I have not written a single word about Ferguson. Not until today at least. I have been following the situation closely. I have been reading my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I have been gobbling up news articles and YouTube videos. My silence is not about being uninvolved. At least not intentionally.
Almost everyone who reads this blog follows me on Facebook as well. I am going to assume that you are all aware of that fact that I like to rant and rave a lot on Facebook. I like to post about subjects I am passionate about. I like to link to videos and articles that are related to my passions and beliefs. I am a typical Facebook user.
Of the subjects that I am passionate about, one of them is racism in the United States. Unlike my posts about bands I like, books I’ve read, and cooking, my posts about racism get a lot of attention. Facebook has an algorithm that rewards likes, comments and to a lesser degree, shares. This means that when you casually peruse your Facebook feed, you are primarily seeing posts that have many likes or comments (and sometimes shares). To a lesser degree, you see posts from your friends that you interact with via IMs or the above-mentioned trio, and to the least degree you see relatively recent posts from your friends list. (Oh, also ads, but this doesn’t matter in my point). What this means is that when you only scroll through your feed, as opposed to looking at my wall, it appears that 99% of the posts I make are about racism, and all of those are full of people arguing, being defensive, being offensive, and disagreeing vehemently. My own wife told me she had no idea how often I posted links to songs, bands and music in general. She is not an avid Facebooker. She won’t go to my wall to catch all of my posts. Like almost everyone on Facebook, she scans her feed for a few minutes.
So one might say it is understandable when in the span of about a week, seven different people expressed their dissatisfaction with me on a personal level. I’m not going to call those people assholes, because they are people I love. They are also, I believe, people with a limited understanding, not just of Facebook algorithms, but of the experiences of other facets of humanity. The term “Privilege” was coined to describe this particular disconnect, but has since become something of a naughty word, viewed as an invocation of hate and ignorance (and, let’s be honest, it’s sometimes used that way too). I think it is obvious that I do not agree with these points of view, nevertheless, this wears me down. It wears me out. I took a break from posting subjects I knew to be controversial, no matter how important they were to me, no matter how much I had to say. I did not feel secure lighting the torch and making myself a target.
It can be argued that Mike Brown didn’t feel that way, either. We’ll never know, of course.
My silence has not just been about those seven people. I recently held a dinner birthday party for a very good friend of mine. She invited two of her friends who I did not previously know. Throughout the night, they were both pleasant, fun and funny. I enjoyed their company immensely. However, at one point during the night, it was mentioned that I was ndn. One of my two guests immediately made a joke that I do not recall the nature of and called me “Squanto.” To most people, being referred to as a historical figure made popular by grade school plays and hand-outlines drawn as turkeys such as “Squanto” might seem harmless. That’s privilege again, not the naughty no-no word version, but the truth. “Squanto,” in my experience, when referring to an individual, has always been a pejorative. It may not be the worst one, but I’m not here to argue and compare until futility. I was immediately offended. I had invited strangers into my home, given the gift of food (including specially made vegetarian and lactose free food) and hospitality and somehow managed to earn the racist treatment in return.
I know what most of you are thinking: “What did you do, James? Did you read him the litany? Did you point and scream until you were red in the face and couldn’t breathe? Did you kick his ass right out your door? Did you beat his ass?” Well, I didn’t do any of those things.
I shut up. I was angry. I was so angry that I could not even look at this person, so I looked away. I did not know what to do. I was the host. Hosts have duties to see to their guests. Beyond that, people have duties to be nice to other people and never say anything mean. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all, right?
I am far from a paragon. I am, like you, only a person. I am passionate. Passionate does not equate to perfection. I said nothing. I said nothing because I felt like saying something would make me a bad person. I felt like I would be ruining the night and the birthday of someone I loved if I started a fight. I felt like everyone was going to have a bad time if I opened my mouth, so I didn’t. In my silence, I thought about the incredible irony of being called Squanto by someone who was appreciating my food and hospitality, not that I’m some modern day Tisquantum, but the irony was further fulfilled by the fact that my guest was born in England.
