apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
I fly a lot. I go to conferences, professional meetings, grant meetings, and occasionally I get to fly for pleasure. Not too long ago I was on an airplane with my family, heading off for a family vacation. I’m sitting next to my beautiful Apache sons; we are so excited to finally have this holiday together. This is the same holiday we had planned for Spring Break 2017, but the trip was ruined by one of the many snowpocalypse disasters that are most certainly not an indicator of global climate change. After having this trip cancelled- no, ruined- once, we are finally on the airplane and heading east together, high on anticipation and maybe a little caffeine.
Unfortunately, airplanes end up being the home of some of the worst racism I personally encounter. As a white-passing Native person, I have the privilege of skating through my days without being othered on a regular basis, particularly when I make the conscious effort to stay in my lane. Airplanes force me out of my lane. Worse, they force me to come in close contact with strangers and their racial biases.
It most often happens with white people. They are almost always older than me. I’m 44 years old and this has been happening to me for as long as I have been flying by myself, I wonder if this will continue until I die. Like, I will be 95 years old and have some 105-year-old crepe-paper transparent skinned guy in the seat next to me, arms covered in bruises and band-aids, sucking on his personal oxygen delivery system, and he will pull back his O2 face mask to start chatting me up about whatever shit and somehow even this guy will find some way to drop a racist shit-bomb on me.
The most frequent insult is one that I can watch coming, one I brace myself against but typically cannot prevent. It comes in the form of the Chatty Seatmate. The chatty seatmate will sit down and begin by asking me where I’m going. I’ll smile politely and respond. Business or pleasure, he’ll ask me. I’ll look back up from my book and say, “business.”
“What is it that you do?”
“I’m an associate professor of nursing.”
“Really?” his curiosity will be piqued. This is where I brace myself. I’ve tried to take a different approach and say that I’m a nurse, but then he asks where I practice and then I have to do this long and complicated explanation about not practicing because and because and… so it’s easier to just say it straight out. Then he will ask what I teach, or where, or if he really knows what faculty do, he’ll ask me about this. If I lie and say I practice somewhere, he’ll ask if I know so-and-so. I’m a terrible liar, and it gets weird, so I’ve learned to be honest because that makes it less weird. Weird, but less weird. The long and the short of it is, the chatty seatmate will eventually get around to asking me about what I really do.
“I do research with Native American communities. I do research on cancer disparities.”
This is where he usually cocks his head like a parakeet. The gears are turning. He could go so many directions here, but he always ends up in the same place. “Well, it’s because of alcoholism, of course.”
Here is where I have no good response. What I want to say is, “well, your answer is based on your racist stereotype of Native Americans. Substance abuse and general behavioral health issues are certainly an issue in our communities, but let’s not forget that white people have the highest rates of opioid abuse, opioid-related accidental death, and other substance-abuse related morbidity and mortality, you ignorant jerk. Of course.” But instead I stammer and get really academic and end up trying to end the conversation with something along the lines of “well, no, that’s not really a direct causal component of the leading causes of cancer death, which are the same as whites- prostate and breast, lung cancer and colorectal cancer.”
At this point, my chatty seatmate will either transition into one of the next categories or they will continue to argue about alcohol abuse in Native communities, whitesplaining this problem to me as though I don’t know the facts better than they do, as though I haven't dedicated my career to these issues. Published in high impact journals on this. Have established expertise. But yeah. Good times.
Frequently the chatty seatmate will transition into the Reservation Neighbor. They will tell me all about how they grew up or once lived in Idaho or Arizona or Oklahoma or whatever state has a reservation in it. Authority established, I get to hear about how there were always passed out bodies lining the sidewalks in front of the Indian bars in their border town back in the early 1960s. I’ll hear about how they were always drunk, or they couldn’t take care of their children, or their kids were overloading the foster care system or welfare or whatever social systems were polluted by these dirty, uneducated, (savage) group of less-than-human creatures. The best ones will talk about how they were the only white family in their school, so they know what it is like to be subject to racism because those Native American kids were really mean to them.
I often hope they will be the Reservation Neighbor. The Reservation Neighbor gives me the opportunity to casually say, “Oh really? That sounds terrible. It isn’t at all like that with my tribe.”
