Being an Ally Starts with Speaking Up

by | August 9, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Racism

by Kirsten Barkved

Sometime in my early twenties, in between my first year of post-secondary education and a part-time job that got me little to no savings, a grim appreciation for the general public and a strong, uncontrollable addition to coffee, I discovered that the world is not as happy and shiny as I had previously chose to believe it.

My manager, a young woman with blonde hair, a pretty diamond engagement ring and a fiancé with a shiny black SUV, upon discovering I lived in Fort Nelson for a stint, and that, in my words, it was a “whole entire universe up there” said:

“Well, what do you expect, it’s all Indians up there, right?”

Well, actually, what the twenty-year-old version of me had been referring to was the snow, the cold and the partying. Shiny bubble popped, I sat in my chair, mouth agape, eyebrows hiding somewhere in my hairline. And while I’d like to say I marched right out of my job, angry at the blatant racism, frustrated at the ignorance and lack of understanding that flooded her words, I sat there. In silence.

And the silence is just as bad as her eleven-word sentence

It’s not that I had been walking around with wide-eyed innocence akin to Cindy Loo Hoo. I just chose to believe that in every person, act or event, there are linings made of silver sweetness that could outweigh the negative. And sometimes this translated into a naïveté that walked dangerously close to white privilege.

As a white woman, residing somewhere in the grey area of lower/middle class, I experience a privilege that others do not. It means that while I can’t really leave my house without receiving some form of sexual objectification based on my gender, I am, however, able to walk out my house without feeling oppressed, discriminated or violently and systematically excluded by my skin colour.

And if you think that racism in Canada is something that is rare, a phenomenon that you excuse once in a blue moon when your Bible thumping grandma comes to visit, you are sadly mistaken.

Racism is abundant. It’s in everything. We live in a patriarchal society that culturally values certain qualities (i.e. white, male, upper class, able-bodied) and trivializes, indeed, marginalizes those who do not possess said social constructions. Having all of these qualities makes you king of the preverbal castle. Having little to none leaves you under a glass ceiling: always seeing what you could possibly have, never actually being able to reach it. We saw this in the housing crisis that First Nations people in Attawapiskat experienced in 2011.

Maybe it’s true that, as a nation, we’ve come a long way from our founding upon assimilationist policies. And peaceful, grassroots movements like Idle no More, with it’s national and international attention, have raised awareness in the last year for Indigenous Sovereignty and Indigenous ways of knowing. Awareness is growing about the ways in which bills, treaties, laws and other Eurocentric ways of knowing have historically and systematically failed a group of people whose way of living has been altered, lost and forgotten along the path of cultural genocide.

Enter the internet: a great, vast “untamed wilderness” for stories like the state of emergency for the Attawapiskat people to be read, shared and commented on. The beauty of the 21st century is that we live in an information age in which stories can be spread faster than melting butter. And that’s a marvelous thing. That we can access people, their lives and their plights across miles, lines on maps and be informed about the happenings of a nation that supposedly prides itself on being a mosaic, a beacon for diversity.

It seems nothing is more readily shared than the suffering of others. Whether as a form of maintaining empathy or recognizing the pain in others as pain we may feel ourselves one day, or have felt once; tragedies are stories in the news that we latch onto because they are reminders to be kind, to be compassionate, helpful, considerate, and above all else, be humane.

I think back to the recent flooding in Alberta, and the status updates that overwhelmed my Facebook news feed for days. A whole city came together to help their neighbors, people they didn’t even know. People from neighboring provinces, even just those caught up in the media, left comments on news articles: messages for hope, support and sympathy for those affected by the natural disaster that left an entire city in a state of emergency.

And then I think to the housing crisis in Attawapiskat. October 11, 2011. The Attawapiskat First Nations leader, Chief Theresa Spence, whose hunger strike drew public attention to the crisis faced by many First Nations, declared a state of emergency, her third in three years. Cold temperatures, inadequate housing conditions, overcrowded shacks and tents, no running water or running electricity, families with little food or supplies, some living just feet away from a poorly cleaned up sewage spill (resulting from a massive flood that in 2009 had the entire reservation evacuated); these were some of the issues that made their way into public media releases.

