Brainerd area panelists share stories of how their race impacted their lives
"I've developed a thick enough skin through the years. Unfortunately, the words themselves don't hurt, necessarily. I'll admit that I just kind of move on with my life because I'm used to a lot of those words as probably a lot of my counterparts here have. The difficult part are those around me, who choose to sit this one out. That's a difficult place to be. But that being said, it isn't all bad. There's been a number of people in my life that in the last year have stood up and supported me.” ~ Charles Black Lance
Speaking straight from the heart and with visible emotion, four Brainerd area residents Tuesday spoke of life experiences they’ve had based on their race.
These four — Charles Black Lance, James Russell, Toy Ross-Sullivan and Claribel Severson — shared their perspectives Tuesday, Oct. 5, at the Rosenmeier forum titled, “Race Relations in the Brainerd Lakes Area.” The program was hosted at the Bob Dryden Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College, and was presented by the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government, based at CLC.
The interest in hearing their stories was strong as Steve Wenzel, executive director of the Rosenmeier forums, said this was the largest crowd they’ve ever had. It was a packed house of 150 people — all required to wear masks — and another 59 people were watching the program virtually.
“We are very pleased,” Wenzel said of the turnout. “This was our largest gathering ever for a Rosenmeier forum. I was very pleased with the comments I heard afterwards, the comments were excellent.”
The four panelists discussed their racial background and experiences, both good and bad.
Black Lance, who is a Lakota/Ojibwe, and his wife Kathryn have three children — ages 14, 12 and 10 — in the Brainerd School District. He has worked in higher education for 23 years and serves as the director of TRIO (Academic Support) Programs at CLC. He also is a Brainerd School Board member.
Black Lance, who grew up in a small town in northwest Minnesota, recalled a time when he was 12 years old and playing travel sports. He was at an away game playing basketball, and at halftime he went into the locker room. The father of the player Black Lance was guarding in the game followed him into the locker room, upset with the way Black Lance was playing.
“He confronted me not just on my style of play — that's one thing — but he confronted me about my skin color and the fact that I'm American Indian,” Black Lance said. “He used a different language than that, but he got it into my face. And, unfortunately, my dad's been around that block a few times, and he always made it clear, not to punch unless, unless you're punched. So I guess I was smart enough to keep my hands to myself at that point ... even though he was attempting to grab me.”
Black Lance said a coach came into the locker room, handled the situation and then gave the team a pep talk on the game. Black Lance said his parents didn’t travel with him to that game that day and he never shared his experience with them.
“I wish I could share with you that that was the only situation that happened, but it wasn’t,” Black Lance said. “I realized early on that when it came to my skin color that people were allowed to be aggressive and really over the top and even physical at times.”
"It's always been disappointing with those brothers and sisters who will hear (a racist comment), but lay silently in the weeds."
— Charles Black Lance.
Black Lance said he loves the area he grew up in, but it also scared him. He said it is an “awkward reality” when you think about racism and what a parent must do to protect their children to shield them from the aggressive behavior of people.
Black Lance said as he continues his path today, he still is as lonely as he was as a 12-year-old boy in that locker room. He said the reality he struggles with most today when it comes to race relations and being a little bit different is he continues to see more aggressive and more attacking individuals, especially in the last year and a half — but doesn’t see others stand up to racism.
“It's always been disappointing with those brothers and sisters who will hear (a racist comment), but lay silently in the weeds,” Black Lance said. “That's been a frustrating reality of this day and age. I've developed a thick enough skin through the years. Unfortunately, the words themselves don't hurt, necessarily. I'll admit that I just kind of move on with my life because I'm used to a lot of those words as probably a lot of my counterparts here have. The difficult part are those around me, who choose to sit this one out. That's a difficult place to be. But that being said, it isn't all bad. There's been a number of people in my life that in the last year have stood up and supported me.”
Black Lance said another reality is he married a German woman and they receive comments from people about their children’s mixed race and how hard it is for them. Black Lance said his oldest was told in first grade that “Indians are stupid and lazy and not worth anything.” His middle child was told “people don’t want to be like her because of her skin color” and was mocked at school.
“These are all difficult things,” Black Lance said as a parent. “Part of my life is to be in a position where I can have a voice and play a part to make sure that that doesn't happen to other kids. ... My final thought is one of the things we hope, as a parent, and expect is that our children are going to be better than us.”
Ross-Sullivan told the audience she is a half Black and half Native American woman of color, and a federally enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Upper Sioux Community. Ross-Sullivan currently is a CLC Raider Connect Coach, serving students by providing mentorship, support, and both campus and communitywide resources.
Raising children in a small town was both a blessing and a curse.
— Toy Ross-Sullivan
Ross-Sullivan moved to the Staples area during the 2008 elections, when Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president. She said moving to an area that was different from where she was brought up and hearing comments such as, “We don't need this,” referring to a Black president, made her realize she needed to be an advocate for students who look like her as well as be there for her children at their schools.
