apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
What is a deficits based narrative?
When I talk with groups, I often try to reserve a small portion of time to talk about the importance of using assets-based research and assets-based reporting when we talk about Indigenous communities. This concept is hard for a lot of people to grasp, especially people who have been trained in western approaches to research and grant writing. In academia, we are taught to really drill down to the most compelling story in our writing, and the disparities narrative is usually the easiest compelling story to write.
We have all read these papers, and most of us have written them. I have. The format remains strong- start by introducing the population of interest. Describe who they are, describe the problem, and then describe how extensive the problem is with that population. Use whatever (reliable) statistics available to emphasize how that negatively that population is impacted by the problem. Try to pull statistics from recent publications, but if you can’t find them it’s okay to use older publications- just explain that this population is so overlooked, there just aren’t good statistics on this problem. If it were television, the camera would be guiding you through the dirtiest, ugliest slums, zooming in on children with their bellies plump from kwashiorkor, flies dipping in and out of their eyelashes. Some of us call this poverty porn.
Some defend this model, arguing that it is extremely effective for presenting their case, especially in grant writing. After all, in our environment of limited funding, if you want to convince your reader that your grant is the most important grant in the pile, you better be solving world hunger. The defenders tell me that sugar-coating the problems allows people to pretend these problems do not exist or allow other issues to gain attention over ours. We don’t want to capitulate to some dumb bench research about invisibility-linked ligands, after all.
The reason I fight so vociferously for assets-based research is multifold. First, I have vivid memories of being a teenager and reading statistics about Native Americans- that we had the highest rates of suicide mortality, the highest rates of alcoholism, the highest rates of drunk driving deaths, the highest everything- and feeling as though there was no reason to even try. The odds were clearly stacked against me. Deficits-based reporting does an excellent job of reinforcing stereotypes. If you want to believe that Native Americans are poor, alcoholic, and unemployed, it is incredibly easy to find academic papers that will support those beliefs. Finally, I believe there is an unintended consequence of this type of reporting, the reporting in which all the worse outcomes are cherry-picked from the reports and presented together to paint a worst-case scenario picture. This consequence is a prophecy for readers of what is to come, instead of what we are fighting against.
Thus, I urge all who write about our peoples to focus on the positive. If you want to write about health outcomes, also write about our rich cultural diversity, our incredible tenacity and the centuries-long resistance we have mounted against multiple colonial invaders. Remind readers about the insidious attempts at genocide that have been ongoing for generations that have included a systematically underfunded healthcare system that was treaty-guaranteed and a judicial system that has failed to take responsibility for the staggering rates of missing and murdered women. Place those statistics in context, and when you write up those reports, include the negative findings that show places of strength. Our lives depend on it.
My son’s school had what its seasonally-appropriate musical demonstration today. He goes to a private Montessori school that has about 100 students ranging from 2-12 years old, and he’s been there since he was 2. This is his last year, so everything that he does he observes as his last. Today was his “last Winter Concert.” When you’re 11-years-old and time creeps by, these things are a big deal. He has been looking forward to this for a long time.
His school educates students from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, and they always work hard to have a non-denominational winter concert, which isn’t easy. Today’s program had a theme of “Peace,” and the only song that one would really associate with Christmas was Jingle Bell Rock. There were some cute preschool songs, a song by Cat Stevens, and a few folk songs. And then in the middle, the first grade class performed a song that made me say, out loud in the middle of the audience, “Oh, fuck.”
The name of the song was Just Walk Beside Me and it was attributed as being a “Native American Proverb (adapted).” I don’t remember all the lyrics, but it basically went like this:
Hey ho ho hey
Don’t walk in front of me
Don’t walk in back of me
I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend
Hey ho ho hey
There was some really stupid choreography, and the music was a very basic chant that made it sound like it was written for a boy scout fire circle. And of course, it was first graders, so it was cute and derivative, so all the parents were beaming and smiling and laughing. They may as well have been patting their mouths and yelling “woo woo woo woo woo” and hopping from foot to foot. I couldn’t even watch. I was so angry.
