apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
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'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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