“This Minnesota Nice shit is killing me.”

Following Amoke Kubat’s ‘Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl’ Tour.

Photo by Farrington Llewellyn of Amoke Kubat & Jennifer Johnson — performing in North Minneapolis with support form North Community Theater

Last night I sat with over 200 people in the auditorium at North Community High School in Minneapolis, while artist and elder Amoke Kubat performed a play she’s written — Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl — about her experiences with Minnesota Nice and racism.

Amoke’s main character — Angry Black Woman — opens the play exhausted, recounting an average day as an educator in Minneapolis public schools. In a phone conversation with her best friend, she talks about this and other experiences with nonprofit arts and organizing spaces led by liberal white people. We hear how “reckless whiteness” and a daily barrage of micro-aggressions are assuaged by administrators with one week each year of diversity training.

Meanwhile, white teachers and other white authority figures continue to diminish the lives and stories of black children, women, and communities each day as they fulfill their well-meaning social missions.

This was the seventh time I’ve seen this work performed, and just like all of the other readings I’ve witnessed, I could sense raw emotion rippling through the room. Though I’ve seen the play a handful of times now, I’m still moved to tears by certain scenes, left in stitches by others, and overflowing with frustration, anger, and hope by the end.

As Amoke and actress Jennifer Johnson perform together, the audience witnesses a vulnerable and evolving conversation between a black woman and a white woman. It’s a conversation with layers that are familiar to many, yet we’re so rarely able to step back to just observe. When we do, we see and hear ourselves, and the deeply-rooted fear, shame, distrust, and anguish that underly so many of our daily interactions and relationships.

Just before a performance of ‘Angry Black Woman & Well-intentioned White Girl’ at Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis, MN.

Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl is many things, above all, it is generous and brilliant. By sharing her personal experiences with unflinching honesty and humor, Amoke opens a much-needed space for recognition, reflection, and healing of black female experience.

At the same time, Jennifer Johnson’s performance of the Well-Intentioned White Girl holds a mirror up to white women, who may not be used to seeing themselves reflected in black women’s eyes. Through Angry Black Woman’s stories and her response to questions and comments from white female characters, we see the ways our well-intentioned behaviors harm others. More importantly, we see the deep pain and sadness that lie beneath frustration and anger, and are left asking how we could have been so blind for so long.

But Well-Intentioned White Girl is not only there to teach white women about micro-aggressions and the day-to-day ways we perpetuate racism. As the conversation unfolds, she also begins to reveal an underlying despair and “deadness inside” that many white women feel as we confront our own racism, and the ways white supremacy also robs us of our humanity, and our nuanced stories of womanhood and becoming.

I’ve been following this play since its inception, and have been fortunate to see it performed in large venues like North Community High School in Minneapolis and the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, as well as a small community art center in Sandstone, Minnesota.

Local organizers Missy Polster & Kym Young welcome attendees to a performance of ‘Angry Black Woman & Well-intentioned White Girl’ in Sandstone, MN.

No matter the geographic community where this reading has taken place, people of all ages, races, and gender identifications have gathered with curiosity, humility, and a genuine desire to do something meaningful to change culture. It’s been incredible to witness the tour of this play across Minnesota, and I’m certain that it will continue to make an impact.

I’m sharing my own experience with this play now as a way to uphold what I believe is the value in going there, as Amoke says; But also to encourage others to reflect on what this play has meant for their own self-understandings and responsibilities. How will we continue to move the gifts that this play offers into the world?

Confronting Minnesota Nice and Racism

Before she finished her script, Amoke held two focus groups: One for black women, and the other for white women. I attended the white women’s group at Intermedia Arts, which was facilitated by white allies who asked us to contribute thoughts and stories that might help to shape the play as a whole.

I remember going into that room feeling hesitant, though I was not exactly sure why. I knew I wanted to support Amoke’s play, to be a better ally, and to do everything in my power to end white supremacy — but looking back, I still had a pretty naive sense of what that meant and the kind of work it would take.

We spent a good portion of that initial conversation sharing our experiences with white supremacy as white women living in Minnesota. We also talked about Minnesota Nice and what this meant to us. We were asked to keep the conversations we had in that room confidential, and I can no longer recall the specifics, but I do remember that even this first conversation had a real impact on me.

I’d honestly never connected the two: Minnesota Nice and white supremacy or racism. But following this conversation, my head was spinning with all of the things I was noticing about myself, where I’d come from, how I moved through the world, or responded to others.

