In a Tik Tok video preceding this article, I summarized some findings from the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) about Minnesota’s European immigrants colonizing previously Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk land. Between this summary, informative comments from viewers, and further research, I was able to gain more insight into the recently popularized conversation about European immigrants losing their cultures and becoming White Americans.
Local history suggests those immigrants actively embraced parts of Anglo-American (i.e. default) White culture as much as they were pressured to adopt other parts.
So what is White American culture? Baseball and apple pie? Colonization? Nothing?
In their own ways, each of those answers is correct. But who were White Minnesotans before they were White? Did they want to become White? And how did their cultural journeys shape Twin Cities culture?
Unlike the 17th century English settlers that made up the American colonies, most of Minnesota’s White people descend from mid and late-19th century European immigrants. But much like their Anglo-American peers, Minnesota’s German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Irish immigrants came mainly for one thing: new land freshly taken from Native Americans. As immigrants facing varying degrees of instability and scarcity back home, it was hard to beat a federally-backed promise of acres of land to own, farm, and create community.
The group of four nationalities listed above made up 68 percent of all Minnesotans’ ancestry as of 2016.
The relatively recent arrivals of Minnesota’s White people raises questions about the speed of their assimilation into White American culture.
Culture, by Across The Culture’s simplified definition, is the sum of what people collectively say, do, and believe. Powerful White people say and do a lot to make sure the average person believes in “race” as we know it. German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Irish Minnesotans quickly adopted this belief in Whiteness and acted on it in different ways, replacing some parts of their respective cultures while emphasizing others.
As newer American arrivals, European immigrants in Minnesota adopted Whiteness more than they shaped it. But before making conscious decisions to become White, Minnesota’s major European immigrant groups were proudly “hyphenated” Americans. So, how did German-Minnesotans, Norwegian-Minnesotans, and other groups — sometimes in just two generations — become White so quickly? And what exactly is “White” if not just visibly European-American?
“White” Is A Myth With Holes
“White” as an identity has a gradual origin story entirely based on distance from society’s lowest caste: first from “savage” and “heathen,” later “slave,” then “Negro,” then “Black.” In this context, Whiteness is empty: it’s all about what it is not (here is anthropologist Audrey Smedley explaining this). “White” is the absence of “impurity” (e.g. darker skin, non-Christian beliefs) more than it is the presence of “purity.”
The strongest candidate for a factual, self-sufficient core quality of Whiteness is European heritage. But even that is undermined by the erratic inclusion and exclusion of different European, Indigenous, Latin American, and even Middle Eastern groups of people when it’s convenient for powerful American entities (e.g. corporations, state and federal governments).
So if “White” is a lie, is White culture real? Yes.
“White” is a hollow identity. But culture is simply shared norms and beliefs. Even if the foundational belief of White identity is a paper-thin myth, all the shared activities and beliefs based on it — including active belief in the myth — are real. For this reason, colonization and segregation are as much a part of White Minnesotan culture as craft brewery, hockey, cabins, and the State Fair are.
How Irish-Minnesotans Became White
“White” changes shape so easily because it is shapeless. One generation, Irish and Black people are lovers and neighbors defined mostly by poverty. Next generation, men with the last names “Murphy” and “Fitzgerald” are protesting Black civil rights as White men. The Murphys and Fitzgeralds, rightfully so, grew tired of being poor and disrespected. Historically, that often meant being aggressively not Black.
The story of Irish-Minnesotans isn’t quite that as there weren’t many Black people to compete with, but they were still an urban working poor community. Arriving for the promise of land, many Irish-Minnesotans experienced unusually rough farming situations and opted to work the railroads and pick up other trades in Saint Paul. Over time, Irish presence in the city was unavoidable and they consolidated power to get behind many early Irish-American politicians and religious leaders such as Bishop John Ireland.
Despite stigmas attached to their Catholicism and low socioeconomic status (even pre-immigration), the Irish contributed enough to the city of Saint Paul to proudly earn status as White Minnesotans.
How German-Minnesotans Became White
The German-American absorption into Whiteness wasn’t as proactive as Irish-American achievement of Whiteness.
The Germans that made it to the US were getting away from political instability and military service. They arrived in large numbers in Minnesota and preserved much of their culture until World War I made German immigrants in America deeply unpopular.
While the Irish made moves toward Whiteness, Germans were essentially bullied away from being German. The Library of Congress (LOC) explains that Germany’s oppositional role to the US in WWI resulted in changes like widespread German language classes being cancelled, German-language newspapers being run out of business, and Anglicized (i.e. Americanized) last names, including future president Dwight Eisenhower’s family changing the spelling of their name from “Eisenhauer.”
In short, Germans were harassed into assimilation. The LOC’s choice of words was “disappear into mainstream America” which effectively means “became White.”
Like other European immigrant groups, Germans had the privilege of disappearing into White America that later immigrants of darker complexion and more distinct cultures did not have. Despite this privilege, Whiteness still required German-Americans to erase parts of themselves to be Americans. Whiteness still caused them harm, leaving German-American identity emptier than it was.
Norwegian-Minnesotans Hung On Tight
Norwegians in America weren’t as quick to disappear into Whiteness. But as much as Norwegians in Minnesota wanted to preserve Norwegian culture, many of their new world ambitions played right into the hands of American Whiteness. What did these conflicting desires lead to?
