So right now I’m teaching English at an international summer program. This program’s summer theme is “The 7 Continents”, so every week we focus on a continent and let that guide our arts and crafts, songs, and language classes.
Last week was North America.
Now immediately, I thought about African Americans, the Chicano Movement, the Indigenous Peoples of America, and the major waves of Asian-migration in the early 20th century. White people, sorry (not sorry), came last. Because really, what is North American white culture? Hamburgers and baseball, or colonization and genocide?
Well, working with all white people meant that I, the only black girl, had to be the one to say this (although with more “diplomatic” wording).
I met with my colleague to discuss our ideas for the theme. We both agreed that we need to cover Mexico, The United States, and Canada. Many of the kids I’m working with come from the US, and like Dr. Robin DiAngelo said, “racial power codes appear to develop as early as pre-school”. So the only agenda I had in this meeting was to ensure the incorporation of as many American groups as possible into our lessons.
“We could have one day where we combine Mexico and the US and take the kids to the kitchen and make nachos or quesadillas. We could talk about the history of Tex-Mex culture!” She looked at me, nodding, “Okaay..” with an upnote to indicate I go on, “Yeah California, Texas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona used to be Mexican.. did you know that? All the way until 1849?” YEAH, did you know that the real first war on American soil was not the American Civil War like we’re often taught, but actually the Mexican-American war in which White America invaded Mexico and took 1/3 of its land in the name of Manifest Destiny. That’s why even today these areas are predominantly Mexican? Shall we teach that?
“Or,” she began getting really giddy, “We could have them make little sombreros and dress them up for The Day of the Dead!”
Oh shit. I knew it was going to be bad, but how was I supposed to break down cultural appropriation and not tell her she’s an idiot?
I tried my best: “Well, I really think since this will be most of these kids’ first exposure to these cultures, we should also try to steer away from stereotypical things from them. And no matter what projects we do, we should give them more information about the culture. At least with Tex-Mex we are still a little more familiar because you’re from Texas.”
“I mean, we could do that, but you’re gonna have to be in charge of all that information-stuff!” She said shrugging and indignant, “Cuz I’m gonna say awwwll the stigmas.”
I swear on my life she said that. And that was the end of her thought-process.
Not, “Hmm that sounds really bad, and maybe I should educate myself further if after completing a college degree I can only contribute stereotypes”.
I did wait hopefully for that, but it didn’t come. So I had a moment of paralysis, swallowed, and moved on.
“We could take them to the gym and teach them baseball and make crackerjacks afterwards. That would give them a little taste of modern mass America” aka White America aka I’m just saying this to appease you because you’ve made it clear you don’t like my Mexican-American history idea.
“Great idea! I’ll write it down!”
“If I’m honest, I don’t know much about Canada beyond sports and maple syrup” (and former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford) “but we could incorporate a lesson or craft on Native Americans and pick a tribe that lives in Cana—”
And that’s when she exclaimed, “Oh my god! Let’s make dreamcatchers!”
And my heart sunk.
Because I knew in her head she was seeing this:
And not this:
My brain short circuited.
Except it’s not cool. This shit is not cool at all. It’s not cool at all to walk around ignorant of your history, stealing the cultural bits from the peoples you’ve killed, raped, and enslaved and trotting about like their cultural expert.
That shit is not cool at all.
“Well, I think if we did that, we should talk to the kids about which tribe started dreamcatchers. Because Native Americans consisted of thousands of different tribes with totally different cultures.”
“Oh come on, they’re just kids. They’re not retaining any of this stuff!”
No, we cannot introduce Native American culture for the first time in these children’s lives with racist, stereotypical, umbrella images that promote the colonial stigmatization of Indigenous peoples that allowed the “Manifest Destiny” genocide to happen in the first place. How don’t you get that? How are you seriously suggesting this? Are you seriously suggesting this? Noooooooooooooo.
I reiterated my concern from Suggestion #1. She nodded, pursed her lips, and ended our meeting. Three days later, she called me to stay after school, and exploded white-guilt anger all over me. “You have been undermining me all week! You put down all of my ideas! You this! You that!” I was blown away. When I asked for examples of this, she screamed, “You rejected my dreamcatcher idea!”