I’d grown-up in a rural place where most of my community were relatives, and almost all were white — except for those from nearby indian reservations. I realize now how my community had systemically erased indigenous people, if not from the land entirely (they are still here) then from conversations about what it took to belong to this place (what was taken from native people), and whose cultural stories are seen as valid today in shaping our future.

Minnesota Nice is one manifestation of that ongoing erasure, a way of policing how one should behave — and what is or is not appropriate to talk about — in order to belong here, and to maintain our sense of who we are.

I grew-up, like a lot of white people, believing that to be white was the default — something we’re born to, but have no hand in creating. We rarely say the words white people when describing ourselves or our communities, because white people are just people — everyone else is a modification of that — somehow lesser, or in Minnesota parlance, just different.

I’d grown up believing this was the truth (and many other racist ideas too) but because I lived among people who were almost all white and saw things in much the same way, I didn’t have to confront my internal racial bias most of the time.

I also thought that because we were not overtly racist, and believed in equality (though we did almost nothing to demand or act for justice or change) I thought we were “the good kind” of white people. And I thought this meant that my “role” was merely to call out the bad ones, and to make it known that I believed racism was wrong.

It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis and began living and working in more diverse communities and organizations, that I realized how little I understood about my own identity, my experiences, and my assumptions and perspectives on race, much less the different lived experiences of others.

I’d believed that the only kind of racism that mattered was the obvious kind, perpetuated by those people who espoused their belief in white superiority with intention to hurt others. Not people like me, who’d been indoctrinated into a white supremacist culture and society, and acted from those deep-seeded beliefs all the time — but without intending to (because that’s part of how this system works) and without taking any responsibility for the harm this inevitably causes.

What did Minnesota Nice mean to me? I’d always understood it as a kind of passive-aggressive social behavior. It meant we acted nice in public, and wanted to be seen as nice people, especially to those we perceived as having some authority over us. But behind closed doors, we judged others harshly for being “different” or “too much” or for being “not nice enough.”

If I’m being completely honest, we were not nice, but we would go out of our way to help (some) others, because that’s who we believed ourselves to be. Question this, and you were ostracized.

At the same time, we were always drawing and enforcing invisible boundaries around who and what belongs in our cultures and communities: Who is deserving of our kindness and care, and who will be judged for stepping over boundaries.

How many of those invisible boundaries parallel our sense of our own identity, and how comfortable we are with this amid changes we cannot control?

There’s a saying that a Minnesota person will take the time to give a stranger directions, or even a ride, anywhere they need to go — as long as that person doesn’t want to be invited into our home or close-knit community spaces.

This piece from Andrea Plaid in the Twin Cities Daily Planet (2015) sums up better than I ever could what this means for people of color — and how it is intertwined with racism here in Minnesota.

Our racism is not just the overt and obvious racism of bigots like our President, but the racism of people who put their own comfort and the recognition of their “good intentions” above their actual impact. People who prioritize their own control and authority in situations over their willingness to change or adapt in order to make life more livable for others, especially when confronted by someone they may have diminished or harmed.

Knowing this is something we’ve often perpetuated, what are white women to do?

The Ghosts of White Women

In Amoke’s play, white women appear as ghosts haunting her in her own home, her sacred black space. These ghosts of white women are wrestling in a kind of purgatory, lost among their own feelings of shame, self-hatred, and despair. They are looking to Angry Black Woman to help them understand themselves and find peace.

A performance of Angry Black Woman & Well-intentioned White Girl at AICHO in Duluth, Minnesota.

At first, these ghosts just want to be good, to be liked, and to know what they should do.

These kinds of desires will likely seem familiar to anyone who has confronted their own racism. The realization that we hurt and oppress others triggers shame and discomfort, and we want more than anything not to feel that way. We are so caught up in our own immediate feelings that we cannot hear or acknowledge that there are much worse feelings to bear.

So we rush to apologize, to prove that we meant well, and to demand absolution.

But if this play has taught me anything, it is the importance of sitting with our shame and discomfort, and letting those feelings teach us how to become better people.

What would happen if instead of trying to not feel our discomforting feelings, rushing them along to absolution — we decided to dig deeper into our core? To look honestly at ourselves and our stories, and how these shape our inner lives and outer worlds? To begin understandig why we feel the way we do?

Amoke asks these kinds of questions throughout the play. What happened to us (white women) to compel us to act this way? Beneath what we want, what do we really need?