This will stop the conversation instantly. The Reservation Neighbor will pause mid-breath and look at me. They will parakeet cock their head in the opposite direction, visually running an ELISA assay with my blood quantum. Dark eyes, darkish hair, bone structure, yes. Brown hair, olive-tinged skin- maybe? Too slender to be Indian, of course. If they are really clueless, they keep going. At this point, I get out my headphones and pick up my book. I don’t need to put up with this garbage. Even so, many people want to slip in their connection to royalty.
You may have met her, the Cherokee Granddaughter. I have. This country is overrun with Cherokee Granddaughters. I really hope the Cherokee Nation is prepared for the day when all these Cherokee Granddaughters come knocking on their door, hoping to register for tribal member status. I can imagine the emergency plan they have in place, perhaps running occasional drills to confirm their preparedness. This plan has a special phone tree, some arms set up to bring in tribal registrars from other tribes to provide relief from the late nights spent searching down non-existent family records, others specifically designated to bring in tents, tables and chairs, tribal librarians on call at all times. There are tribal counselors with a designated tent, on hand to provide trauma-informed care with these Princesses once their lineage is denied and the family history about grandma is proven wrong.
The Cherokee Granddaughter is the woman who has been told that she has “Indian Blood”. She always attributes it to that grandmother who really looks “Native American” in her sepia-toned black and white wedding photo taken back in 1915. This is the grandmother who, according to family lore, had high cheekbones and “really dark skin” and “long, black hair”. Also related: Cherokee Grandson.
The Cherokee grandmother myth is so common, it has entire dissertations written about it. The genetic ancestry testing website 23andme has a faq for people who are disappointed when their DNA test comes back without any of that hearty Native American blood they were promised in those bedtime stories about grandma. Whenever someone tells me that they have a Cherokee grandmother, I feel embarrassed for them. They are telling me so much about themselves when they say this. They are telling me that they believed their grandmother was essentially stolen away from her tribe, a weak woman who was liberated from her savage captors and shown the wonderful ways of the white world. They are telling me that once this woman married their grandfather, she abandoned her family and all her connections to home.
The Cherokee Granddaughter is demonstrating her belief in white superiority by perpetuating the Cherokee Granddaughter myth, and worse, she is commodifying the very important relationship that those of us who are indigenous have with our tribes, families, and traditional beliefs and ways. She is telling me that this fictitious ancestry is a collectible, like an Elvis plate you’d buy from the Franklin Mint and hang on the wall but is otherwise meaningless.
Finally, I have the Overheard Racism. This brings us to the flight with my kids. I’m in a row with my boys, ages 13 and 10, and sitting right behind us is an unpleasantly perfect example of Overheard Racism. As we are taxiing to take-off, we hear the women behind us. We have behind us, the Chatty Seatmate and the Reservation Neighbor combined in one. She is sitting next to two women who are not from New Mexico, and she is DELIGHTED to tell them all about her life in Farmington, NM. She works in the public education system in this border town, where her student population is a combination of Spanish-speaking new immigrant families and Navajo families.
She begins by telling her neighbors about her students. Everything she says is done in a very authoritative, matter-of-fact way, and she is loud. I am actually surprised that she is speaking so loudly, maybe she’s using her teacher voice. Her students, she says, have a lot of learning issues. All the students are bilingual, some speak more English than others. It’s clear that she believes it’s her job as a public school educator to assimilate her students, and this includes ensuring they can learn in English.
“The Spanish-speaking students are at an advantage”, she says. “At the very least, they can learn in one of their languages. But the Navajo students? They really can’t learn in either language. It’s so sad.” She does not sound very sad as she says this. The other women in her row commiserate, yes. So sad. Luridly sad. She goes on, describing how these poor children are virtually unreachable. No education, and really no way to teach them- they don’t want to learn. Their families have no interest in education, this goes generation after generation. So horrible. Yes, so horrible, her seat-mates agree. And then one of the women in the row begins pressing her for more information.
“And what about the abuse?”
“Oh yes, there is so much abuse in those children.”
“Yes, so sad.” And they all cluck like hens.
I have turned in my seat and given them stink-eye at least twice by this point. I am aghast that this conversation is taking place behind me, that my sons are hearing this conversation. I try to tell the older son to not pay attention. He is reading a book, I am hoping he isn’t even paying attention to me. The 10-year-old is looking out the window. I lean over and tell him, for one of the few times in his life, to put in his earbuds and play with the iPad. He refuses, he is too interested in listening to the train wreck behind us. The plane is starting take-off. I am hoping that the sound of the engine will drown out their horrible hen-pecking.
