'Un-Fair' Anti-Racism Ads Draw Mixed Reactions

Feb 14, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 3:55 pm

In January, a group of residents in Duluth, Minn., launched an anti-racism effort called the Un-Fair Campaign. They created ads, posters and billboards aimed to raise awareness about racial injustice and asking white people to recognize institutional racism.

The posters have prompted thoughtful discussion in some circles and backlash in others.

The organizers are also planning other events — a series of discussion, speeches and films, around the city.

Duluth mayor Don Ness, who endorsed the campaign, talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the mixed reactions.

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A poster in Duluth, Minnesota, shows a picture of a white man and a caption: You don't fear me. You don't secretly hope that I stay out of your neighborhood. You give me better jobs, better pay, better treatment and a better chance, all because of the color of my skin, and you don't even know you're doing it.

The poster is part of the Un-Fair Campaign launched by residents of Duluth last month. Posters, ads and billboards prompted discussion and some backlash. If there's been a public campaign to tackle racism where you live or where you work, call and tell us what happened: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now from his office in Duluth is Mayor John Ness. Nice to have you with us.

MAYOR DON NESS: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: And did you see these posters and billboards before they went up?

NESS: Yeah. There was a citizen group who had been working on this in order to create a dialogue on race issues here in Duluth, and, you know, to create a conversation, a community conversation that was separate from a moment of crisis.

So often in our country, we only talk about race when there is some sort of controversy or there's some - a moment of crisis. And then the discussion gets blurred by focus on that crisis and gets us further away from really having an honest dialogue about race and race issues, and, in particular, white people's role in addressing and being part of the solution.

CONAN: And these posters and - there are many different ones, but they share a tagline: It's hard to see racism when you're white.

NESS: That's right. And I think, you know, especially a community like Duluth and - which is 90 percent white, it is - it's easy for a person of white - with white skin to go through their day without ever thinking about race or thinking about the problem of racism, and yet it does exist in our community. And we all have a role in identifying it, and then being part of the solution.

CONAN: Have there been those moments of crisis in Duluth in the past?

NESS: Oh, sure. You know, like every community, there are times when, you know, there is a - some type of controversy or conflict between the police and a person of color or those sort of conflicts, and then the race issues tend to flare up. And, again, it's difficult to separate out the moment or the issue at hand with the broader issues that are kind of driving the conflict.

CONAN: And the response you were hoping for?

NESS: Well, we've certainly created dialogue. And, you know, there has - you know, the campaign was designed to capture people's attention, to be challenging, to hopefully engage in a dialogue. And it has accomplished that, and there have been constructive dialogues.

There have also been people who, you know, have kind of read these billboards and kind of think that it says that it's impossible to see racism if you're white, or that all white people are racist, which clearly isn't the message.

But I think it does point to the fact that - especially in a community like ours, which has such a predominantly white culture and white population - that folks have very complicated and oftentimes repressed ideas and feelings about race and race issues.

And it's really important that folks find an area that they can talk about this with some comfort and with people that they trust, and to really explore how they feel about race issues because that's really at the core of the problem of racism across our country.

CONAN: And would you describe, yes, there's been thoughtful responses, but there's been - is backlash too strong a word?

NESS: Well, you know, clearly, there's two different types of negative responses that I get. You know, and one is kind of the white supremacists across the entire globe, you know, who - there's a tactic called swarming in which they kind of pick a target and then they try to intimidate or to, you know, to almost punish the person for bringing up the issue.

And that's pretty easy to dismiss, because you know that that's going to happen, and you know that there are those who are very hateful people across the world. What my interest is is connecting with the people in Duluth who would take a look at this - these billboards and this advertising campaign, and they're legitimately hurt or they're confused by it and they have a negative reaction to it. And those are the folks that I think are especially important to engage and say, you know, let's really talk this through. You know, what is the source of it?

And I've had discussions in which sometimes people will point to something that happened to them 30 years ago, and that they felt, you know, it was a - it was kind of a life-altering experience. And they've kind of held that so tightly and kind of repressed that memory, and yet it defined how they view racial issues from that point forward. And so, you know, if we can have these broader dialogues and kind of get to the source of where people are holding this confusion or anger or hurt, that we might be able to, you know, help folks improve themselves.

CONAN: We wanted to read a couple of letters that were published into the Duluth News Tribune, the local paper there, this from a writer named Susan Valentine from Duluth: I'm writing concerning the anti-racism campaign. I personally find it offensive because I feel it is singling out one specific race. If people want to stop racism, there should be gatherings of ethnic backgrounds showing traditions, foods, beliefs, et cetera, showing the contributions their cultures have given to America as a whole. Race, gender, sexual preference and creed should not factor in.