I’ve come to believe that beneath our shame and discomfort is real fear and despair, and that these feelings don’t come only from our recognition of the harm we’ve done, inherited, or perpetuated onto others — but also from the loss of our own humanity and our stories of resilience.

Whiteness, or believing in the superiority of our white skin and culture, is a trade-off that our ancestors made when they bought into a colonial system of property ownership, control, and manifest destiny. They had many reasons for making these trade-offs, and part of perpetuating this system is continuing to live without acknowledging what those reasons might have been — the root of the root.

We ask others what we should do, but we rarely attempt to answer the question, What happened to us?

And so, this is a trade-off we keep making each time we behave in ways that uphold our rootless stories.

The ghosts of white women in Amoke’s play know deep down that these stories of white supremacy are not only harmful to people of color, but they are incomplete fictions, and harmful to white women as well. In these stories, we are not fully awake or alive, and we have only a fragile grasp on our own self-determination and power.

We perpetuate these stories in order to maintain some sense of comfort with the way things are, but also because we’ve been taught that this is how we’ll remain on the side that has authority and power.

In many ways, performing as white women in the ways we’ve been taught, is how we diffuse or distribute the violence and oppression of a colonial, patriarchal system. How many times have we held our tongue or been nice, even in the face of righteous anger and dispair — in public, in the workplace, in a relationship —in order to keep on the good side of white men? And for what reasons? What or who do we protect?

This may not be an experience common to all white women, but if the conversations surrounding this play are any indication, it is something we need to be talking about with more honesty and vulnerability, if we hope to be better allies to other women and people of color — and to ourselves. We know things we’re not sharing honestly about the epidemic of angry and entitled white men, things that could be useful in building solidarity with those who are most vulnerable.

In this system, we are no longer seen as creators of life, portals to other futures, or valued care-givers of our communities and futures — but as property ourselves, and as enforcers of the social codes that keep the whole mess churning.

Finding Our Roots, Healing Ourselves, Speaking Out

There is a scene early in the play that is rarely brought up in the post-play conversations, even though it is a key moment in the story, one that always starts folks sobbing. I think its absence from the conversations speaks to just how profound it is, as a moment of realization.

One of the white woman ghosts, while singing a traditional Irish song and sobbing in anguish, tosses her baby over the edge of an immigrant ship into the ocean. It’s an image echoed later in the play, when Angry Black Woman speaks of the horrors of the middle passage and the lashes on the backs of slaves, which she can still feel in her body today.

What can we still feel in our bodies?

I understand this casting off of the baby as a metaphor for the decision — unconscious perhaps, and difficult as it must have been over generations of experience — to give up our divine feminine powers, our languages, our songs and our cultural stories, in exchange for what we believed would be safe passage into a new world. Now many of us are seeing how this promise was only our initiation into an empire, one that worships death, property, and control.

These kinds of realizations are not typically part of conversations around “diversity” and“equity,” or “how to handle inclusiveness” now that more and more people seem to be waking up. But this is one of the gifts that Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl offers audiences — a chance to reorient ourselves, and to face the deep healing work that we need to do internally, and as communities and cultures — to be better allies in all the parallel struggles for justice, self-determination, and resilience.

Invisible Men

As the tour of Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl continued, men started showing up to listen, and to participate in the post-play discussions. Though there are no male characters in the play, the presence of toxic masculinity infuses every interaction, especially as the women in the story wrestle with their value and relationships in male-dominated society.

The other critical moment for me in this play is when the two characters realize that in spite of their differences, and the different ways they’ve wounded or been wounded, they share a commonality in that they’ve both lived with the reality and fear of violence by men. This fear has shaped their identity, their sense of themselves and their power, and the relationships they have as black and white women.

The group Detoxifying Masculinity joined up on the past few performances of Angry Black Woman & Well-Intentioned White Girl, facilitating post-play discussions among audience members who identify as men. I wasn’t part of those discussions and can’t speak to their value for those men, but in my conversations with some of the male facilitators following the play, it was clear that this performance also offered them a much-needed space to process their own experiences with racism and patriarchy.

One male participant said that witnessing a conversation between two women about their own inner (and inter-personal) struggles with racism and sexism, without centering the role of men or men’s needs, made it possible for him to hear it differently. This left him with a new perspective on himself, and a new understanding of how important it is to let women speak their truths, and to support them in creating social spaces like this.

