The Vinegar Man brings Aberdeen to the Race Exhibit

Laurence Diggs
Lawrence Diggs, part of the Aberdeen Area Diversity Committee, organized a visit from Aberdeen, S.D. to the Race Exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

This story begins with Lawrence Diggs. He's lived on four continents, but now he lives in Roslyn, just outside Aberdeen, S.D. He runs the International Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, but got really excited when he heard about the race exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul.

"I said I have to get somebody else to see this because somebody else needs to see this vision," says Diggs.

Bus interior
The group included students, a nun, businessmen, and educators.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Periera

The St. Paul exhibit is meant to spur honest discussions about race. After visiting the exhibit himself, Diggs got working, getting people from his area to come and hiring a bus.

He's been giving presentations for the last 10 years on how race is a product of society, not biology. He uses the same information from the American Anthropological Association that the museum exhibit does; Diggs has his own vision of, as he puts it, "this thing we call race".

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"After you move around the earth, you start to realize that there are no distinct lines, that these people are black and these are white and these are something else, you really start to see all these grays and shades and overlap," says Diggs.

After many hours on the road, 17 visitors from Aberdeen roll off the bus at the Science Museum.

They walk into the exhibit, which is full of sound and video. They're here to see if they kind find ways to help their town think differently.

Bebe Janish
Bebe Janish tries to recruit doctors for the Aberdeen hospital. While she has a lot of experience working with immigrants because of her job, she realizes that others in her town may not.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

Bebe Janish, director of physician recruitment for Avera St. Luke's Hospital, says she tries to bring doctors to Aberdeen, and many of the best candidates are foreign born. But even if they do end up moving to Aberdeen, some never feel at home. Janish thinks one problem with diversity in her town is that people don't realize that they treat people differently.

"We think that we're just a regular Midwest friendly town, and we are. But we especially are if you look, talk, and act, sound like us," says Janish.

And that attitude is increasingly having economic costs. A new beef processing facility will soon bring more than 600 jobs to Aberdeen. Opening up a plant like this is often controversial, but Aberdeen Deputy Mayor Bill McQuillen says one aspect of the controversy was particularly troubling.

"Starting about three months ago, some very ugly racial stuff started bubbling up in Aberdeen. Basically, 'We don't want Mexicans to come live in Aberdeen. Maybe we don't even want more Native Americans to come and live in Aberdeen. So, we're against this plant because we like things just fine the way they are,'" says McQuillen.

The group
The group came from all parts of Aberdeen. The members, many of whom did not know one another, now hope to make positive change in their community by working together.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

There have been a few concrete examples of those attitudes lately. Some Aberdeen residents have written letters to the editor and shared their apprehensions with the newspaper's online forum. Someone even put anonymous fliers on people's cars while they were at church suggesting connections between new immigrant populations and an increase in crime. Those actions convinced some in the town that more preparation was needed before new employees started moving in.

As the Aberdeen visitors mingle with school children of different ethnicities at the St. Paul exhibit, McQuillen says this environment makes him think.

"There was this young man, Hispanic I think, though I'm not sure. He literally stepped out of my way, and it struck me square in the face that he is operating by a set of unwritten rules," says McQuillen. "The problem is very real and I think white people never see it because they're almost never subjected to it."

For McQuillen, watching one of the exhibit's videos reminded him of growing up in Aberdeen, where he says, his father instilled racism and sexism in him. It's something McQuillen's struggled with for many years.

Years ago, McQuillen took on a female coach and a black coach in order to help him confront his own attitudes. The coaches worked on McQuillen, interrupting his business meetings to correct behavior in the moment.

"It's embarrassing to be called out like that," says McQuillen, "But if you can make a friend of your own discomfort, the learning curve just skyrockets."

Bill McQuillen
Aberdeen Deputy Mayor Bill McQuillen says he's had to work hard to acknowledge the "isms" he grew up with, and change his behavior so that he doesn't hurt people. Now he hopes others in his town will do the same.
MPR Photo/Roseanne Pereira

McQuillen says that while personal coaches for an entire town might not be feasible, any change that Aberdeen goes through as it grows may be uncomfortable, and may require making a friend of one's own discomfort.

"It's a very liberating moment once you acknowledge that there is this particular kind of brokenness inside," he says.

After visiting the exhibit, the group discusses what ideas they can take back to Aberdeen. Perhaps a storytelling project, or a photography exhibit. A popular idea involves getting townspeople to meet each other one on one rather than as large ethnic groups.

Many felt that individual experience and internal reflection may be more effective than group action.