In Duluth, confronting racism with a 'Hello'

A man sits on a bench.
As one of the few Black employees at the St. Louis County courthouse in Duluth, John Staine felt he was being singled out — and he was sick of it. So, he took an unconventional approach to confronting the bias.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

John Staine has worked at the St. Louis County courthouse in Duluth for two and a half years. He loves his job as a real estate appraiser, with one glaring exception — the repeated questioning he’s received when he enters the building, or even when he’s already inside. 

There was the time a security guard blocked him from walking through a doorway. He gave him “an up-down look,” Staine recalled.

“You don’t recognize me?” Staine asked. The guard shook his head — no. 

“I'm one of the only Black persons in the building,” Staine told him. “I recognize you. I see you all the time.” 

There was the time a custodian repeatedly questioned how he’d gotten into the courthouse when he stopped to take a picture of the morning sunrise over Lake Superior.

There were all the times guards made him take off his winter hat when he came in from the cold; the times they stopped him to check his badge; the times he was stopped and questioned; the times fellow workers wouldn’t open the door to leave the building when they saw him standing on the other side, waiting to come in.

As one of the few Black employees at the courthouse in Duluth, Staine felt he was being singled out. And he was sick of it.

But the tipping point came in January. He was talking to a colleague in the hallway one day, when a court security guard interrupted their conversation. 

“Do you work here?” he demanded, staring straight at Staine. 

“I do,” Staine answered. “But why does that matter?”

Staine walked away from the encounter, aggravated.

But then he thought that maybe he should relieve the tension of the moment — “which I didn't need to do,” he said. But he did it anyway. He introduced himself and said he’d been working there for a few years.

"And I've been asked too many times,” he told the guard, “‘Do you work here? How did you get in the building? Who let you in?’ With my badge in sight. You see my badge, it’s on me. You had other people walk past, and you didn't say anything to those other people."

The guard replied that some people have fake badges. That there are homeless people around. 

“I just told him I was one of the few Black people in the building,” Staine said. He said the guard told him he couldn’t be racist because he’d worked in corrections for decades.

Staine ended the conversation there. But he was upset. He was too used to these kinds of interactions, having lived most of his 27 years in the overwhelmingly white cities of Duluth and neighboring Superior, Wis. 

As a kid, he got in a lot of fights, he said, when other kids hurled racial slurs at him on the playground. But as an adult, he said, things are different. He has to take a different approach.

He called his wife after the conversation with the guard, still fuming.

Why don't you write an email, she suggested. Tell people who you are? 

So that night, he did. 

"Good morning all, my name is John Staine, I work on the second floor of the courthouse in the assessor's department,” he wrote. He said he lives in Superior, with his wife and 3-year-old son, who he adores. 

“And I'm used to the ‘You don't belong here, how did you get here?’ type of deal, and being told I'm out of place,” he continued. “I was up all night, restless, confused and upset, thinking how can I make things easier for myself and for those around me.” 

He finished by saying he hoped his email would make people feel more comfortable when they saw him in the halls.

"Signed, the young Black man with some tattoos, braids, Afro or a ponytail." 

The next morning, he sent it — and his note hit the inboxes of some 2,000 St. Louis County workers.

His “heart was beating,” Staine said. He didn't know how his fellow employees would react. But he knew he had the support of his department supervisor, Mary Garness, who directs the public records and property valuation division at the county. 

Staine had shown her the email before he sent it. She told him the county actually has a policy against sending all-staff emails. But she encouraged him to do it, anyway. If there was any fallout, she would take the heat, she told him.

“I thought his message was positive,” Garness said, “and that it was great to share his story. Because I think often, those stories, there's just not an awareness, because people don't feel comfortable saying anything and calling it out."

Garness acknowledged she can’t walk in Staine’s shoes. But she’s intimately familiar with discrimination, she said. As a child, she watched her father confront racism as he fought for their tribe’s treaty rights. They’re members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“He did a very brave thing that not everybody can or is willing to do,” she said, “to share their story, that intimately, with a large majority of coworkers who you have never met.” 

The reaction was overwhelming.