Some of you dear readers are right there with me, I know. Thank you for your outrage.
For everyone else, I will explain.
If you google search this song, it shows up as the “Camp Kesem Closing Song," it’s also attributed to Albert Camus, Winnie the pooh, and a 12-year-old girl. Among others. I mean, come on!
There I was, in the middle of this performance, seething. My only comfort was that this was the first-grade class, and my son is in the 6th grade, so I had several other classes to sit through before his and thus I had time to regain my composure. By the time he was on the risers I was back in the moment and wasn’t quite so ready to rip off someone’s head.
After the concert, the director of the school gave a pitch asking for donations to support the schools’ art, music, and Spanish programs. I didn’t stay to listen. We’ve been burned by the Spanish program (tipi in the classroom), and now the music program. We really like the art teacher, and we’ve bought enough dang raffle tickets in the years we’ve sent kids to the school to support at least one year of her salary. I just wanted to leave, I was so frustrated and angry and… wondering where my allies were.
I was so angry not just because the school did a bad, but because I knew that unless I made a fuss, it was going to go unnoticed. Just like all the others. Just like the time the teachers started calling my son by the wrong name. We’ll pretend my son is named Sam, but that is a nickname, a shortened version of a longer Apache name. His teacher started calling him Samuel, which is a name from the Bible. We are not Christian, we are not Jewish, and I would not give my child a name from the Bible. I had to make a point of getting in touch with the teacher to tell her that his name is not Samuel, it is (different Apache name), and I had to ask her to not call him Samuel. (This has happened twice, by the way). They assume, instead of looking in the roster. They assume they are correct, and until I say otherwise, they go along with this assumption. This is no different- until I say something, they will smile and talk about what a wonderful concert that was, and weren’t those kids darling, and they will have no idea that they did a racist, lazy-ass, shitty song that reinforced racist stereotypes for the entire school audience.
Do you remember way back in November of 2016, when people started wearing safety pins to demonstrate their status as allies? The whole world had fallen apart, a tyrant had been elected president, and white liberals responded by pinning a safety pin to their shirts. I will confess, I did it too. I marched and wrote stuff and was pretty upset. I was concerned about what this meant for indigenous people’s rights, and as it turns out I was right to worry. I was also upset by how upset everyone else was, because it felt like I had been invisible for all these years, and now these safety-pin-wearing people were crying and moaning and posting on facebook about how they had been betrayed by white women – white women (!) and what were they thinking (!) and now they needed a secret sign just so they could tell the allies from the betrayers. Eventually some people wrote some essays and the whole concept of ally was unpacked and people unpinned their safety pins, and other people did their laundry and just never put the safety pin back on the shirt, and then it was a new year, and then a zillion other unimaginable things happened and we had so many real-life things to worry about that safety pins stopped being the thing to read about on the internet.
When the safety-pin debacle happened, the critique was that it was an empty gesture. It is easy to designate oneself as an ally, but behaving as an ally is complicated. It’s hard. It is challenging. I have occasionally seen safety pins lately, and I saw one today as I was leaving the concert. I didn’t even look at the person who was wearing the pin, I just saw it and nodded- yup. Empty gesture. Behaving as an ally means doing more than saying you are there, it means learning that calling a song a Native American Proverb is racist, and then- and this is the important part- speaking out about it so that the people who are really impacted by this don’t have to. It means paying attention to the names of the children in your class, or in your orchestra, and when you are using their full name you make sure you use the correct name and you do your damnedest to pronounce it correctly. It means learning that you made a mistake, correcting that mistake and then apologizing for being an asshole without making the person you wronged have to do the emotional work of educating you then forgiving you.
