One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

December 11, 2012

The White Ribbon Campaign and learning to be a better ally

A couple of weeks ago, Ian and I went to a White Ribbon Campaign event near our house on a Friday night. The material on the meeting didn’t tell us much except that it was being held at a nearby high school that primarily serves aboriginal youth and that the meeting would begin with a peace pipe ceremony. From this we deduced that the meeting would be Aboriginal-Centric. And I think that’s why I decided we should go. I had been reading a lot on Native American issues and stumbled across a great article on decolonisation (which I can’t find now, dammit), and concluded that while I consider myself an ally of Native Americans, my position of solidarity with them was a little too theoretical.

You know what I’m trying to say – I shut down racist comments when people try them around me, I rant about the effects of colonisation on society, I ‘like’ articles about Aboriginal issues on Facebook, and re-share them – but those are all academic exercises, and my real life interaction with these issues is so limited. I decided that my lack of interaction with aboriginal people and lack of knowledge about their views was entirely my problem and one I was going to have to take steps outside my comfort zone to address.

I want to segue back in time and talk a bit about privilege and solidarity and some lessons I learned (began learning?) a couple of years ago.

There was an exhibit at our local art gallery that represented a mid-career retrospective for Ruth Cuthand – a local artist with Plains Cree and Scottish ancestry. I went to see it with my family.

The exhibit had some wonderful (bitingly ironic) beadwork and quillwork depictions of viruses – with the less deadly already-present in North america viruses donein traditional quillwork and the catastrophically imported European viruses done in beadwork – an art also acquired by European trade.

And there were some really compelling portraits of First Nations people. Those were easy to take in. But there was a section of pencil and paper drawings with a tiny Indian girl-doll going through interactions with tall white figures – mostly represented only from the waist down with faceless speech balloons pointing above the frame saying dehumanizing and patronizing things. And there were stenciled captions like, “Bad, bad Indian. Never disappoint a white liberal.” And some various jabs about white liberal women and their expectations of the downtrodden Indian women who have received their gracious help.

Obviously this exhibition made me a little uncomfortable. But at least I was honest enough with myself to see that my discomfort was because those complaints are so relevant and valid.

I spent most of that museum trip thinking about that particular exhibit and wrestling with the idea of white liberal “help”, asking myself questions like, “is white liberal help always interfering and patronizing? If not, why is so much of it patronizing? What makes the difference? What does respectful/supportive white liberal help look like?” And at the end of the day, while I obviously needed to spend a lot more time thinking about it, I had concluded that the primary answer was remembering to listen and prioritize aboriginal voices as more important than my own with regards to their own issues and to look for ways in which my voice can be used not to advocate for anyone, but to amplify and support anyone advocating for themselves.

So it was from this basis that I figured I needed to spend more time shutting up and listening to Native Voices.

The White Ribbon meeting was really, really moving. I have to admit, I came home feeling like I needed a good cry. There was an awful lot of people getting up and telling their stories about domestic violence. One man talked about the attitudes toward women that he grew up with and how that translated into his own adult violence and the program that he believed saved him and saved his family from him. There was a teenager who opened with a terse “I’m not asking you to pity my family. I’m here to tell my story in the hopes it will help others,” and then heartbreakingly detailed the violence he’d witnessed his mothers and sisters endure and finished with his own pledge to be a better man than the ones he’d grown up with and be a good model for his nephews.

The evening had begun with the peace pipe ceremony. And then they had a drummer begin the meeting with a prayer song. And then there was an elder with opening remarks that included some slightly rambling talk about his early years and how they involved too much drink and not being good to “the woman”. He spoke a lot about First Nations creation legend, about man being created first and wandering alone until the creator gave him the woman and he spoke about honouring women because they’re so special as women and he talked to the women in the room about how they have more power than they know. Almost all of which are concepts that make me bristle as a feminist because I’m so over the idea of woman as “different but equal” or accepting “honored” as a reasonable substitute for equal. But as Ian said to me later – “In a white feminist context, I can get irritated when people bring religion into it because I think ‘can’t we just talk about equality and not muddy the waters with religion?’ But in these contexts, this is a meeting about serving aboriginal needs and healing violence within their culture and you can’t really fault anyone there for bringing religion into it because it’s their religion and it’s one of the few things about their culture that has survived colonisation.”

The Chief of Police spoke as well and I thought what he had to say was overall helpful. He talked about how the police department has overhauled their missing persons procedures and that no more were the days of waiting twenty-four hours before they would take a missing person report. He said, “if you come in and you feel that someone is in trouble, we’ll take that report and get working on it right away. And if they’re in a high risk lifestyle, then we’ll additionally refer it to [something something] department,” and “if you think someone may be in trouble, don’t wait. The sooner we can get involved, the better.”

But he also said some off the cuff things about how great it was to see efforts like these meetings because violence against women is such an epidemic issue and “especially, especially, in the aboriginal community.” Which just… I don’t know how everyone else in the room took it, but it sure rubbed me the wrong way.

