Sunday, June 8, 2008

An Occurence

I was downtown this afternoon with a small group of acquantinces, all of us with a Native heritage - downtown for a Native event. As we waited for a straggler, we paused on a grassy hill and sat with our smoothies. I enjoy being with this group, many of them with an even more sarcastic streak than I have, and we were laughing about something. Just as we busted up about some comment made, a man walking by stopped and glared at us.


"Who do you think you are?" he started shouting.


We sat stunned for a moment, as it was clear he was addressing us.



"Go back to your villages - you are so worthless! Go laugh at yourselves!"




I'll let you imagine some of the other words sprinkled in there, including the last remark as he stomped off - "F_in' Eskimos."




This was not the worst Native-speech I've been privy to, but it's pretty close. I don't believe the man was drunk, and all I can imagine happened to create this reaction is that he believed we were laughing at him as he walked by. Not that even that excuses such blatantly racist remarks.


What really concerned me was not the man. I don't think all the arguing in the world will help a man like that, and - though of course upset myself, angry, emotional - intellectually I know there is little else I can do for a man who would be so disrespectful and hateful except to ignore.


What concerned me was our reaction, the reaction of those I was sitting with. A group of young, professional Native people, mostly women, who have every right to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. Our reaction? We lowered our heads, we didn't meet each other in the eye, we dare not look at another person in the crowd, for the shame of it. All we managed, as we rose to our feet knowing we all just wanted to leave, was one softly said comment of, "Geez, wonder what's with that guy?"


We didn't yell back, we didn't argue, we didn't console or comfort each other, we didn't talk about.




It took several hours of cooling off (no outward reaction certainly does not mean no internal one) to really start thinking about the reaction (or lack of one.) Not until I was home and slowly stewing did I think about past reactions. I have never been with a group of Native people - or even mixed group - in which there has been discrimination and hate thrown at us that there has ever been any reaction except exactly what I experienced today. Shame and silence.


This has not been my experience as an individual. If it is me and someone else - no audience, no others with me - I can be quite forceful, sometimes diplomatic, but I always address it. I think many non-Native friends would be quite surprised with my reaction today - but at the time it seemed the only thing to do.





I don't know what this says about the cultures I love so much, about the shame that was so overpowering that this group I know to be strong, independent and many of them involved in Native advocacy were brought to our knees when confronted with very public shame?



I have wondered about cultural ties. Although I cannot speak for others' cultures, only that of which I was raised, the Tlingit culture holds public shame to be the ultimate punishment. Back in the day, it was literally worse than death. Could culture be the reason we were so silent?



I also wondered about the the frequency of such occurences making it "just the way we react." There is a reason I stay away from downtown, and though parking is one factor, another large factor is that I am much more likely to encounter comments like these in downtown Anchorage than in any other area. I have frequented a downtown bar exactly two times in my life, exactly half the times I have been inside a bar in my life (three of those times the week I turned 21), but I still worry while downtown that, if I were to trip, would people think I was just a drunk Native? If I walk near a bar, will people think I just came out of it? If I laugh too loudly, or speak too boldly, will they assume I've just downed a bottle of Jack?



Yes, I see the frequency of looking at what people think. But I still worry, much because of encounters like this one. Has the frequency of such hate, especially in Anchorage, taught me the "best" way to react - i.e. that any other way is futile? React back and you're just an ignorant Indian. Talk about it to those around you, and you only increase the anger and hurt, with nothing left to do about it.



I have no real answers here, just a lot of thought sparked by an experience that is, unfortunately, not the most uncommon of my life. It is just simply not the attitude of those that I cannot control that concerns me. It is my own attitude, and the all-too-typical reaction of others I know experience it, that concerns me.

12 comments:

CelticDiva said...

Raven, I'm so sorry that happened to you. Many people have no idea this goes on.

I was on the phone with my friends in Denver (who also blog on Blue Oasis) and they mentioned that folks don't talk about these issues accept in Alaska. Considering the majority of victims of sexual violence across the country are Alaska Native/Native American, society does what it's always done by keeping Native issues/Native women invisible.

That's why your voice is so important. I'm proud of you! **hugs**

CelticDiva said...

P.S. I published this post on my blog with you as a guest blogger. It's incredibly powerful and needs to be seen by as many folks as possible.

That being said, can I post it for you over on my "Pam's House Blend" Diary? I'll direct all traffic towards your blog...the folks that read her blog are some of the movers and shakers in the national Progressive blogging community and I want them to see your writing.

When you and I get together, I will show you a couple of tricks (like linking) on Blogger, but we're also going to get you signed up for a "House Blend" diary and a "Daily Kos" diary.

Richard said...

I lived for 19 years in Alaska which in no way shape or form qualifies me to speak on this situation at all!! (grin)

I am a white man, a gay white man. I am assertive most of the time. I am not shy. However, when a carload of teenage boys yell "fag" at me, I freeze and can think of nothing to say ... I walk on in silence. When a passerby makes a nasty comment at me and my husband for holding hands, I freeze and can think of nothing to say ... I walk on in silence ... and in shame (?) or fear (?) I don't know ... I just know that say nothing, I stay silent. Just like you describe you and your friends did when suddenly confronted with racism.