I have a friend who I would call an ally. She sends her kids to summer camp every year, and at that summer camp they designated every class by a different tribe. She and I were talking one day and she told me about this, and I kind of lost my shit. Because you don’t call kids’ camp classes by tribe. It’s bullshit- it objectifies these tribes, dehumanizes them. Call them the damn Dolphins and the Racoons or the Oaks and the Aspens but don’t call one camp class the Lakota and another the Potawatomi. My friend contacted the camp director, and over the course of months (yes, months!), they changed the formatting of their camp so they no longer use tribe names for their different classes. My friend had to challenge the camp director, she had to say this was racist and she had to justify her claim because the camp didn’t believe her. But once it was said, they listened and they changed their practice. This is what an ally does. My friend doesn’t wear a safety pin on her shirt. She is an ally because she cares about people, not because it looks good.
I wish I had more friends like this. I am so tired of this. As I texted my ally friend when I was listening and seething today, I am so done with this. So done. I wish I could easily take my kid out of this school, but this happens everywhere. Instead I’m writing about it here, and I’ll tell my therapist, and I’m telling you. And when I’m done being so angry, I’ll tell the school. When I don’t feel like ripping figurative heads from bodies, I’ll tell the school. I will confess though- I did have fantasies of standing up in the middle of the concert and yelling, “What the actual fuck, you guys? What are you thinking? Who is allowing this to happen?” These were just fantasies, though. Just fantasies. I didn’t ruin the concert for anyone, I promise. They ruined it for me, but I made sure everyone had a wonderful time watching their child perpetuate societal racism on for yet another generation. It was adorable.
I have been listening to Maeve Higgins’ memoir Maeve in America on audiobook. In this book she writes about her identity as an Irish woman, a funny person, and the cultural experience of being a funny Irish person in America. I have always appreciated her humor- I find her bracing, sharp, and smart; and as a person who adores puns, I love listening to her when she is just chatting away on podcasts because there is always another layer to her humor that leaves me meowing out in laughter as I drive, shower, cook, and so on. I live in New Mexico and she lives in New York City, but other than the fact that she is clearly a dog person and I am most definitely not a dog person, I wish I could meet her because I feel like we could be friends.
Listening to her book this morning as I showered, I was thinking about my time in Ireland in the mid-1990’s. After college, I spent a year there, working through a student visa work-abroad program. Many people asked me, “Why Ireland?”
I’d shrug. “Well, with a BA in music, I was destined to pour coffee somewhere. I figured it might as well be someplace good.”
They asked, “Why not someplace else?”
“Because they speak English in Ireland.”
That was part of it. In truth, ever since I had fallen in love with The Pogues in high school, I had wanted to go to Ireland. From The Pogues, I learned about The Troubles, and learned that there was another place in the English-speaking world where colonization had created a culture of dispossessed peoples. I was fascinated with Ireland for many reasons- I loved the music, I loved the counter culture, I found the idea of this colonized island where the people had fought back and were still fighting inspiring and invigorating. I didn’t have the maturity or resources to investigate these ideas then- I was pretty wrapped up in my own feelings of marginalization and I had no place to put that, and I was fairly depressed and aimless, and I really had no idea what I was going to do with my BA in music, so Ireland was a great adventure or curiosity.
When I arrived in Ireland, I found out a few really important details that the American Myth of Ireland had failed to provide prior to my trip. First, a lot of Americans make a pilgrimage to Ireland to discover their Irish roots. A lot. Really, more than you can imagine. At the time, it was an island where more people emigrated than remained, and that was a key feature of the culture. Everyone I talked to had a cousin in Boston. Imagine all those people, for generations, coming back as tourist and talking about their grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great-great-grandparents’ immigration story. I get pretty tired of hearing about so-and-so’s Cherokee great-grandmother. I can’t imagine if all those people took regular trips to Tulsa to visit their Great-grandmother’s (relocated) homeland.
