By Melvin Martin
That most whites in Bemidji downplay the actuality and the seriousness of the racism towards Indians there comes as no great surprise to me. These people are very much in denial, as are most racist whites in all of the anti-Indian cities and towns that I have had the sheer displeasure of either living at or visiting over the years.
Bemidji, Minnesota, like Rapid City, South Dakota (the racist hick town where I was born and have lived a good portion of my life, and where the racists have to consist of at least 75% of the population of the Rapid City metropolitan area of 120,000)--is a prime example of denial on a large-scale as it relates to race relations between whites and Indians.
First of all, exactly what is denial?
Denial is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person is confronted with a fact that is too upsetting to accept and rejects it, asserting that it is not true despite what may be tremendous evidence to the contrary. The person may choose to totally deny the reality of the awful fact in what is known as simple denial. Sometimes they may admit the fact, but deny how serious it is, a process called minimization. Denial has long been categorized as a device of the so-called "immature mind," because it generates conflict with one's capabilities to learn from and contend with reality.
Additionally, when anyone is engaged in negative behavior that is self-directed and wholly willful, they are almost always in full denial of it. In Rapid City, the racists become extremely angered when they are confronted in an articulate manner as to their Indian- hating actions and practices--thus, I have come to believe that the amount of psycho-emotional energy that is needed to maintain strongly racist sentiment is directly commensurate with the energy necessary to deny it--which explains to me this near-psychotic overreaction on the part of the racists when their hatred is pointed out to them in no uncertain terms.
People who are deeply mired in the quicksand of denial will always overreact to the illumination of their denial: try to tell a hardcore dope fiend or a raging drunk about the destructive nature of denying that they have a problem--then, watch out!
I have also lived in Minnesota in the '80s when I attended a private trade school in Minneapolis, and I have also spent a little time in Bemidji--so, I know all-too-well how bad the racism towards Indians is in that area. I was the only Indian student at the trade school in the summer term of 1982, and the desk that I was assigned to was behind a partition that was connected to the student break area. The mainly white students, most of whom were guys in their twenties, often said the most horrendous things about Indians that consisted of the usual and more widely believed stereotypes relative to Indian people.
I had a girlfriend then, Maye, who was half-Vietnamese and half-French, and who lived in Bemidji. She was in her late twenties then as was I. When I first met her (at the trade school), she told me that she had been mistaken for Indian by almost all of the whites she had encountered in Bemidji. She also told me that she had been treated very badly on occasion by whites who had said hateful things to her as they thought that she was Indian.
One evening, Maye related an incident to me that brought tears to her eyes as she talked about it. She told me that she had exited a bus in downtown Bemidji when a crowd of white teens began to "woo-woo-woo!" in the stereotyped Indian fashion. The teens then began to chase her with several of them yelling out loudly that they were going to "rape us a squaw!" Maye ran into a convenience store where the clerk called the police.
Maye was a refugee from Vietnam who had already witnessed a great deal of ugliness in her former homeland, but she told me that the incident that happened in Bemidji with the teens had frightened her more than the horrors of war as she thought that she was at least physically safe in America.
Interesting that Maye compared a hazing attack to the horrors of war. That tells you how powerful the onslaught of stereotypes can be. It's something most non-Indians don't understand even though people keep presenting evidence of it.
Some people respond to postings such as this with more denial. For instance, "People are racist everywhere. It's human nature. There's nothing we can do about it." Or, "Most Americans aren't racist. Obama's election proves that. Stop making a mountain out of a molehill." Any thoughts on either of these responses?
For more on the subject, see Highlights of the US Report to the UN on Racism.