud and passionate conversations where people show emotion, pain and other non Minnesotan characteristics. These actions would of course make people feel uncomfortable and incapable of addressing honest solutions. Being afraid to rock the boat has a direct correlation with Minnesota Nice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Minnesota Nice can be a passive aggressive silence that further disconnects communities of color, indigenous communities, disability communities, LGBTQ communities and others. Minnesota Nice can show up in the veil of friendship and leave with a deafening silence on issues of policing, racial disparities, and outright bias and discrimination. Sometimes being Too Nice is just talking about it instead of doing something about it. Sometimes when actions occur pain or raw emotion may need to be seen before a change happens. Sometimes Minnesota Nice gets in the way.
If you are from Minnesota it is ok to be nice. You can use good manners, be courteous and be respectful to everyone. This type of behavior is encouraged. It is also encouraged to acknowledge when Minnesota Nice becomes Minnesota Ice and passively and aggressively excludes and marginalizes populations of people who don’t think or act like Minnesotans. Minnesota Nice at times must be replaced by authentic conversations and actions that push, challenge, cause angst and pain and hurt. These actions must be authentic and allow space for others to communicate in a way that is not all that Minnesotan and of course not Minnesota n-ICE!