My silence was not enough to hide my anger. My friend hushed the guest, took one look at my face and said that I was truly angry. I tried to speak, to calm the tide—I had created this situation and it was my responsibility to fix it—I tried to explain that I was not angry, that I was just frustrated with hearing a term used in a certain way. I tried to brush it under the rug with my cool, educated, logical broom. I don’t know if my face was bright red or what indication was given, but my guest went outside to smoke.
I took the time to cool down and try to think of what to say to ease the situation and keep the fun rolling as it had been previously. When my guest returned I fumbled to explain the real reasons I was upset and that they had nothing to do with him. He had decided to leave by this point, and on the way out the door said, “But Squanto isn’t even a racist term!”
I felt like I had personally ruined the night.
I mentioned before that my other passions include music, books, food. I’m a nerd and I talk about gaming, sci-fi/fantasy, and 80’s-90’s kids cartoon shows. I talk about these things because they make me happy. I like sharing that experience with others. I, like anyone, love having a good time and good times are amplified with other people involved. I have also had it ingrained in me that it is my responsibility to not have a bad time, and to make sure people around me have a good time. It might be why I love to host parties, dinners, games and other crazy events. Maybe you have not noticed this pattern until I called it out, but I am very often playing the host role. It’s because I want everyone to have a good time. I’m not alone in this.
As a Person of Colour, particularly an ndn, society has taught me to shut the fuck up about who I am. I cannot speak for other PoC’s, but I am sure the situation is relatable. America and Americans are ashamed of us. The shame runs so deep and is so poisonous as to infect us as well. Natives struggle with shame constantly, some real and quite a lot imagined. I could go on about the reasons behind the shame, or the systematic use of shame to destroy cultures, but that’s a subject for another time. I’m going to assume that you can grasp, at least minimally, what I mean when I say that.
I knew who I was growing up. I knew the pictures of Cochise and Geronimo my mother had on the walls. I had read all of the books about native history. I recognized all of the indigenous patterns in the art that my mother chose to display in our home.
But I didn’t talk about who I was with my friends.
To this day, people I have known for more than half of my life say to me, “I had no idea you were Native American.”
When I finally began to open up and talk about my heritage and who I was with pride, I was called “Squaw” and “Prairie Nigger” by my friends. To this day, I cannot decide if I was under the belief that these terms were used in a jolly, friendly fashion toward me, or if I was just completely ignorant of how hateful my “friends” were being toward me. The older I get, the more I understand that it was absolutely the latter—but I am trying to emphasize how deeply the culture of shame effects me. If I were to say anything about the names they called me, I was going to be the cause of having a bad time, so I changed the narrative into a positive so that I could cope with my day to day life.
Racism is becoming more prevalent in America. The cultural divide is growing deeper and wider. Although more people are talking about it, our society is not growing more healthy—or at least, not that I can see. Maybe it seems like it’s getting better if you’re white. Most of the people who have told me they believe it is getting better have been white.
I mentioned that one of my outlets for following Ferguson has been Facebook, which allows the use of comments. The comments I have seen are horrifying. From racism denial to straight up racism, hold the ice. I’ve seen white, black, red and every other colour of person who dares to question our society and the police lambasted and verbally assaulted. I’ve seen people desperately dig for articles about black-on-black crime, and black cops killing white, unarmed people just to try and shame us into ignorance.
The people of Ferguson have been shamed by the police, the media and the government. They have been called thieves, animals, looters, violent, rioters and racists themselves. People in mourning are being attacked from every direction. People in pain are being told that they are the problem. Ferguson is not the only place in America this is happening. Ferguson is not even the only place in America where predominantly white police forces murder children in predominantly black communities (dare I even mention police on the Rez?).
Mike Brown lit a torch that he never intended to pick up and will never put down. His legacy was in his death. A murdered child has been shamed as a thug and a thief. This event resonates with people of colour and all oppressed people. That is why we are rallying. That is why we are hurt and angry.
We live in constant shame, and we struggle to hold on to our dignity and pride. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of the heritage I hail from. I am proud of who I will become. I am also filled with shame and I struggle to overcome it daily. Sometimes, and often, I fail. Is my silence failure? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m too ashamed of the truth.