Karen Tolkkinen
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ALEXANDRIA, MINN. – Alexandria experienced a rare and frightening armed bank robbery in May. But the group of about 90 people crowded into the police conference room weren't there to talk about that.

They were there to talk about what happened after the robbery, when the police department posted on its Facebook page a photo of the suspect, a Black man with dreadlocks, wearing a medical mask.

They were there to denounce the racism that flooded that Facebook page in response. The comments that were so numerous and vile, police said, that frightened members of Alexandria's small community of color called police wondering if it was safe for them to go to Walmart that night or send their kids to school the next day.

"I couldn't sleep that night, and it wasn't because of the robbery," said Alexandria Police Chief Scott Kent, who is white, and who organized the meeting, called "Hate and Fear: A Public Safety Forum," along with the Inclusion Network, a local nonprofit.

Alexandria, its population close to 15,000, is more than 95% white, and over the years, people of color as well as members of the LGBTQ community have complained publicly about being treated poorly there.

On that evening, in the police conference room, people filled up every chair and stood pressed against the walls, eager to talk.

The therapist who is Korean and German and grew up in Detroit Lakes spoke about how racism harms mental health and one's sense of belonging.

The white mother spoke about how her children, who are people of color, were wrongly accused of shoplifting by Alexandria shop owners.

One man said some of what he has experienced in Alexandria rivals the racism he grew up with in Uniontown, Alabama.

(Impressed though I am with Kent, who once brought in implicit bias trainers for area law enforcement, a Black man from nearby Kensington reported on his own Facebook page that he felt unfairly targeted in the wake of the bank robbery when he was questioned by law enforcement because he had dreadlocks. His post drew commiseration from his friends.)

Others spoke about how whole cities can suffer when people who look different aren't welcome. The community college president said that the college needs to attract students of color in order to grow, and that won't happen without more community buy-in. The public schools superintendent said it's a challenge to prepare graduates for the rapidly diversifying world beyond Alexandria.

One man, who identified himself as a veteran who had helped search for mass graves in Kosovo, warned that he had seen the extreme end of where a country's divisions can lead.

Alexandria isn't the only community dealing with racism. But at least Alexandria is talking about it. At least it is home to the people in that room, and they are loving people. They are the kind of people who wish with all their hearts that everybody would be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their race or gender or sexual orientation or any other descriptor that appears to set them apart from the mainstream. They are the kind of people who believe that nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome simply because of who they are.

And as someone noted, the people in the room are not the problem.

The people in the room are the problem-solvers.

They're planning more meetings, more brainstorming, and especially more ways to reach kids because there was a sentiment in the room that racist adults are beyond saving.

I do disagree with them on that one. Call me naïve, but I think there's hope for everybody. When I lived in the South, I interviewed Tom Turnipseed, one of George Wallace's top lieutenants during his 1968 presidential campaign at a time when Wallace was called "perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today" by no less than Martin Luther King Jr. By the time I met Turnipseed, he had recognized and renounced his own racism, as had his wife, and the couple was working for racial justice.

How to reach the adults, though — that's the question. Taking decisive action against racism helps, but direct confrontation often makes people feel defensive and double down on their views, especially when those views are shared by their closest friends.

And maybe that's the answer, or part of the answer. Maybe we have more influence over friends and family members when we maintain relationships. Love them anyway. Lead by example. Maybe saying, "Auntie, I love you, and I wish you could see how your words hurt people," will change hearts in a way that disapproval and isolation never will.