An Open Letter to Rep. Melissa Hortman – Day 55

Rep. Hortman,

On Monday evening, during a debate over a bill which would increase penalties to protesters who block traffic or disrupt transit or airport travel, you moved for a call of the House, stating “I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room, but I think this is an important debate.” Multiple women, women of color, had given speeches on the floor of the House prior to this, with multiple representatives having absented themselves and gone into the House retiring room. If nothing else, this statement certainly got the attention of the white men in the House, leading to calls for an apology and one request for resignation from this group.

As a member of your constituency and as a white man, I would like to commend you for your actions on Monday night. As residents of Brooklyn Park, we have found ourselves in one of the most racially diverse cities in the state of Minnesota. Due to this, I think race can have a tendency to sit towards the front of our minds. I would hope that the diversity we see in our community would lead to greater interaction and understanding across racial lines, and to a greater empathy to the issues we see. Our interaction should lead us not only to form interpersonal relationships, but to see these issues as connected with our lives. This connection and empathy should lead to action when we see issues, and to speaking out when we see that voices aren’t being heard. In addition, I would hope to see these actions out of you as a legislative leader speaking for her community, and I was not disappointed.

Regarding the actual statement itself, it was, for many, quite bold. The statement was not made out of hand; you took your time to see who was occupying the retiring room, and I applaud your due diligence. You called out the group who wasn’t participating, serving to both bring them back to the conversation and show support for your colleagues who were not being heard. The content of your comment, though, is what led to this entire interaction becoming a topic of conversation.

For some unknown reason, white men have a tendency to notice racial issues when one specific racial group is singled out: white men. Justification for actions and offense at citing a specific racial group’s actions seem to be at their highest levels from white men when their group is singled out. We saw one representative state that he respects everyone, and that this was the reason he felt your comments were inappropriate. Rather than apologizing for the actions of the group, he sought to justify himself, individualizing your comment. In this, he seems to have missed the entire point of the comment. This response demonstrated an overall misunderstanding that so many members of the white male demographic (myself included) feel when confronted with discussions of racial issues. It is more often the case that comments made about white males as a group do not refer to the whole group; still, we all serve as representatives of the group. A personal defensiveness is raised when we feel threatened or attacked for actions we didn’t personally commit. It should be noted here that I don’t know whether the representative was off the floor during the speeches or at the time of your comment, but I’m not sure that it matters. There is a history in this country of white men holding to their power and ignoring voices from minority communities, and we must understand our actions and the perceptions of those actions in the context of this history.

In terms of confronting the defensive mindsets that arises in these situations, communicating through this barrier serves as a major difficulty. In this specific instance, you chose to confront the issue head on. Could your remarks have been made without reference to race? Sure. Would they have been as attention grabbing if you hadn’t? Probably not. Were they helpful in communicating race issues that have yet to be solved? Honestly, I think that has yet to be seen. Unfortunately, a direct confrontation, though often necessary, can lead to a sharper division. You have acknowledged this as you’ve considered whether an apology for your remarks would be necessary. Should you apologize? In all honesty, I don’t know. You seem to have made peace with your decision not to, and I would lean to agreeing with you. When speaking truth to power, there are times we need to say things people in power don’t want to hear but need to. Our presentation can speak volumes, and hindsight is not always 20/20 in determining whether we said the most right thing or acted in the most right way. It may be that this was the appropriate time for strong words to be spoken, words that others needed to hear.

At this point, I support you in your remarks. Moving forward, I think you need to help empower the people of color, the women who spoke on the floor, to allow their voices to be heard. I will regretfully admit that I don’t know whether you’re already doing this or not; if you are, then let this serve as an affirmation for that work. These are not people who we need to give voices to, serving as a voice for the voiceless; these are people who have voices that need to be heard. Please help in teaching how we can continue to hear these voices.

I hope that this situation does not continue to lead to questions of right or wrong, but to opportunities for growth and understanding. I hope that everyone in the House would use this opportunity to better understand their colleagues, the Minnesotans they represent, and to prompt a respect that is shown through action as well as word.

Let me conclude by saying that my decision to post this letter publicly comes from a desire to continue a productive conversation around racial issues. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know everything with regards to these issues, and that I approach them through a very specific lens. I hope that this conversation will continue productively, and that more voices will be added to the conversation.

Thank you for your words, and for bringing this discussion to light.

Erik Beck

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