Responses to the mass flooding and states of emergency in the Attawapiskat region?  Charlie Angus, author of the brilliantly poignant article “Taking on the Trolls: Why the Online Race-Hatred Against First Nations?”  found these gems:

“Just give them some firewater and they will go away until they need their next hit. Has worked for hundreds of years.”

“I guess the gasoline, drugs and alcohol made them stupid

“And so the annual spring shopping evacuation begins,” wrote one troll. “The only reason the problem never gets addressed is b/c it would take away the annual reason for evacuating south at government expense!”

And they go on. And it’s not just on the Huffington Post. It’s everywhere. It’s on CTV. It’s on Global. It’s on CBC. It’s the friend you knew in high school sending little heart emotions for those affected by the floods in Alberta one day and making racist status updates or refusing to give a dollar to a homeless First Nations man on the streets another (“im not helping u fund your drinking problemz, go back to ur reservation u miserable slob”).

Racism? Gone? In Canada? No. It’s ingrained in our society, historically institutionalized. Europeans came to this country, forced the original people from their homes, out of their ways of living, into residential schools, to be “civilized” where they received years of physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and were shuffled onto reservations and left there. Left with haunting memories of a past, a cycle of violence, neglect, sorrow and pain unfolded in front of them that transformed into alcohol, drugs, sexual and physical abuse, all manifested in an ongoing, endless circle because of one catalytic event: colonization.

The negative and racist comments on articles like the crisis in Attawapiskat are a part of the cycle of ongoing violence. What trolls on the internet comment on is the legacy of assimilation; what they ignore or perhaps cannot see because of the mask of white privilege is the history of their ancestors’ oppression. It’s an oppression that continues today through institutional marginalization, through typed assumptions made by anonymous desk sitters with tunnel-vision notions of right and wrong. And just as deafening, the silence that seeps through.

Charlie Angus alls for a cleaning up of “the toxicity of cyberspace”, and I agree, though it cannot be done by one group of people. My favorite feminist writer, Gloria Anzaldua, in “Borderlands/La Frontera” spoke of how to make change in a binary world. She argues that while race normally divides people, there must be a movement that unites, rather than separates, for the division only mimics the racial division that history has drawn around us. The speaking up against racism must be undertaken by allies of differing backgrounds; white and non white, upper class, middle class and lower class, of all genders.

This is where it gets tricky, though. As a white person, I will never know the complex issues that a First Nations individual will go through. Who am I to speak for someone, let alone a person or group of people who have been historically marginalized, oppressed and violently reduced in numbers in every which way?  To speak for them greatly mimics assimilationist policies, and to not speak up only allows the violent discrimination to flourish.

A beautiful video popped up onto my Facebook news feed last week. A photographer named Aaron Huey traveled to South Dakota to photograph the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation, to capture the poverty and plight. What began as a project meant to capture the history of violence and memory turned into a project for change. You can watch the fourteen-minute video here (and please watch until the very end).

Huey concluded his project with a revelation, an understanding that he had a small role to play in this saga. That his photography was only a vessel to capture the conditions, the violence, the deaths, the broken-ness, the neglect, but more than that, the silence from those that put them there. It is crucial to act, but it is just as crucial, he said, to step down, leave center stage, and have the battle fought by those that it was previously waged upon; the Oglala Lakota Nation.

And this is where I am left. I experience privilege day in and day out. I can speak about the problems that I witness in this country, but at the end of the day, I want only to be a voice, not the voice that speaks for people. The question then, as raised by Charlie Angus, is what to do when faced with online trolls? White allies, as he calls them, should only be part of the solution, not the entire solution. I do not dare  take the pain and anger put in place and felt over the course of hundreds of years and turn it into literature; that would be appropriation.

Instead, what I can do is lend my words to a cause; they are the sharpest weapons I own and the most profound items in my stock of knowledge to combat what I see as evil. Inside me is that naïve twenty-year-old, holding out hope that good resides in everyone. It’s naïve, yes. It’s gullibility to the nth degree, indubitably. But I cling to it with a critical eye.

Words are weapons for change, so use them. Don’t sit silently. Just as Idle No More is a movement of resistance of physical bodies, so are a few typed words on a keyboard, the soft tapping of fingers seeking social justice, a way of pushing back. It makes small cracks, and they might feel like nothing with an imaginary hammer and chisel in the monolithic foundation that is the system that is so afraid of change. But it is something. And something’s are better than nothings.

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