Ross-Sullivan said she is a mother to three white daughters and three half-white and quarter-Black and quarter Native American sons, who range from ages 7-20. Four of the children have since graduated from high school.
Ross-Sullivan said raising her children in a small town was both a blessing and a curse. When she first moved to town, no one knew her and she had people looking and staring at her. Ross-Sullivan said people would act like, “Why is this woman here, what is she going to do and how many more are coming?”
“Those are some of the fears I had when I left the area where I was brought up, where I had friends, family and our safety bubble and coming to this area I had to start that bubble all over again,” Ross-Sullivan said. “So with my children, trying to make sure that they understood who they were, what their traditions were, what their parents thought, how we were going to support them. That was our safety bubble. My kids can walk down the street, my kids can go into a store and have no fears, and that's more so for my boys. My girls can go wherever they want, but my boys, they are still safe because everyone knows them. Everyone knows that they come from a good home, they come from a loving home. There's no drug addiction or criminal activity in our home. ... But we go 7 miles down the road, that might not be the case."
Russell is athletic director and head basketball coach at CLC. He was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1964. His biological father was killed before his birth. His mother, Tha Thi, married Gerald Russell, who was from Des Moines, Iowa, and his family came to the United States in 1973. Russell has coached collegiate men's basketball for more than 35 years and has been at Central Lakes College since 1997.
“I love this country,” Russell said. “I love that I can call this my home and I love that all of you guys are out here, because right now we're going through some, some hard times. I do have a lot of stories ... I can share with you. But I think the most important thing I learned from all this over these years, is the reason I love what I do is because it's about life opportunities and I thank God I got that opportunity. I like to thank the Vietnam vets who are listening — if it wasn't for them I probably would be dead.”
Russell said he didn’t feel like he was different until he was 27 years old. He said he was working at a college (not CLC) when the athletic director came up to him and said he didn’t like Vietnamese people and then began doing things “that were not right and felt hurtful.” Russell said he left and he couldn’t believe adults acted that way. Russell said he had a person say to him, “You’re not African American, You’re not Caucasian, so be quiet. Don’t cause any trouble. Your job is to do your job and keep your mouth shut.”
“Every day we have to fight the battle,” Russell said. “I don’t want to call it a fight, but we all have battles. ... We all have different things we have to go through in life, some might have to do more than others. It is what it is, but boy there’s so many positives and I am so grateful.”
Russell said since he has been a basketball coach for more than two decades, he has had positive experiences with many families who will never forget him. He uses these experiences as motivation. He also still has cards and emails from his early days at CLC where people told him he doesn’t belong here and that he shouldn’t bring Black people to the college.
“Well look at me,” Russell said. “I’m proud that I am one of a very few head college coaches who are full-blooded Vietnamese.
"All the things we want to teach our kids to be and then people treat them like they're different and it just rips my heart apart."
— James Russell
“... Is life going to be better for us now? I think more people are aware and might talk about it a little more. But, I also think the other side could be like it is too much and (they’ll) shut down, let's go back to the old way. So there's give-and-take either way. But you got to kind of look at things on a positive note. Like Charles said, he's got three kids. I have three kids, all in college and one graduated. ... They all worked their butts off in school, and they're all great in their sports. They're great in the community, but all three of my kids hated their high school. Explain that to me, please. You can't.
“I don't know how many times I've cried. I can't explain it to my kids. Why did this person make that decision, why did this teacher make that decision, why did this coach make that decision. ‘Dad I work, I work hard, I do well in school. I help others,’ all the things we want to teach our kids to be and then people treat them like they're different and it just rips my heart apart. And it rips my heart apart when my team has the same problem in town. ... It’s tough because they’re kids. I know all my colleagues, everybody who works here wants to help them. We want to make sure they're comfortable. We want to see them grow. That's our purpose, but some people don't want that and that's why it's tough. But we can't stop and just cry about it. We got to move on and we got to go forward.”
Russell shared a heartfelt experience he had with his adoptive father before he passed away.
“I got a chance to talk to him, heart-to-heart,” Russell said. “When I grew up there was a lot of stuff being said about my mom marrying him because she's using him so we could come to the United States and all that kind of stuff. ... None of that happened, but that's how we were looked down upon, but my dad did say something, and I shared this with you because I think all of us should do the same. I asked him before he passed away, I said, ’Dad, why'd you adopt me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t adopt you. You’re my son. You’re my son and I treated you like my son, no different. You’re my blood and my family.’ With that being said, that’s how people should treat everybody.”
