As a white ally, I admit that I struggle with appropriate communication in my travels. Maybe appropriate isn’t the right word. Because of my privilege the things that I say or do don’t occur to me to carry a knife edge that offends Natives, Blacks or other minorities in the United States and around the world. I don’t tolerate overt racism–because it’s overt. I can see it and so can my friends who are hurt by it. However, there is a less obvious and far more pervasive institutional racism that frames our actions and words.
When I say something to, for example, a Native American, it is framed in white. By that I mean, it is framed by the historical struggles and abuses whites have heaped on them and each other. That’s probably the clearest you’ve heard it stated. And, it probably doesn’t feel to good to know that is how you’re framed, but remember that we whites created racism and whiteness and all that to control and reap the benefits of domination.
“But the savvy among us know appropriation encourages the dominant culture to forget Natives are modern, contemporary people struggling to overcome nearly 600 years of campaigns to wipe us off the map. Who cares about epidemic rates of unemployment, academic failure, or youth suicide when your football team wins, am I right?”
It’s understandable to me that someone who is not from one culture is curious and wanting to learn and celebrate another culture. I love the Chinese culture. There are colonial issues there too. We have stereotypes about the Chinese which are absolutely deplorable and hurtful and deny them equal place. There is a history of it. Don’t believe me? Read about the building of the railroads in the 1800s.
So, as I’m taking this journey of ally, I’m trying to shed my hurts over the truth, because the small harm that I may feel is by no means anything like the oppressed have felt in the United States. Around the world, native cultures are being stolen, muted and forgotten, all in an effort to whiten the world. Britain hasn’t been just Anglo or just Celt in centuries, and the movie industry is just catching up with that reality. I am old enough to remember when they started adding the real diversity of the times to the shows and films that are now coming out of Great Britain. The only film to do that up to that point, in my memory, was Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), but they were still othered and deeply stereotyped.
You might think, why should I have to? Or, this is too much. Imagine living under the thumb of an oppressive regime for hundreds of years, being denied your own culture. The British did this to the Welsh to crush them into submission. They nearly wiped out the Welsh language, because they couldn’t speak it. They tried this in Scotland and Ireland. We fought back! Of course we did. Of course that is celebrated. So why, why is the fight of the Natives to determine their autonomy and preserve their culture and educate people on reality and history any different?
It boils down to whiteness, dominance and privilege–taking all for yourself out of a sense of entitlement. The Irish, Welsh and Scots were finally ratified as white enough when new immigrants and racially stereotyped peoples were found to cement our relationships around. Is that really a legacy we want?
If you’re prepared to start making this journey and learning what you can do to better ally yourself with indigenous peoples and minorities, take a gander at the selection below. Always remember: LISTEN. Just hear them out and don’t take it personal. This is about a much larger, widespread issue than just individuals, especially those trying to do the right thing.
There is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation. That said, there are many ways to truly honor and appreciate each of the 566 unique tribes.