Readers responded to Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s call for replacing the title “chief” in city positions with disbelief, derision, and attempts to educate us on the etymology of the word. “How could it be offensive? It’s Latin!”
I fear these folks missed the point and in the process underscored the problem that has the entire country swinging between revulsion and revolution: systemic racism. I should know. I’m a racist.
How could I not be? I’m a white male, born and raised into a society that intrinsically elevates me over people of color and has kept me isolated from them throughout most of my life. My upper-middle-class, suburban high school graduating class of over 400 included two faces of color. Ditto my college and subsequent work experiences. Because my first-hand interactions with Indigenous, Black, and Brown people have been limited, my perspectives are largely informed by what I see on TV, read in the media, or distill from conversations with people who look like me.
As a result, I am programmed to make misguided, racist assumptions. A car full of white guys idling under the street lamp in front of my house at night? Probably college kids and no big deal. A carload of black men? I memorize the details in case I’m asked about them later by the police.
I don’t like to think I’m racist. I stand for equality and equity (two different things; a woman taught me that!), and I condemn injustice when I can recognize it. I was horrified by the callous killing of George Floyd. I joined the NAACP. I marched on Juneteenth.
But racism transcends promoting white supremacy, spewing hate, or burning crosses. It’s going to bed at night with no worry about being hurt or killed because of the color of my skin — but without considering the masses which do not. It’s ignoring that my genetics and my friendships with wonderful people who are police officers are the reasons my blood doesn’t run cold when a squad car pulls me over. It’s staying quiet, accepting my comfortable status quo and refusing to challenge or being unwilling to recognize entrenched societal norms that by design disenfranchise or demean people of color.
Defund the police? Abolish prisons? Replace the term “chief?” As a white person, my gut instinct is, “Isn’t that going too far? Why? How?” My guess is that any person of color could provide me with great answers to those questions.
I prefer a world where I don’t have to go out of my way to integrate people of color into my life. I want them to just be there. I want to live my life, do my work, hike a trail, and in the process find myself surrounded by people of all races, simply because they are my neighbors, co-workers, and friends — simply because they have had the same opportunities for education, housing, employment, health care, and all the other necessities of safe, happy living that my white skin has gifted me.
But I won’t get there sitting comfortably on my white rear end. We won’t get there by instinctively deriding suggestions for replacing words that on the surface seem innocuous enough but have dark and hurtful associations for others. We won’t get there by countering a movement with the argument that “all lives matter.”
Of course they do. But all lives aren’t two-and-a-half times more likely to be snuffed out by bad cops. Waking up to the fact that white privilege colors our thinking and that white supremacy is the foundation of American society is essential for tearing up that foundation and rebuilding it.
Systemic racism is real. Black Lives Matter. That’s this racist’s opinion.
Dave Pagel moved to Duluth 40 years ago, drawn by the city's recreational opportunities, especially rock climbing and ice climbing. He is the author of "Cold Feet: Stories of a Middling Climber," and "The Forever Girl." He also is on the board of the Duluth Climbers Coalition and is a member of the working group Bridging the Adventure Gap.