I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.
Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.
So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)
Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.
Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.
STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.
Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.
STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?
Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…
Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.
Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.
STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?
Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?
The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.
But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.
And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.
Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.
Last week officials at Tucson Unified School District walked into classrooms and took books away from the students. The reason? Books which promote “resentment toward a race or class of people” are not permitted.
While comparisons are being made to Nazi Germany, I am thinking instead about the books they didn’t take. The ones that evidently do not promote resentment between races. History books with the proper information about slavery, boarding schools, internment camps, borders and war. Who wrote those books?
Free Speech is something we Americans all agree on, right? The free expression of ideas, thoughts, and opinions is a basic human right, as given as oxygen…the necessary air of critical reasoning, dialogue and debate.
Yet Free Speech is also invoked by white people who don’t want to critically examine the content of their own discourse.
For example, if a white writer includes racial stereotypes in her writing or one-dimensional racial characters, whether out of ignorance or laziness or simply because it “feels” right to her, she can invoke Free Speech as a protection against being accountable for the consequences of her work.
No one likes censorship, so those who might object that stereotypes perpetuate racism or limit the conversation to a one-sided monologue in support of white supremacy will probably back off when the Free Speech banner is raised.
Yet I have this nagging notion in my belly that free speech is really about privilege and entitlement. White people get more free speech than people of color. So at its heart, the ban in Arizona isn’t about free speech (although that would make it simpler). The ban is about the oppression of brown people by white people, about white control of the words, the culture, the conversation around history and race.
What can I, a white person, learn from Arizona? It is so tempting to feel self-righteously outraged. I can send a petition to the school governing board. (By the way, please DO sign the petition.) But my outraged petition-signing might just reinforce my sense of rightness, the illusion that I am somehow “above” the system.
So instead of being lulled into complacency by outrage, I want to ask myself (and you):
Would the Tucson Unified School District remove my writing? If my book was in their classroom, would it count as threatening? Are my words so harmless to the white regime that they would remain?
How does my writing perpetuate racism? What racial stereotypes are embedded within my work that I can’t see? How often do I choose what is easy or seems right rather than what is complex, uncomfortable, unsettling?
I want to call out to white writers everywhere and ask them these questions: Are you, a writer who “happens to be white,” accountable for the ways that racism is unconsciously perpetuated in your work? What and who keeps you accountable?
What are you doing with all the free speech you possess?
As I write this, I’m tired and grateful. Tired because I have too much work and too little time, and grateful because yesterday I got a flat tire driving home from a doctor’s appointment.
I hate tires. They smell like the oil they’re made of. But I love having a car. So I drove to the gas station, confirmed the damage, and went to Les Schwab. I drove away an hour later with brand new tires and a huge awareness of my own class privilege.
Some years ago at my women’s writing group I had an aha! moment while bemoaning the lack of women authors among the ranks of the literary elite. My friend Vanessa commented that, as a black woman, she isn’t surprised when the publishing industry ignores her. Of course she wants her work to be visible, and is a strong advocate for herself. But I don’t expect them to accept me, she said.
Well I do! I spouted. I’m as white as those white men and I do expect them to pay attention to me.
Expectations and entitlements. I’m entitled to my moment in the sun, provided I work “hard enough”. Being white sets me up to think that I can belong to that club at the top…and that I get to shout and stomp my foot when I’m denied.
I’m thinking about expectations today because I was just slapped down and put in my place.
The problem? My writing is not “at the graduate level”. I need to work harder to earn a grade higher than a C. Topic of my paper? Women’s ordination (or the lack of it) in the Christian church.
It was hard not to feel paranoid that it was my topic rather than my writing that earned me a C grade, but I pushed onward. I reread my paper and could see where it needed work. Maybe the instructor was going to push me to work harder. That could be a good thing. I cheered up, challenged.
Until this morning, when the participation points for last week were awarded and I got an F. Since my online class postings met the requirements for an “A” as outlined in the syllabus, I emailed the instructor in confusion, not assuming (just kidding – of course I was assuming – but I didn’t say so). He adjusted my grade without explanation from an F to a C. Finally we got on the phone and he granted me an A “as a gesture of goodwill” which I accepted through (invisible) gritted teeth.
Of course, you are only hearing my side of the story. The fact that the instructor teaches at a “biblically sound” seminary and was educated by a college which ordains only men are facts which should not influence your opinion. (I actually do kinda think that the instructor maybe made a honest mistake.)
But what I’m curious about is that feeling of outrage, fury and helplessness I felt when I looked at my grade. Why did I think I was entitled to a “fair” grade? Because “everyone” is? Do I expect the system to be fair, and by fair, do I mean non-discriminatory against me as a liberal lesbian woman? Of course I do.
But Life Isn’t Fair. I know this. So, at a practical level, what resources do I have for getting on with it, for finding some inner peace and equilibrium (while also fighting like hell)? I suspect that white people have far less resources for dealing with “it’s not fair” than people of color (and, of course, have the luxury of far less practice in having to cope). White people are trained in expectation, in entitlement, but not in making-do-while-speaking-up.
And here’s the thing: in order for us to find some measure of racial justice in our society, white people are going to have to be okay with getting less than we’re used to. Because, on many levels, what white people are used to experiencing as “fair” is really injustice…white privilege over and against people of color.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight for equitable standards, equal pay, justice. But we (we women, we people of color, we queers) won’t be able to resist – and overcome – oppression if we crumble every time we get smacked down. And we (we men, we white people, we straight people) won’t be able to ally with our sisters and brothers if we can’t give up what we have come to take for granted.
What about you…how do you deal when life isn’t fair? Where’s the line for you between coping and settling?