Waking up is hard to do — but we need to wake up.

I can’t speak for others who’ve been involved in the conversations following this play, but I know that for me it has continued to be personally transformative.

Each time I sit with an audience — or listen afterwards as women share what they’re hearing and taking with them — I evolve my own understanding of what it means to be a white woman in Minnesota, and how I can begin to undo some of the violence of this culture by refusing to live out those destructive narratives and hierarchies in my own relationships.

Recently, my six-year-old son asked me a question, “Mom, what are white people?”

We’d been talking about Indigenous People’s Day, and I’d shared with him what I had learned from Dakota friends about the place we live, about the Dakota language, and indigenous stories of land and water.

His question was coming from an honest place. I had a hard time knowing how to answer. As a child, he’s learning every day about who he is and where he is, and he will keep learning, whether I’m honest with him about my own ignorance, or not.

I decided to bring this question —What are white people? What are white women? — to one of the groups I was helping to facilitate following Amoke’s play. I asked the women in the circle to think about how they’ve been encouraged to answer throughout their lives, and how they would answer today, if they were living as they truly believe they could in this world.

I also asked them to think about the way children see the world, how they’re unafraid to ask something as obvious as, “Who are we?”

Eventually, children learn (from us) to be afraid of their curiosity and ashamed of their not-knowing. They learn to pretend to know, or to not care, and in that process, they also learn to stop asking those burning questions, or listening for answers within or outside themselves.

One thing we can do to encourage ourselves and those around us to “wake up” to the realities of racism, our role in upholding it, and the power we have to transform ourselves and our society — is to allow ourselves to see again with that child-like honesty. To ask ourselves and those who will hear us those honest questions, no matter how awkward they might seem, or unanswerable.

We don’t know what others are thinking or experiencing. We have to be careful with what we ask others to share with us, as they may not be ready or willing to reiterate painful experiences. But we can always come from a place of humility, curiosity, and a willingness to listen even when it is hard.

It seems to me that we are so afraid we will say the wrong thing, and ashamed at all we do not know, or have not noticed — that we’re not tapping into the wisdom of those around us, including children, and ourselves. We’re so busy thinking about what to say that we are unable to hear.

But we do know something about racism.

There are things we know deep down, because we’ve also been living within a racist society. As Amoke has said, it is time to dig up those roots and to see what better lives we can make together.

What’s Next?

How do we heal from the traumas of white supremacy and patriarchy, in order to do whatever is in our power to change conditions and culture? What are our responsibilities, and unique abilities to respond?

At times it can seem overwhelming, as if we can’t do much as individuals about the systems we’ve inherited, the words and actions of our government, or a culture that continues to churn out rootless and destructive stories.

And yet, we can recognize — if we take the time to listen and reflect — how we are each implicated in those systems, and playing a part in perpetuating them.

This can be an empowering realization, because if these systems are made of people and the ways they relate to one another, and to one another’s stories — then it is within our collective power to imagine and live in other more human and healing ways.

Works of art like the play Amoke has written, and works of community organizing like this tour, give me tremendous hope in our ability to be shift shapers — a term I first heard from the wonderful group Healing Place Collaborative, which is doing parallel work to heal relationships with Dakota place and story.

My hope is that we will continue to gather, to tell our stories, to listen to one another, and to do the work within ourselves and our communities to repair and heal what we can.

There are movements ripening all around us, and we have a choice in every moment whether or not to join them. Those movements are not only in direct and visible protests and political work, as important as these are — but also around kitchen tables, in church basements, in bedrooms, board rooms, and classrooms — and in all the ways we interact with other people. These movements live in the ways we relate to ourselves, to our stories, our power, and the voices around which we make space for learning.

As Amoke said at the end of last night’s performance, “You don’t have to feel as though it’s your job to run out and save the world.”

Take what you can from this play and find your truth. Work with that small piece of truth, and let it guide your curiosity. Let it transform your experience of the world, and let it change the way you see and respond.

You might not get what you wanted at first.

You might not be good, or liked by the people around you, or lauded as the one with all the answers. But you will be more whole than when you started, and by joining up with others who are also living through struggles to repair what’s been broken in their relationships and communities, you will be part of a collective that is inviolable, awake, and alive.

You can read more about Amoke Kubat and support her ongoing work through her cooperative Yo Mama’s House. A number of discussion groups have cropped up in response to this play across Minnesota, and on social media. Click here to see some of those groups on Facebook.