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Changing the Story

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?

(end scene)

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.


Unpacking PC: A Field Guide

Oh no, another sports team mascot debate. I feel exhausted already.

However, if we consider this article as a sociological artifact and do a little linguistic analysis, it gets interesting. Painful, but interesting…a field study on the side effects of political correctedness. Ready? Let’s see what we can find.

1) The article argues that the original caricature of an Indian was insensitive, whereas the new patch of tomahawks is not. The new logo is great because it pays “tribute to the franchise’s history without alienating a group of people.” (Ah, the irony of the word alien.) I notice two things here:

a) The debate is defined as an issue of courtesy and civility. It is not about genocide, broken treaties, stolen land, violated sovereignty. The author of the article sets the bounds of the debate as being about hurt feelings, not dead people.

b) The goal of the logo change is not to reverse the legacy of cultural appropriation and dehumanization. The goal is to pay tribute to history. A history in which tomahawks are a symbol of wars between white and Indian people. Wars which result in the destruction of Native civilization, culture and religion.

The franchise’s history continues, using a cultural symbol to invoke the same message as before.

2) The author states: “The [old] logo strips Native Americans of any humanity and turns them into a one-dimensional character devoid of any sympathy or tribute.” Here we find the prompts about how we are supposed to view Native people, either in sympathy (“alcoholic, unemployed, impoverished”) or in tribute (“close to the land, spiritual, noble savage”).

So, breaking it down, the old logo was bad because it encouraged non-Natives to fear and despise Native people.

The appropriate way to view Native people is to pity or idolize them.

Nothing has changed. Dehumanization continues, it just gets a new look.

3) The new logo gets the ultimate stamp of approval: “Even Hank Aaron approves.” The article doesn’t quote Hank, but the photo below shows a black man (Hank, in case you didn’t know) waving his hand and smiling. This reminds me that:

a) If a person of color (but especially a black person) approves of something, then it can’t be racist. This argument is corollary to #1 above, because the issue isn’t about injustice but about hurt feelings. If Hank says his feelings aren’t hurt, then they aren’t.

b) White people don’t have to take responsibility or understand why something they did was wrong if they can get the blessing of a black person.

c) Because even Hank approves, the message is that white people would of course approve. AHA! Here is where I clearly see the understory of the racism within the article.

On the surface, the message is that all good white people are not racist, so of course they would support this new logo. Under the surface, the message is that all good white people either know they are racist or know that black people believe they are racist.

The ultimate answer to this vague feeling of white guilt is to get the blessing of a black person for the cultural appropriation of a Native symbol which honors the legacy of white violence.

 

The problem with this article is that re-inscribes racism, relieves white people of responsibility, and reinforces our sense of things “getting better.” It tells us what “better” looks like. And “better” looks like more of the same.

 

p.s. Painful side note: in the comments below the article, the UP and DOWN votes serve to determine whose comments are displayed. If enough people vote down or flag a post, then the comment gets hidden. Reading through, I noticed that the comments by NDN (Native) people are being hidden because white-people-part-cherokee-princesses are voting them down. Look at how public discourse works to silence the minority.


Everydayness & G*d-in-Everybody

I had the honor of sharing coffee and conversation today with my dear friend Rev. Melissa Bennett and new friend Dr. Dapo Sobomehin. We talked for a long time. We talked about isolation and the lack of accountability, how white and brown and black people are afraid of one another, how white people think and act like we’re better than other people, how people of all colors often forget that the person in the other shade of skin is a human being. We talked about war and poverty and education and violence and community.

And we talked a lot, a whole lot, about God france achat viagra. Dr. Dapo quoted a lot of scripture. He said the word J—- out loud so everyone could hear. [Wait, don’t quit reading yet! Bear with me.]  This is not a normal part of my everyday experience. The J word has been a weapon of violence against people who I deeply love, from individual friends to my larger queer community. I use that word with extreme caution.

It made me realize that while I’m nervous talking about race, I am terrified talking about You-Know-Who. I’m hyper-aware of the ways my protestant christian privilege goes hand-in-hand with my white privilege and systems of oppression. (The conquistadors, the slaveowners, the boarding school missionaries, the nazis, Matthew Shepard’s murderers — all christians.)

But I realized today that I need to talk about spiritual stuff if I am going to do activist work. (Fortunately I have lots of words for the Holy that don’t make other people twitch or reach for their coats.) I can’t do this work of authentic connection, this work of open-hearted listening, of taking responsibility, owning my mistakes, being present, and keeping hope without my spiritual life. Because I am limited by my blind spots, my fear. I am limited by my oh-so-excellently-trained-in-white-privilege-automatic-conditioning, my ivorytower education. The problems are too big, the challenges too complex, the solutions evasive.

In conversation with remarkable spiritual people today, I felt how the Divine is manifest in a unique way in each person. Each human being is this expression of G*d-Love in a specific intersection of time/place/culture/language/skin/shape.

Think of all the billions of people on this planet. Not just the friendly people but the broken people, the people who hurt and damage others. The mystery is that somehow, the Holy is in those people too. I think this is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “beloved community.”

At first glance, it may seem like a cheap cop-out, but in the end what I come back to is this connection that each of us has to the Sacred. Spirit is unlimited resources of Love, moments of everyday grace, miracles of reconnection and reconciliation, all rooted in the powerful full-body knowledge that I, and you, and each of us is deeply known and beloved.

None of these realizations are new or remarkable (except to me, of course). Other people have said it much more eloquently than I can. Tonight I am reading Womanist scholar Emilie M. Townes. In her book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil she writes:

“We have dreams that can be more powerful than nightmares, possibilities more radical than realities, and a hope that does more than cling to a wish or wish on a star or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth after dining on a meal of disaster and violence in our lives…

Emilie M. Townes

To combine challenge with hope is powerful. For together they enable us to press onward when we are at the verge of giving up; to draw strength from the future to live in a discouraging present. Challenge and hope make it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be, so that it can move us to new places and turn us into a new people…

Hope cannot simply be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us, but also a covenant and a commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then we must order and shape our lives in ways that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a fantastic hegemonic imagination (and theological worldviews) that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our beliefs from our action…

We cannot hide from responsibility or accountability for we are never relieved of the responsibility that we have to our generation and future generations to keep justice, peace,and hope alive and vibrant…

Ultimately, somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of what we will do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are as we stare down the interior life of the cultural production of evil is live your faith deeply.

This is not a quest for perfection, but for what we call in christian ethics the everydayness of moral acts. It is what we do every day that shapes us…these acts that we do say more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action.”

Today as I sat at the coffee shop in conversation, part of me itched with frustration at the lack of answers, at the need to DO more. Conversation seemed like such a little thing.

Talk doesn’t replace the necessity for action. Yet Townes reminds me that authentic listening and presence in connection to Spirit are not little or less. Everydayness is essential. And speaking about the Holy is necessary, even though it is the very last thing I feel comfortable or ready or able to do.


Free Speech: Only for White People?

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 viagra libre.

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?


White Activism: More Harm than Good?

I haven’t written in a while because I’ve been guilty and afraid. Guilty because a few months ago I hurt someone I deeply admire. Afraid because, as a result, I started questioning if my attempts to combat racism are doing more harm than good. It isn’t helpful for me to “address” racism in a way that silences women of color and provides an easy out for women of privilege.

Wincing, curling into a ball and hiding is selfish and unproductive, so I’m able to push that aside. I owned my mistakes and apologized. I will do better in the future. But what does “better” look like?

How much of white “activist” work is actually oppressive?

(more…)


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