I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was speaking to the way that aboriginal women are targets of violence by men outside the aboriginal community because they’re perceived as invisible or worthless targets. And from that point of view, if you saw that meeting as the efforts of aboriginal men to send a signal to the rest of the world that the women in their community matter, then what the Police Chief said seemed a lot more appropriate. But with his speech coming after a number of men talking about their struggles with their own violence and with violence within the aboriginal community it seemed, well, just pointed and insensitive.

There is also that one needs to cast a bit of a jaundiced eye on the Chief of Police stating emphatically that their missing persons department is so much more responsive regardless of your race or how long you’ve been missing because, of course, the whole reason to even say that is that we all know they’ve given the aboriginal community so, so much reason to doubt them in recent years. If the issue is that aboriginal women make invisible victims, that invisibility isn’t because aboriginal community members aren’t speaking up, it’s because our police have historically treated their victimhood, disappearances and outright murder as just a matter of course. So if he had been going to allude to anything “especially” about the aboriginal community, it would have been nice if he had been a little more incisive about the factors in that.

There was a break in the middle for everyone to have soup and bannock and while getting in line for food, Hannah made the acquaintance of a little girl about her age. Hannah seems to be innately social because in less than five minutes she was asking this little girl if she wanted to come over to our house for a play date right now.

And at the end of the meeting, the drummer was asked to close the meeting with another song and he said he chose to do so with a victory song. Everyone rose for the song. And then, as he played, the little girl that Hannah had befriended ran over to the center of the gymnasium floor, where there was a medicine wheel painted on the floor and she began to dance.

Hannah was delighted and wanted to go join her – but even though about a third of the attendees were also white, I was pretty conscious of our outsiderness – so I told her to stay with me and just enjoy watching the other little girl. “But she’s my friend,” Hannah said. Good point, I guess. “But this is her culture’s dance, Hannah. It’s special to her, so we’re just going to let her do the dance.”

But then something really lovely happened. At the end of the song, the man who had been leading the meeting – who I already thought seemed especially lovely and well-spoken, came running back to the microphone and said, “with everyone’s permission, I’d like to make a last minute change to our agenda before we finish up here. If our drummer would play one more song, let’s all get up and join this little girl in dancing. Let’s dance to honor her spirit and the woman she will one day become. So let’s just join hands, I’m sure everyone’s done a round dance.” At which point I had to raise some worried eyebrows because I sure had never done a round dance. But everyone got into a circle and held hands, and the drummer played, the little girls joined in and around we went in time to the music and I just grinned and teared up the whole time at how lovely and brilliant both that little girl and that grown man were in finding such a nice, connecting and uplifting way to end what had overall been a pretty sad evening.

This is not that evening’s round dance, but an example of one that, I think, reflects the same energy I felt that evening.

At the end of the evening, as Ian and I left, I was looking back on it, and asking myself if I thought it had done anyone any good for me to be there. My background is very western, I guess. In particular, western business culture. So at the beginning of something I tend to ask, “what is this going to achieve?” and at the end I tend to ask, “what good did that do?” and I’m always looking for ways to measure success — all of which makes activism pretty hard because often in activism, the only real good is communication – voicing something, putting a message out there and getting heard, beginning a dialogue that might change an opinion or a policy eventually. And that hard to measure work doesn’t often speak to me.

But at the end of this particular evening, as we walked home, I said to Ian, “I think that was a really good thing to do.” And he said, “I think so too.” We concluded that it had definitely been good for us – sheltered as we sometimes are, to hear more stories and be better informed cross-culturally. But also, that I need to start recognizing the social value in just bearing witness. There are people with stories that need telling – stories whose telling will help heal their tellers and will help inform our society so that it can heal itself.

And it’s our lack of attention that makes an entire people so vulnerable to victimisation. As with the way that people outside the aboriginal community victimize aboriginal women – they can do so with impunity because when those women appear in public with battered faces, or try to report a rape, they are ignored. And even when they go missing the police won’t pay attention for days, in the face of grave evidence to the contrary police will stick to banal and victim-blaming explanations, the media won’t cover it, the public won’t cry out for action, and even if caught the conviction rates will be lower and even if convicted the penalties will be lighter. And those things feed on each-other. Our politicians will continue to pass laws that hurt our minority populations because the voices that they count won’t cry out against it, the police force will continue to be apathetic because the public and the media won’t pay attention, the public will blame the media for not covering it and the media will say they would have covered it if the public had cared.

These things are an epidemic because when the culture around us privileges our white voices over those of minorities, we accept it without question. As liberals and activists we believe in our duty to speak out on behalf of minorities – but that just continues to privilege our voices over theirs.  These things are an epidemic because of our failure to listen to their voices and bear witness to their stories.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Alison

     /  2012-12-11

    If you would like to borrow my native studies text you could have it for a few months. If you want to read some really difficult material about these issues and feel really uncomfortable, it certainly can do that.

  2. Alison

     /  2012-12-11

    Oh, I should mention that the text is all essays by contemporary native scholars.

  3. Deborah

     /  2012-12-11

    Overall, I like Police Chief Weighill, although that is partly just judging him relative to past Saskatoon police chiefs, some of whom have been pretty awful. But he very much still appears to be very much a middle class white guy who has never given much thought to the privilege he has.

  4. Alison, yes please. Hopefully I’ll have time to read while you’re in town.


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