Here's my definition of racism: Ruthless assumptions concerning individual social minorities. It's hard to see racism if you're narrow-minded, un-accepting, afraid and superficial. That's what the Un-Fair campaign should be about. And I think that's a thoughtful response.

NESS: It is a thoughtful response. And, you know, I think that, really, the message is it's hard to see racism from some place other than your own perspective. And, you know, every - most of the conversations I have, people have kind of come back to their own personal experience. And what this campaign is challenging them to do is to kind of look beyond that personal experience and have empathy for a person who is in a different situation.

You know, the other interesting point about that letter and the point that the writer makes is that, yes, this is a campaign that makes broad generalizations about a group of people based on their race. But isn't that the experience of people of color, what they face all the time? And so, you know, as white people, we have this broad characterization, and it takes us aback because we are so unused to it. We're not confronted with that. And yet people of color are confronted with it day after day after day and in, many times, much more damaging and confrontational ways than this campaign.

CONAN: Another letter from the Duluth News Tribune by Mary Brill in South Range: I'm a white woman in my 60s working in Duluth. I am not offended by the anti-racism billboards. I understand them to mean that when people - of their time with people who look just like them, they have a more difficult time understanding people who look different. Perhaps the billboards should have been worded like that. This is not reverse racism, she writes. It is human nature. Obviously, we all need this anti-racism campaign. And I wonder, have there been - obviously, a discussion in the newspaper is one thing. Have there been meetings? Have there been broader discussions?

NESS: Yeah, there have been. You know, the local campuses have been holding, you know, having speakers, inviting speakers in to talk about this, dialogues within the larger organizations, workplace trainings. And the Un-Fair campaign also has a number of trainings and follow-up discussions in hopes of, you know, creating that space to have a constructive dialogue. But, you know, for me, going forward, it's really important that those folks that do feel hurt or confused by this - because it was such a public campaign, and they may not seek out, you know, these forums or these trainings.

And it's really important that the campaign evolve in order to reach out through the broad media and kind of broaden out that understanding to say, you know, you have a, you know, you have an opportunity to be part of the solution and to address racism in our community. And, yes, you are a good person, and here are the steps that you can take to help address the wrong, which is racism in Duluth.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gina: I grew up as a white child in Northern Minnesota in the '80s. My godmother was black. When she would visit our small town, she would bring me to the grocery store, and grown adults would assume that she had stolen me. They would ask me if my mother knew where I was. They would hold their purses and children closer to them when we walked by. I never understood what racism was until that day, and I would not have ever, unless that experience happened.

I live now in Duluth and smile at the billboards. Well done, Don and Duluth. We also want to hear from those of you who've experienced anti-racism campaigns where you live or work, and how did it work out. Michael's on the line, Michael with us from Lewiston in Maine.

MICHAEL: Hi. I had a really interesting experience about 10 years ago. I - Maine is a very white state. And we had a influx of Somali-Americans come into our town. And at one point, the mayor actually just published a letter saying, please stop. We can't assimilate any more of you right now. It was more, I mean, we're a large largely Franco-American community, and some anti - some racist groups took - snatched upon this and had a recruiting rally, which was really, really disgusting to the majority of Lewiston residents. And they got eight people. We had 8,000 people.

And we've had people - like one of your previous emailers, we had various ethnicities. They had me as a person with disability. They had a person who is gay. We had the governor. We had a Holocaust survivor. We had, like, thousands of people sitting out in the cold (unintelligible) to get into a gymnasium and listen to a speaker like - to like show their support. It was a - I think that the total was, to this day, was the largest single day with more police in the state of Maine on alert and doing anything at any other time. And I have to say that I think it helped a lot.

CONAN: I remember the letter. I remember the incident. I believe we had the mayor of Lewiston on the show when that happened a few years ago, Michael. I remember that well. Thanks very much for the phone call, for the reminder. Mayor Ness, where does the Un-Fair campaign go from here?

NESS: Well, again, you know, we hope to connect with folks and create this space for dialogue. And I appreciate the story that Michael spoke to, and I think it's illustrative of what needs to happen across our country. Oftentimes, race and that public discussion is defined by people who are on one extreme or the other, and that there are, you know - but the way our country works and the way our community works is determined by how average people interact with these. You know, what are - where, what is the place that they're coming from when dealing with issues of race?

And hopefully, you know, by moving the masses to a better place and really setting up the dynamic in which, you know, racism is not going to be tolerated in our communities or in our country, that takes away the power from, you know, the more hateful extremists out there. And you can only reach the masses by challenging them, grabbing their attention, and then hopefully, you know, inspiring them to be a little bit more thoughtful and introspective about, you know, how they view race. And then seek out those conversations with friends that they trust and be able to explore these very complicated issues in a safe place.

CONAN: Mayor Ness, thanks very much for your time.

NESS: Thank you.

CONAN: Don Ness joined us from his office in Duluth, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.