In response to the writing on the wall…

Nobody has ever called me a “dirty indian” to my face, and yet it has been a label that I have tried to erase from my mind for as long as I can remember. No amount of education, professional success, or achievement has been able to eradicate this label from permeating every aspect of my existence.

This is not to say that I have not experienced racism. What began in grade four as taunts about being a chief and war whoops in the hallways, transformed into more subtly subversive statements and implied discrimination as I grew older. Because of my education, I was not “like the rest of them”. My choice not to drink was likely “because I was in AA”, not out of personal preference. The fact that I didn’t look the way some people believed that an indigenous person should look meant that I had to endure countless conversations about the problems with “the native students”. And I admit, there were times when I just smiled wanly and remained silent.

Yesterday, I helped to facilitate a class discussion for educators about indigenous perspectives on research. One of the tasks was to record notes from the small group conversations on chart paper that would be posted on the wall. At the end of the activity, each group presented the highlights of their discussions to the whole class. As the last group finished their presentation, I noticed that on the bottom of the page (presumably as a critique of our readings) was written:

“Dirty” aspects of indigenous people are not represented.

At that moment the room was completely silent, but the words deafened me. And then a single voice wavered, “I am uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘dirty’ to describe indigenous people”. The voice was my own, and I spoke because I knew that my silence would give everyone else permission to remain silent too.

My objection to the word “dirty” resulted in the decision to scribble it out on the wall, but scribbling out the words could not erase them from my memory.

A conversation began – one that I don’t remember much of.  What I do remember was the sound of another voice explaining that we try to focus on the positive aspects of indigenous people and communities because focusing on the challenges does not help us to move forward. And I am very grateful to that voice. It served to remind me of the impact that a single voice can have. And it helped me to understand that I was not completely alone.

I have always tried to find the positive aspects of the adversity I have faced in my life, but it was not easy for me to find it in this particular experience. Following the completion of the class, I fled into the hallway and then outside and I spoke to someone who listened patiently as I cried and yelled and even swore. Someone who reminded me quietly of my courage and strength, and for that too I am grateful. It helped me to return to a quieter place – one where I was able to better reflect upon what had happened.

What I came to understand was that this student was a messenger – a canary in the coalmine if you will. And perhaps I needed this experience to be reminded that it was possible to be highly educated and an educator and still remain unconscious of the power of the use of words like “dirty” to describe aspects of human beings. And perhaps I needed to be reminded of how far we still need to go in our education about how to demonstrate respect for those around us, even when we don’t necessarily understand their realities or experiences.

The truth is that those words should never have been written in the class. Human beings all have challenges and complications in their lives; these should never be labeled “dirty”.

The truth is that those words should never have been posted on the wall of an educational institution where attempts to achieve understanding and respect, particularly for indigenous people, has been made such a high priority.

The truth is that in a classroom of educators pursuing the highest possible level of education, my voice should not have been the only one to object.

And the truth is that I will never be able to erase devastation that I felt in the moments following that class.

But it was not for those reasons that I chose to object.

I objected in the hopes that no student ever has to look up on the wall of his or her classroom and see the word “dirty” associated with any aspect his or her ancestry.

I objected in the hopes that the next time my voice will not be the only one to speak out.

And I objected because I know that in order for people to have their assumptions challenged, I cannot remain silent.