Staine got more than 200 responses from his colleagues across the county, almost all of them positive. People came to his office to introduce themselves. They stopped him in the hall to tell him how sorry they were about what he had experienced. They thanked him for telling his story.

Staine filed a complaint after that January interaction with the security guard — the one that prompted the email. County officials said they can’t give specifics on a personnel matter — but said the complaint was investigated and the matter is now closed.

Just a few weeks after he sent that email, Staine and many of his colleagues started working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he said it’s still too early to tell if his note has made an impact.

But he said he’s received almost nothing but strong support from many county employees.

Since then, he and several other county government workers have formed a group to explore policy changes focusing on women and people of color, and making diversity training mandatory. The group plans to resume meeting when the pandemic allows.

Still, he said, it’s frustrating. Why did he have to work to make other people feel comfortable, when he was the one dealing with discrimination in the overwhelmingly white county government?

"It's very exhausting,” he said.

”And it's tough, too, because you play the game of chess,” weighing how to respond to each moment, knowing that the person on the other end of an interaction might not even see it as an attack.

“But it is an attack,” he said. “Why? Because the last person did it, and the last person did it. Those microaggressions definitely add up."

Now, in the wake of George Floyd's killing, Staine said he thinks about how his story could have ended if he had reacted differently in any one of those interactions. 

"I could have been there in the courthouse, with a knee in my neck," he said.

Staine said he sees his email as his own personal protest, a way to make his voice heard — to make people realize, if for only a moment, how their actions have impact.

St. Louis County is 92 percent white. And Staine knows that some people’s interactions with him might be their only interactions with a person of color. 

“And maybe you can correct that when you have your next encounter with a person of color,” he said. “So I want to make sure that there’s an impact.” 

Editor’s note: Below is the full text of the email John Staine sent to his St. Louis County colleagues in January.

Subject: Hello

Good morning all,

My name is John Staine, I work on the 2nd floor of the courthouse in the assessors department. I am 27 years old and own a home in Superior with my wonderful wife and toddler. I was born on the east coast and have been in the twin ports most of my life with the exception of about 7 years traveling with my parents who were in the navy. I enjoy basketball, music, and HOT SUMMER DAYS (I know wrong place for me right?!).

My introduction brings me to why I am sending this everyone, more specifically to those who work in the same building as myself...During my two years of employment, I have been asked questions such as “do you work here?,” “how did you get in the building?”, “who let you in?”, typically just before or after business hours. I have also been told that I need to remove my hat upon entering the building on winter days (when others walking in beside me with the same attire on are not told that). I have also been told that my badge, that I always wear to try avoid and decrease these interactions altogether, might be fake and that was why they stopped and questioned me.

Although, I have been told it is in policy for security for people to be able to ask other employees these things, it is frustrating to consistently hear and even more frustrating when the people standing next to me or walking past, 1) may not have a badge on or 2) are in street clothes or outside gear and are not asked the same questions.

So, I just wanted to introduce myself to everyone who may not have seen me around yet. As I mentioned I have been here most of my life and am used to the “you don’t belong here” or “how did you get here” type deal and being told I am out of place.

I’ve been provided a great opportunity through my employment with the county to allow myself into the building before and after typical business hours. I typically enter in building through the 3rd St, parking ramp entrance typically around 730 in the morning and typically exit the same way around 4:30-5 p.m.

I enjoy my job very much, with the exception of a couple of taxpayers pointing guns at me out in the field and being consistently questioned on if I work here due to my appearance when walking in the building — badge in sight.

I also am quite fond and very appreciative of everyone in my department and those who I work closely with; all that they do, and how comfortable they have made me feel. However, I do understand that things are different when I leave my office and department which can be sad and frustrating.

I was up all night, restless, confused and upset, thinking how can I make things easier for myself and those around me. Hopefully this brief introduction of myself helps with your comfortability when seeing me in the halls, even when wearing  my badge or even my winter hat (it is much too cold for me to take off winter gear before getting to my office). I’m looking forward to meeting all of you who I may not know, and thank you for getting to know me.

Signed, the young black man, with some tattoos, and braids, afro, or a ponytail.

John Staine

Real Estate Appraiser