The first Norwegian immigrants were disgruntled farmers looking for a lot of land and less competition for resources and social status than they were experiencing in Norway. Early Norwegian immigrants feared their culture fading into a great American mixture of ethnicities, so the less-settled Minnesota was appealing. Norwegians who moved to Minnesota got what they wished for, building a strong Norwegian community that married internally, spoke their home language, and acquired a lot of land.
Despite being greatly outnumbered by German-Minnesotans, Norwegian culture is the most prominent European immigrant culture in the state. Between the Vikings football team, lutefisk, colleges, and heavy influence in the Minnesotan accent, Norwegians (along with Swedes) have left their mark on Minnesotan culture. How, then, did such a unique and reserved group of people still end up assimilating?
“Janteloven” and “Protestant Work Ethic”
There wasn’t much about daily life or consumerism in the sources referenced for this piece. However, the sheer amount of land Norwegian-Minnesotans claimed for themselves (more than $16 billion in today’s USD) plus competition amongst themselves regarding productivity support the idea that Norwegians bought into the American belief that more is better. Simply put, Norwegian-Minnesotans were good at being White Americans, and it did not go unnoticed.
The messages Norwegian-Minnesotans received after establishing themselves was simple: you work hard and don’t ask questions — perfect Americans. Just stop doing Norwegian shit and you’re good.
As frustrating as assimilation naturally is, both Germans and Norwegians had core values in their cultures that made assimilation into Whiteness relatively easy. In German culture, these include an emphasis on punctuality, work ethic, and, order. In Norwegian culture, a similarly stoic approach to life has the name Janteloven.
The origin and effects of Janteloven have been pondered quietly in Minnesota. These informal social laws — know-your-place statements such as “Don’t think you’re anything special” or “Don’t think you can teach us anything” — have a fierce grip on Norwegians and their Scandinavian peers. It’s this expectation of “rigorous conformity” to the community that explains the silent adoption of Whiteness by Minnesota’s early Europeans.
President Calvin Coolidge came to the Minnesota State Fair in 1925 to celebrate the Norse-American Centennial — 100 years since the first Norwegians emigrated to the United States. Rather than discuss the rich culture they brought with them, President Coolidge praised Norwegian-Americans for their “Protestant work ethic” as part of his overall message that Norwegian-Americans had finally “arrived.” Like the other European-American groups mentioned, ambition plus the willingness to take Native American land made shallow acceptance from Anglo-Americans as “White” simple.
Norwegian-Americans also had relatively little political baggage compared to other European-Americans. But despite global politics being more cruel to German and Irish-Americans, WWI left the USA generally paranoid about who entered the country and who believed themselves to be American. Immigration policies tightened while “hyphenates” were explicitly called out and pressured into dropping their national or ethnic backgrounds.
It took a while longer, but Norwegian language use faded much like German language use did. It took until 1942 for the Minneapolis-based Sons of Norway fraternal group to stop printing their magazine in Norwegian, more than 100 years since the first Norwegians settled in the United States. But despite Norwegian becoming an ancestral language in Minnesota, roughly 750,000 Minnesotans continued to identify as Norwegian-American on the 1990 Census.
Can The True Story Replace The Myth?
Germans escaped the draft and laid low. Irish people clawed their way into respectability. Driven Scandinavians proudly stuck with each other, grabbed a bunch of land, and started throwing their weight around. Each major European immigrant story in Minnesota starts with a distinct and colorful history that ends with the embrace of a uniform identity. “White” allowed them to avoid scrutiny and become American colonizers. The wealth and social status gained as a result set the stage for the Twin Cities’ socioeconomic reality today.
This equation of Minnesota’s European immigrant stories spits out a shade of Whiteness similar to America’s collective Whiteness, but a little more transparent — much like the ice that coats the Cities for months of the year.
It is the see-through nature of this Whiteness — nothing to see here, folks! — that explains so much of the Cities cultural characteristics and social issues. The transparency here does not mean greater honesty. Rather, it means you may not even perceive the threat until you’ve slipped on it. Whiteness in Minnesota is passive, hazardous, and everywhere.
For these reasons, the Twin Cities will continue to rank high for metrics like overall educational achievement and quality of life, yet have among the nation’s worst racial disparities in the same metrics.
With so many European descendants conditioned to take what they want, avoid conflict, and minimize differences between people, it’s no wonder a state mostly made up of these specific White people now struggles to bring in more young adults than it loses every year. Even White people from other states find Minnesotans difficult to connect with.
It’s no wonder a state mostly made up of these specific White people is disturbed by its anti-Blackness yet unresponsive to it.
It’s no wonder a state where roughly 7 of 10 people descend from these specific White people is risk-averse and fake progressive. These attitudes manifest in areas such as professional sports, politics, higher education, and the workforce where groups of the same people doing the same things expect improvement.
In some ways, Minnesota’s European immigrants were pushed away from their cultures to survive White America. In other ways, these immigrants willingly gave up parts of their culture to be White and had other values and practices which already aligned with Whiteness.
If White Minnesotans wanted to untangle who they were and who they now are, what would come of it?
Could Minnesota’s status quo be less passively racist if Janteloven and the silent acceptance of Whiteness was honestly confronted? Would Twin Cities artists emerge from their pockets of community and share, compete, and critique more openly? Would the state lose its growing “Minnesota Ice” reputation and build a more welcoming culture that attracts outsiders and retains local young adults?
Considering how much ownership White Minnesotans have of, well, everything in the state, there is no material incentive for them to dig into this. But if White Minnesotans ever get tired of land acknowledgements, calls for reform, first-round playoff exits, and closed social circles, they might want to take a look back before moving forward.