When homophobia suddenly takes me unawares, I freeze up and go silent. I do not know why. I do not like that about myself. In fact I absolutely hate that about myself. My Steve was the opposite ... he always got right in the homophobes face immediately ... my knight in shining armor.

In the thoughtful, premeditated battles, I'm your man. But in the sneak attacks, I am useless. What an admission! I hate to be making it. But it is true. Just want you to know you are not alone.

feel free to visit me at http://ravenhurst-ravenhurst.blogspot.com/

CelticDiva said...

The article on my blog is HERE.

The article on the Diary is HERE because Pam took it from diary status and put it on the front page!!!!!!!!!!

Congratulations, you are now headlining one of the top political blogs in the world...literally!

To give you an example, on Technarati my blog traffic earns me a rating of about 102,000...that's up from 190,000 before I was chosen as a State Blog. Pam's is rated about 4,800!!!!!!

Congratulations!!!!!

Dale said...

Raven, I had no idea that such open bigotry existed in Anchorage. My first thought, upon reading your post, is that he was mentally unhinged. Why else would he take on a sizable group without fear? But then I realized that he didn't have fear because he felt safe making such comments in that Anchorage neighborhood.

I'm sorry this happened to you, but I am very glad you wrote about it. The first step to ending oppression is to make it known to the wider world. The civil rights struggle in the American South took hold, in part, because courageous individuals spoke out and got the support of the rest of the nation.

Maybe your blog is one step along a similar path?

Writing Raven said...

The many comments have given me quite a few things to think about - especially considering the cultural context. Because prejudice towards me has always come in the form of my being Native (although, come to think of it, a few times because of my faith), I assumed a cultural reaction in the shame and silence. Although I cannot say I am happy to find that other (non-Natives) have the same reaction, it is at least something connecting.

Philip Munger said...

dale,

I've seen this happen, as writing raven describes it, time and time again, over the years. I crid as I read the description of the incident.

When I lived in Cordova, when I worked in public safety, especially the seven years I worked in correctional institutions that included women - time and time again.

I'm glad that CD's passing of writing raven's essay along to Pam's House Blend, where so many people will read about this, has happened.

I'm adding this important blog to the Progressive Alaska blogs category at Progressive Alaska.

Mae said...

I wanna make a video production about paintballs, filled with sour milk, and aimed at racist, brainless youth in Alaska.

Probably not the best thing to do to combat Alaska's racist views, yet it might heal something inside me. And probably not something I would ever do, yet talking or writing about it sure helps.

I got the idea several years ago from eavesdropping on two Native chics. Both, whom spent many mornings, just talking over a puzzle in a Spenard coffee shop.

Time and time again I went back to that coffee shop to eavesdrop on these graceful women. The views they expressed on racist Alaska healed me, slowly, like a rain drop in slow motion.

They considered themselves "track stars", because they spent their junior and high school years running away from a Anchorage High school hockey team trying to beat them up because of their race. Apparently this was a common practice in the early 70's from a particular high school hockey team?

They used to have lunch at (least once a month) a resturant where the "blond racist chic from high school" worked.

Once, when one of the chics was going through breast cancer and complained that she wasn't able to keep weight on, another coffee shop regular loudly expressed that she shouldn't complain since she "got free medical care". Well both those Native chics reached into their purses, pulled out cans of silly string and totally wasted the guy who made the free medical comment. They were totally unabashed about their actions and words.

Another time a customer came into the cafe and made a comment to the clueless barrista about "browness of the patrons". These two Native chics followed the guy to his place of employment (apparently down the street from the cafe).

Of course I had to go back the next day and hear what happened. Well I guess they sat around the guys place of employment for a few hours, drinking their coffee and reading the paper. And I quote them: "We made him squirm and all it took was our pretty faces...".

Their views about racism against Alaska Natives was refreshing. And I suspect healing for them. I know it was for me to listen.

That coffee cafe is now closed. I don't know where those classey Native chics go for coffee today, but I am very thankful to of experienced their presence and ways of doing things.

As for that guy who told you all to go back to the village. Ain't it funny all your giggles got the best of his racism?

I would of loved to follow him back to his place of employment (if a public place) and sit around, just to watch him squirm !

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Anonymous said...

The reason why nobody said anything is because we are better than that. If it was another race he would have been beaten to death. He will suffer in silence when the time comes. We are proud!

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Anonymous said...

I was just reading bell hooks (feminist and social activist)and I thought of this post. I wanted to share a snippit:
At the end of the day, as I considered why it had been so full of racial incidents, of racist
harassment, I thought that they served as harsh reminders
compelling me to take a stand, speak out, choose whether I
will be complicit or resist. All our silences in the face of racist
assault are acts of complicity. What does our rage at injustice
mean if it can be silenced, erased by individual material
comfort?