A seatmate presses her even further. “And sexual abuse?”
“Oh yes, that is terrible in these kids. I can’t even begin to tell you.” There is more clucking.
I turn in my seat and catch the eye of one of the women. I glare at her. She gives me a sad smile, as though we are all agreeing that these poor Navajo children are just living like animals, isn’t it just awful? My heart is racing, I feel my face flush. What the actual fuck?
Then the Overheard Racist continues. “Oh, but we do have one woman in the school, she’s a teacher, and she's Navajo. She is wonderful, and she really knows how to reach them.” We learn, over the next ten minutes, that this one woman is the exception. Unlike all those others, her pet Navajo got out. She actually uses those words, “got out.” She describes how this woman is so smart, and good at what she does. Overheard Racist goes into great detail about this woman’s life history as though she is trying to figure out for herself what it is that sets her pet Navajo apart, what life event happened that made her so “special”. She speaks with such pride about her pet Navajo as she describes a work-related trip they took to Chicago; the pet had never been on an airplane, she was in awe of the big city, and the Overheard Racist made the whole world available to her.
The 10-year-old looks at me with a look in his eyes I haven’t seen before, as though he’s trying to make fun of it but he just can’t. It's as though he's trying to roll his eyes at me in solidarity, but he just can't quite make it work. I am distressed. I can’t make this woman stop. She keeps going and going, passionately describing her experiences working with Navajo people in such a derogatory manner, and she won’t stop. Through the course of her conversation with her new best friends, it is clear that this woman, this educator, believes that Native Americans are uneducable, lost causes, essentially animals. When she meets a Native American who breaks her stereotype, it’s because this one person is somehow an exception to the rule. *
I look to my husband and ask him to send a privileged white guy stink-eye over their way. He looks back at them, then looks at me and shrugs. They keep going. I am overwhelmed, helpless. Our plane is wheels up, I can’t stand up, and if I did I have no idea what I would say. All I can think is that my kids are hearing how the rest of the world thinks about Native Americans, and it really, really sucks. I have done everything humanly possible to shelter them from this, and here we are, and I am powerless. So, I do the only thing I have left. I cry. I sit in my seat and tears fall.
Eventually they transition to talking about Overheard Racist’s impending retirement plans. I hope she retires to someplace nice and warm. I’m thinking someplace where lava flows freely, and fire shoots up from the scorched soil everlasting, like maybe . . . hell?
Airplanes are little indiscriminate sardine cans, randomizing society into little 3-seat clusters. I never know what I’m going to get. A lot of people of color I know will board the plane and immediately put in earbuds so they don’t have to listen to the craziness around them. Without hearing the crappy things people say, there is some insulation from the soul wounds that can slowly wear you away over time. I can only tolerate earbuds for so long, this strategy doesn’t work that well for me.
We talk about travel exposing us to all the world has to offer. As a parent, I want to share new experiences with my kids and take them to great new places. Unfortunately, this means we get to hear, see, and experience those rotten parts of humanity that I would prefer we could avoid. I know that in the grand scheme of things, overhearing words is relatively minor, and it is so much better that they hear this as directed to other people than if they were spoken to or about them.
I know I shouldn't sweat the small stuff, and this is a small thing. Yet powerlessness sucks, no matter when it happens, and no matter the size. Airplanes leave me powerless just by the trapped nature of the capsule in the air effect. It is much easier to tolerate and let things go than to try to educate or persuade, particularly in a short airplane encounter. We know by existing precedent that fussing on an airplane gets people thrown off the airplanes, and it’s usually the person of color who loses that fight.
To pull this all together, no matter which Airplane Racist I have the pleasure of meeting, I get to practice (and practice) tolerance. Perhaps in the end, this is the lesson I teach my kids. Together we learn how to critically example the bullshit people say, and we learn to laugh together later about how stupid they were. It’s the equivalent of decompressing over drinks with colleagues, only I do it with my kids, with hot cocoa. At least we have each other. One thing I’ve learned from all these people is that they are alone in their opinions, and they have been waiting and waiting for someone like me to tell all about their grandmother’s damn cheekbones.
*I wrote this post on the plane. As I was writing it, my 13-year-old interrupted me to add this part. He specifically said this- that the Overheard Racist clearly felt her pet Navajo was an exception to the rule.
I'm a Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Nurse Researcher. I write, speak, and think about health equity and parenting in our complicated world.
Views expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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