I was about 13 years-old when my family moved from New Jersey to central Minnesota. My parents, both raised in urban areas, decided to move us to “the country.” This could have meant somewhere close by like Vermont. Instead, we settled near Dent, Minnesota – population 185. My mother, a New York City actress and singer, and my father, a factory worker, decided to buy the town’s only café. They were as out-of-water as the bullheads “Old Red” delivered each week for the Friday night fish fry.
Most of my time in Dent is a blur. I was an out-of-sorts adolescent, just trying to get by. Through all of it, one vivid memory has become a golden fiber in the fabric of my being.One night, I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, waiting for them to lock up the café. It was late and I was dozing off when the door next to me opened, nearly landing me on the sidewalk. I looked up to see a very large man staring down at me. His tanned face and long grey hair startled me – I had been expecting my very white Polish father or even whiter Lithuanian mother. I think I startled him too. Each of us stared, wide-eyed, without speaking. My father came out and told him to get away from me. The man tried to move. Instead, he fell onto the sidewalk. My parents got in the car, quickly locked the doors, and drove away, leaving him there. Alone. On the concrete.
On the way home, I was told that the man was a “drunken Indian” and there were a lot of Indians here in Minnesota. (What my parents didn’t realize is that there actually are Indians in New Jersey, too, if you care to acknowledge them. They blend in with the Italians and Latinos.) I was instructed to keep the car doors locked if I was alone and to “lay on the horn” if anyone bothered me again. So, that’s what I learned to do. I don’t believe I agreed with this thinking, but I was 13 years-old with no words for what needed to be said.
As I got older, I thought about this man many times. I do believe that he was drunk. But, guess what? So was my grandmother. Every time I saw her. I never heard her referred to as the “drunken white woman.” I never heard the click of a door lock as she approached. She beat children with belts. The Indian man didn’t even touch me. To this day, I struggle with why I was taught to be afraid of one and not the other.It took me years to move past the “drunken Indian” stereotype. It wasn’t easy to let go of the incident from so long ago. It had been scary. But, the fear was because I was startled by an unfamiliar person. I really want to believe that, if the man had been white, my father would have reacted in the same hurtful way. I don’t want to believe this lie because I agree with his behavior. I want to believe it because I want the world to be fair. Which it isn’t.
At age 43, I still struggle to understand what fuels our fear of those different from us. I think it must have something to do with our own insecurities – or with poisonous seeds planted by our parents.
I will be the first to admit that I keep my doors locked when I’m in my house or car. As a woman, I feel vulnerable. People of all colors do bad stuff and I don’t want it done to me. Out of respect for anyone who has heard the offensive click, I make a conscious effort to lock them way before anyone might be within earshot.
I don’t know if it helps anyone, but the 13 year-old in me wants to offer a small act of contrition for what happened so long ago in Dent, Minnesota.