Out of my comfort zone

It’s rare that I remember a theatrical performance decades later. But the play “Sally’s Rape” at the Penumbra Theater has stayed with me some 20 years. On a small stage, two women, the play’s black creator Robbie McCauley and her white collaborator, acted out scenes from their familial pasts. There were charming bits comparing how their grandmothers taught them to hold teacups and cross ankles.

The central scene was McCauley’s alone: Stripped naked, standing on a stool, she reenacted her ancestor’s rape by the man who owned Sally’s body as he owned fields, shotguns and dogs.

It was haunting theater. But all these years later, I remember just as vividly a quiet exchange that followed.

When the actresses returned to the stage for a discussion, a man in the second row — Caucasian, white-haired, suburban — raised his hand. “That was very interesting,” he said. “But where I work and live, everybody looks like me. What am I supposed to do?”

McCauley leaned forward and answered with a quiet challenge: “With all due respect, you can’t just wait for people to show up in your office or neighborhood. You need to get out of your comfort zone and go to them.”

I’ve thought often of her gentle admonition in the months since a policeman stopped Philando Castile for a broken taillight on a suburban street less than 10 miles from my home. For reasons I can only guess at — panic, poor training, some primordial fear of black men — the cop in Falcon Heights fired his gun multiple times and killed a kind, hard-working man about to celebrate his 33rd birthday.

We were flooded at first with poignant images. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, recording the horrific aftermath on her phone. The tributes at J.J. Hill Montessori to the beloved Mr. Phil. The horse-drawn carriage that bore his body to the Cathedral. The protests that briefly closed I-94 and created an encampment outside the governor’s mansion.

And now, three months later? Castile’s mother has met with members of Congress. Protestors still take to the streets, demanding that the cop be charged and that police accountability be changed. In September, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension turned over its investigation of Castile’s death to the Ramsey County attorney.

I too have done a few things. Visited the young protestors camped out in front of the governor’s mansion. Learned about de-escalation training and implicit bias. Wrote letters urging Gov. Dayton and my state legislators to find ways to correct the inequities in Minnesota’s schools, police, courts and economy.

When my son challenges — “What has changed?” — I point to the Black Lives Matter signs in my neighborhood and cite dinner conversations about race. I say what the old always say to the young — that change takes time, that documenting injustice and provoking awareness are the first steps toward remedy. My answers feel meager, even to me.

I think of McCauley’s challenge: Get out of your comfort zone and go to them. Over the years, I’ve tutored low-income kids, gone to public meetings, written letters, welcomed people of color when they showed up where I work, live, worship. For 12 years, I ran a program to train aspiring journalists, particularly writers of color. And yet, looking at the police killings of unarmed men and our city’s yawning racial disparities, it feels like very little.

As a baby boomer, I came of age believing that civil rights laws and Great Society programs would guarantee voting rights and end discrimination in housing, schools and employment. Yet here we are, half a century later, still arguing about Law and Order, still searching for the ways and the will to close massive racial gaps in education, housing, income and employment. The work of expunging the sin of slavery and fulfilling the pledge we recite so often — liberty and justice for all — is far from done.

Now we are challenged to face the bias buried within ourselves. As Hillary Clinton said in the first debate: “I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other, and therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, why am I feeling this way?

These days, I seek ways to dig deeper. I read books by young black writers — “Citizen” by Claudia Rankine and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — that challenge my belief in America’s fundamental fairness. I’ve had tough conversations with white friends about white privilege and friends of color about cultural appropriation. I explore research showing racial bias even among preschool teachers and the public’s subconscious connections between black faces and crime.

Get out of your comfort zone and go to them. I’m still searching for the part I’ll play to ensure that Philando Castile did not die in vain. One thing is clear: I don’t have to travel far. My Minneapolis neighborhood, Kingfield, is a place of privilege — roughly 82 percent of the residents are white with a median income of $71,000 and a poverty rate below eight percent. Our privilege is clear in our trendy restaurants and landscaped yards.

Just across I-35W, the Central neighborhood is different. The median income is $48,500, and the poverty rate nearly 25 percent. It’s far more diverse — 39 percent Hispanic, 26 percent black, 27 percent white. I’m spending more time there — going east for walks, using Hosmer Library instead of Washburn, taking my grandkids to King and Sabathani parks to play. I’ll know Minneapolis is making progress when its neighborhoods grow less segregated, when Central’s diversity and Kingfield’s prosperity are more widely shared.

Race continues to be America’s festering wound and great divider. Change won’t come solely from the work of protestors and black activists. As a woman with white skin and economic privilege, I’m obliged to engage personally in the work and insist that my leaders do likewise.

“If oppression is at the core, then this work will never end,” Robbie McCauley has written. “If it can be weeded out, then dialogue. It’s a work in progress. Dialogue. It’s a dialogue. Which means you have to work, too.”


  • Kingfield resident Lynda McDonnell is a Twin Cities writer and former director of ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program at the University of St. Thomas.