I told her that I had no problem having the kids create dreamcatchers, what I had a problem with was having the kids make dream catchers and telling them that it was Native American and that’s it. I repeated, “‘Native American’ is an umbrella term for more than a thousand different tribes who lived across the Americas,” 90% of which were wiped out by European colonizers (<–I left the last phrase out). “Dreamcatchers come from the Ojibwe tribe and made a comeback across Native American culture during the Pan-Indianism Movement in the 60s. We don’t need to do an entire history lesson, but I study Anthropology and American Culture Studies….” (and I have a soul) “I can’t morally teach children these things when I know ethnocentrism is engrained in the psyche by preschool.”
Do you know how much it sucks to be on the defense about doing the responsible thing? To feel like you’re in trouble for trying to be a teacher who critically-thinks before regurgitating racist bullshit for the next generation to swallow? In an effort to calm the situation and to stop her white tears, I offered to read up on dreamcatchers and create a worksheet with information on Dreamcatcher history and make a map where the tribe resided/resides that the kids could color in. I took on extra work because this white girl can only “say the stigmas” and doesn’t want to change that about herself, but has enough energy to keep me after hours to yell at me for making her feel bad. That’s white supremacy.
Meanwhile, she’s an educator in Texas. And the cycle continues. She spews her ignorance onto the next generation and in that same moment Texas and New Mexico pass racist draconian police measures that work to profile and detain Latino/a people. Most of which are American citizens. But if you don’t know your history, of course you think there awwll just some good for nothin’ Mexicans. And the narrative of your life makes sense.
FUCKK these people.
There’s nothing confusing about why the world is the way it is. Talking about systemic issues means seeing the macro-picture of microscopic decisions, narratives, and behaviors that one expresses everyday that work to keep one group in a “superior” position by oppressing every other group.
And why didn’t I just go to my superior? Oh, well because she’s also a white woman from Texas, who actually lives with this colleague and is currently frolicking through Strasbourg with her right now. And the woman above her head? A white woman from Indiana.
We like to think race doesn’t matter. But I can tell you, I’ve never felt more limited by my skin color in the workplace than in my current job.
Today, Native American women are the least paid demographic in America. As of 2012, 1 in 4 Native Americans lives in poverty and Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other woman, 86% of the rapes against Native American women are by non-native men. Does my colleague even know that? And if she did, would she care?
This is why white people and white education are so dangerous. Most don’t question their education, and don’t have anyone superior to check the quality of that education to prevent them from growing up and perpetuating the violent system… so they do, and then raise children who go off and learn this crazy shit too and continue in the oppressive system under the cloak of white supremacist invisibility. (non-white People of Color are also likely to get swept into this narrative depending on the intersections of their identity and proximity to privilege… I’m looking at you my middle/upper-class siblings and classmates).
It’s not surprising then that there are American textbooks comparing Moses to Thomas Jefferson, or whitewashing Native American genocide, African slavery and the Jim Crow Era. These are systemic contributions to generational ignorance and the perpetuation of white supremacy.
When white culture is the belief that white culture is the standard, every other culture is then compared by their deficiencies, instead of valued for their differences.
My colleague is a quintessential product of the system. Why would she care about Native American history and culture?
But it’s not my job to educate her. It’s not my job to *save* this white woman from her racist indoctrination. My job is to teach an international group of children some English and stick to the theme of the week. But somehow, I have the extra work because working with white people is sometimes the difference between creating a better world or passing on “awwlll the stigmas”. In a white supremacy, the former is “extra work”. Let’s think about that.
Thankfully, I found some relief in the form of a comic. Whit Taylor is a Brooklyn-based cartoonist, editor, and comics writer whose works take a critical approach to race, gender, and other social constructs that confine us to this hierarchal society. She recently published an awesome comic called The Fabric of Appropriation that really struck home after having this experience at work.
Please check her out here.
So what will happen with me and my colleague? Well, one can never know for sure. All I can do is my best and for me, that means working hard and staying honest. As much as I don’t want to work in a hostile environment, I want even less to live in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Every step away from global colonization, racism, sexism, and capitalism is a step of resistance. You will feel it in their eyes, their body language, the comments behind your back…. It isn’t easy to resist white supremacy when it’s the dominant system of the world, and has been so for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s been so for hundreds of years.
Yet, we have also endured.
We, who explore truth, justice, and equality, and challenge the social structures that have been force-fed to us. It is in our work that the world has a chance because we work in every moment of everyday.
Even when it feels hard, and tiring, and hopeless,
we do the work.