Severson, who was born in New Jersey and is of Puerto Rican descent, moved to Brainerd in 2009. She is a mental health provider at The Therapist PLC in Brainerd. Prior to moving to Brainerd, she lived in Florida and other states and another country when she was in the military. She said her parents did not speak English, so Spanish was her first language. She learned English in grade school. She said her family moved to Puerto Rico when she was 9 and she is proud of the cultural heritage.
"Although these comments seem innocuous, they are hurtful because they set a line of demarcation and can often reveal hidden biases."
— Claribel Severson
“I was asked to share positive and not so positive experiences living in Brainerd,” Severson said. “As a person from a different ethnicity, some of the things I find refreshing about the area is the majority of people are polite. They wave and say hello. The area's beautiful and there's a lot of outdoor activities. I also find that there's a strong sense of community.
“As for the negatives. I have unfortunately experienced what I have come to label as covert biases. So it's bigotry mostly disguised as sarcasm, microaggression, disinterest or dismissal. Since many don't realize that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. I have several times been asked about my citizenship status. It has even been hinted to me on more than one occasion that I married my American husband for papers. Some examples of microaggressions I have endured are our comments such as, ‘I didn't notice you were from another culture,’ which is not a compliment. I have also heard, ‘You don't look Puerto Rican.’ ‘When did you come to America.’ ‘You speak English well,’ ‘I can't hear your accent,’ ‘I can hear your accent,’ they imitate my accent and ask me what are you.
"Although these comments seem innocuous, they are hurtful because they set a line of demarcation and can often reveal hidden biases. One of my greatest disappointments has been my interaction with some of the professionals in their mental health field. These interactions have included microaggressions, disrespect towards my culture, and an overall lack of interest or ignorance about my culture. This is disappointing because these are advocates and licensed professionals. We are required to be culturally competent.”
Questions from the audience
Mike O'Rourke, forum moderator, asked the panel a few questions from the audience. O’Rourke asked what changes could be made by Brainerd area institutions to increase the voice and power of people of color.
Russell responded by saying businesses and institutions need to hire different people. Often, those hired are the daughters or sons of people who have been in the area all their lives, and businesses need to change it up and bring people from the outside.
Russell said if the area is going to have a diverse community or diverse leadership they will have to change.
“Nobody wants to change and I understand that,” Russell said. “I mean everybody gets comfortable in this community ... but if you’re going to ask that question ... you have to hire people who are different and are willing to make that change in their environment.”
Black Lance weighed in and said, “My opinion is that everyone needs to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Until that happens, we're not going to get anywhere.”
Another question, posed to Severson, was what her definition of diversity is and why people should strive for it. She said it is people with different cultures, backgrounds and ideas.
“This is something we should strive for,” she said. “I think part of the problem that I find living here in this area is there's not enough curiosity about other cultures. It's almost insular in respect to, you've gotten so used to just a homogenous culture and when someone from another culture comes in it's either a threat or there's just a lack of interest, and there's no curiosity. I also noticed that there is almost a fear of admitting that you are not open, or you don't understand other cultures, and then the conversations don't happen and so we feel isolated.”
Ross-Sullivan added diversity is not only about race, but about religion and sexuality and about understanding where people are coming from.
“Looking at the audience, there’s only a handful of people who look like us,” Ross-Sullivan said. “For everyone to just know that we have value, those students have value, those neighbors have value. Everyone has value, everyone has ideas. ... You have to think outside the box, you have to use the resources you have.”
Russell said diversity has been in the top three things of what the college needs to work on and has been for many years.
“We talk a lot about diversity, but do we really know how to make that change,” Russell said. “Do we really know how to implement (diversity) into your business, your school, your town? I think that's the big question — what is diversity and how do you go about it.”
Another question was regarding how law enforcement interacts with people of color. Black Lance said he has had a number of good and bad experiences over the years with law enforcement. He said when they first moved to Brainerd he recalls walking down the street to go home and a police squad followed him for eight minutes. Black Lance said he flagged the officer down and introduced himself and said he was new to town. He said they visited with him for a bit and Black Lance said he has enjoyed living in the lakes area.
“I know law enforcement is doing their best and, being here at CLC, we've done our part in educating and standing alongside law enforcement as they continue to grow in all the areas of race relations,” Black Lance said.
Ross-Sullivan said she would like to see more cultural competency training for law enforcement officers. She suggested officers spend a certain amount of time in a non-white community, or one that is different from their own. She said this would give them exposure to the different lifestyles of the cultures.
Another question from the audience was what is the most cringe-worth statement or question that a white person has ever posed to them.
“I think the biggest one, well not the biggest, but the funny thing is they always say, ‘I got a friend who is Black’ or ‘a friend who is Asian’,” Russell said. “I say great, I’m glad you have friends. ... It means they’re looking at you differently. When you make a statement like that it’s like, what are you trying to get at? ... Or what opinion are you trying to get from me, right or wrong? ... When you say something like that, it makes you think a little bit about who they are.”
JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.