When I was in Ireland, many of the people I met would become very guarded when they learned I was American. They would instantly pause, as though they were waiting for me to proudly announce my ancestral hometown. Some people came out and asked me. When I said, “no, I have no connection to Ireland. I’m Native American. Apache. I just came here because I thought it would be cool.” They would visibly relax- it was a mirror of the response I must have when someone starts up about their Cherokee Princess relation. People would show near disbelief at times, as though to ask, “Then why are you here? Why would you come here? We are all leaving, why would you want to be here?”
.The second myth was one that I had created in my head- and that was that people drink coffee in Ireland. They may drink coffee now, but they sure didn’t drink a lot of coffee in 1995. It was all tea then, and nobody wanted to hire me to pour tea. There was just about one coffee shop in Dublin, and they did not want to hire me. It took me months to get a job. Dang, but I was broke. Broke, and depressed. That is how I would characterize most of my time in Dublin. Oh, and drunk. Broke, depressed, and drunk. So basically, I fit right in with everyone else in my building where nobody seemed to work much, but everyone had enough money for hash and cider.
I had a friend of a friend with whom I stayed when I first arrived, Mary. Mary was a great resource- she was a little older than I, she had a house and she even gave me a temporary job when I wasn’t able to find one. Mary and I spoke a little about how we had a shared history of colonization- the Irish and the Native Americans. Mary talked about the burden of occupation, the history of Ireland and the difficulty of untangling the feelings of being part of the country that colonized yours, yet also deeply resenting that country. As I wrote earlier- I was still young and hadn’t really investigated my own feelings about my own colonization. I wish I still knew Mary so I could have this conversation again, it would be so much more nuanced. I wouldn’t be so drunk.
In spite of the difficulties finding work, when I was in Ireland I felt at home. A quality of Irish culture that Higgins writes about in her book is the humor- that her family values laughter, taking the piss, slagging off. Although it was a surprise at first to me, and being a stranger in a strange land is always a little off-putting, I really loved the laughter I found in Ireland. I loved the relaxed feeling of laughing, the set-up and pitch of a really good joke, and the expectation that not only would I be able to take a joke, but it would able be okay for me to give it out every once in awhile. It was so much like Native humor, it was comfortable for me to slide right in and be myself.
Humor in Indian Country is all about laughing at ourselves and each other. To fit in with my family, you are quick-witted, easily amused, and you understand that the worst insults are often the best compliments, because then you are part of the community. In Indian Country, people’s most disfiguring features become their nick-names. In the white world, you don’t mention a person’s size. In Indian Country, that guy’s name is Fatty.
When I came back from Ireland, I went to nursing school then got a job as a hospice nurse. The first week on the job, we were all standing around a patient’s bed, changing her sheets and cleaning up her bed and general area. The patient was close to death, and it had been a prolonged decline. I was still training, so I was working closely with my supervisor, so she was talking me through the job, and we were having a great time that afternoon. We were laughing and chatting, and she stopped herself and said as an aside- “Oh, I’m sorry. I should have said, in hospice we tend to have gallows humor.”
I was surprised by her comment, because I had no idea what gallows humor even was. I didn’t realize we were using gallows humor; we were simply doing our job, respectfully helping our patient get comfortable with clean bedding and nice surroundings, and involving her in our jokes even though she couldn’t respond any more because she was… well… dying. We weren’t making jokes at her expense, we were being respectful, but we were definitely laughing and having a good time. At that moment I realized that my life had been defined by a sense of humor that was maudlin and tinged with an edge of darkness. That is what we have in Indian Country, and that was what I found in Ireland- people who see the darkness, understand that there is death, poverty, and conflict. Instead of looking away or denying its presence, we choose to stand next to it and laugh.
As I read Higgins’ writing about her family’s humor, I wanted to invite her to spend time in Indian Country. I think she would find that she may struggle with the small talk- we would rather sit in absolute silence than talk slowly about tea during a train ride, but we will be happy to laugh long into the night, relaxing and chatting over nothing at all. I might be flexible about the dog thing, because Yorkies are adorable, and even forgivable given they are pedigree dogs and all that. Pugs though? They’re just weird.
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.
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