The Star Tribune ran a disturbing Op/Ed Monday titled: I asked 350 people who live along or near Lake Calhoun about renaming it — The breakdown is 20 percent for and 80 percent against. Equally interesting are the reasons.
The author is critical of the proposed name change from Lake Calhoun to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (or Mde Maka Ska). Here are four examples of how the Op/Ed embodies white privilege.
#1: White voices matter most: The author, a CEO of a venture capital group, starts out by telling us he talked to his “Lake Calhoun” neighbors to gauge their feelings about the name Bde Maka Ska. As he describes it, he polled “virtually every homeowner who lives directly along Lake Calhoun, plus another couple hundred neighbors who live within a few blocks.”
The result? Some 80 percent were for keeping the name Lake Calhoun. The underlying premise here is that the voices that matter most are those who live closest to the Lake, those who are predominantly wealthy and white. They see themselves as entitled to preferential treatment. Did the author think it was important to talk to anyone but his immediate neighbors, say some Dakota people? Apparently not. Apparently their opinions do not matter.
The author says his neighbors “were overwhelmingly disgusted that public officials were spending all of this time and energy on the lake renaming issue when there are so many other pressing problems facing the community that need to be addressed.” This world view ignores the fact that people in other parts of the city might have different pressing issues which are equally valid for the city’s consideration.
#2: This never would have happened if the process was fair: The author frames the process as unfair, and uses language evoking lawbreaking and violence. He says his neighbors are upset that “American Indian activists seem to have hijacked the discussion.”
(Yes, I understand there is a vernacular use of the word, but it is a loaded term, too. In this case, it takes on a racial tone by suggesting that Dakota didn’t play by the rules. There were a number of hearings on this issue, a fact that the Op/Ed fails to acknowledge.)
The author makes it a racial issue, criticizing American Indian activists. He either ignores (or not know) that this is not just a Native American issue. Native Americans make up only 2 percent of the city’s population. This effort would not have succeeded without a number of white allies. There were a lot of them.
The author played the “Process Stinks” card, a common play by those on the losing side in political debates. To be clear, it’s fine to criticize the process, but at least back it up with details rather than make a general slur.
#3: Willful ignorance of history: The author continues with an amazing summary of his neighbors’ views: “It turns out that most of them don’t feel that Lake Calhoun represents an endorsement of slavery or racism, but that it is merely the name that has been used for more than a hundred years for one of Minnesota’s iconic lakes,” he writes.
The language really matters here. He is saying a couple of hundred people living near Lake Calhoun “don’t feel” the name endorses slavery or racism. It doesn’t matter what they feel.
Here’s the history that many of us learned in Minneapolis Public Schools. Sen. John C. Calhoun was a strong defender of slavery and a slave owner himself. (Wikipedia says Calhoun “asserted that slavery, rather than being a ‘necessary evil’, was a ‘positive good.'”). You can’t just ignore that history.
The author’s question is framed all wrong. The question is not whether the name Calhoun “endorses” slavery. The name still can be deeply offensive, problematic and insulting for many people. Even if white people don’t feel the name “Lake Calhoun” is an endorsement of slavery, is it really so hard to see how others might be hurt by that name and empathize with them rather than call them hijackers?
#4. Blindness to historical trauma: The author said his neighbors asked him: “What is the heroism or accomplishment that we are recognizing in order to justify renaming the lake to Bde Maka Ska?”
This part of the Op/Ed I find most disturbing. I wrote a letter to the editor at the Star Tribune, which was published today online. To me, this is a painful question.
As I wrote in the letter to the editor, the Dakota people faced genocide and exile here and efforts to destroy their language, culture, and religion. “It is ludicrous for white people to ask what heroic acts the Dakota have done. It is heroic that the Dakota have survived at all. Yet here they are, preserving their traditions, standing up for water, and looking out for seven generations into the future.”
The Op/Ed also reflects how little research the author did on the Dakota side of the story. Bde Maka Ska is not a renaming; it is restoring the lake’s original name, the one it had before settlers arrived. And the name has nothing to do with heroes or even people. Translated from Dakota, it means White Earth Lake.