Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Racism is alive and well in our world today. Many people of colour know this to be true because of their own personal day to day experiences. The only people I hear deny it are white people. Denying racism, saying "all lives matter", "I don't see colour" or arguing against the existence of white privilege is what is continuing to perpetuate the problem. If we deny there is a problem, we cannot fix it. However, I know many white people who are not ignorant to these issues, who feel heart broken, and who want to help but don't know what to do. If that is how you feel, this blog is for you.
I am an Indigenous woman and I have black children. We have never been the victims of a serious violent crime or overt white supremacy BUT we have experienced many covert expressions of racism and ignorance. These "smaller" experiences still add up and are traumatic in their own right because they have long lasting consequences. I believe it is these small acts that are more "socially acceptable" that pave the way for more overt acts of racism.
A personal story
Before I start I would like to share a similar experience that my daughter and I have had. I remember being a young teenager and working in the summer with my father for a tourism company. Our job was to share our Mi'kmaq culture with tourists. We dressed in Mi'kmaq regalia (traditional sacred clothing), danced, drummed, sang, and shared displays of artifacts etc. I remember standing and talking to some of these tourists and them just reaching out and touching me. Because I was wearing something different, they somehow felt the right to touch my body, my clothes, without asking. It felt wrong. I felt disrespected, and as if I was being treated as an object, not a fellow human being. I also felt like I couldn't say anything because I was working.
My daughter has similar uncomfortable experiences with her hair. She has beautiful curls which we often kept in braided hairstyles when she was younger. It was almost without fail that every time we went out in public someone would touch her hair or make a comment about it. These people were not trying to be hurtful to her, in their minds they were paying her a compliment. BUT, in reality all that did was drive home to her that she was different from everyone around her. She stood out and people made it known by constantly pointing it out. She has stopped letting me braid her hair because she does not want to be "known" for this hairstyle wth her peers. She constantly tells me she wishes she had straight hair and that she hates her hair. These small things ADD UP! When people feel that they have the right to touch you and comment on your appearance just because you are different...it is degrading to your self worth. It is trauma and it is based on physical appearance and race, therefore it is racism.
What we can do to help
If you want to help stop racism I think the most important thing you can do is stop and reflect on your own actions and prejudices. We all have them. It is up to us to acknowledge them, reflect on them, and change them. It is also up to us to educate ourselves on what we may be doing to perpetuate the problem. Taking no action or ignoring the issue because it doesn't directly affect you is allowing racism to continue.
It is you...as a white ally, that can make the biggest difference in the fight against racism
I am going to list a few key things that as an Indigenous person I encounter on a regular basis, that can trigger an emotional response of pain, hurt, insult, trauma or oppression. I share this in hopes it will help you identify these less obvious forms of racism when you see them.
Calling me an Indian
This term is very outdated and is simply incorrect. We were first called Indians because when Christopher Columbus landed in North America he mistakenly believed he had sailed around the world and landed in India. We refer to ourselves as Indigenous, Native, First Peoples, or First Nations because that is indeed what we were. The first people to live here. Those are all acceptable terms. Bonus points if you take the time to learn about the individual tribe that a person is from. For example I am Mi'kmaq and my tribe was one of the original Indigenous peoples to live here in Nova Scotia.
The term Indian has also made its way into many slangs or expressions. For example: "Indian giver", "too many Chiefs not enough Indians" or "sitting Indian style" should just be avoided all together. There are many other ways to express your meaning without being derogatory to a race of people.
The term Eskimo is also outdated and considered offensive. The Indigenous people who live in the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska refer to themselves as Inuit.
Using the terms: savage, injun, or red skinned
I feel like these do not need much explaining. They are highly offensive and are usually only used when trying to purposely be insulting or derogatory.
Calling us "Chief"
I hear this frequently used as a way to address all Natives. In our culture a Chief is someone who has either been appointed or elected into a position of respect. They are a leader for a community or tribe. We are not all Chiefs and referring to someone as one (just because they are Indigenous) only proves that you do not understand the culture and see us all as the same. The word itself is not offensive so long as you are only using it to refer to an actual Chief.
Wearing a headdress or "dressing up" as a Native
This one is huge. STOP dressing up as Natives!
Wearing a headdress to Coachella, dressing up as a "Native princess" (P.S. there is no such thing as a princess in our culture) for Halloween or even dressing up as Natives to celebrate Thanksgiving is not ok. Just as black face is not ok, neither is this. PERIOD.
Our culture and traditions are not a costume PERIOD.
Thanksgiving and Columbus Day are another potential trigger for a lot of Natives. For many these simply represent the celebration of the genocide and conquest of Native Americans. Personally I choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving in the way it was meant to be. I look at it simply as an opportunity to spend time with my family. In some jurisdictions a move has been made to change the name from Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day which I believe is a positive change.
Your meeting is not a powwow
This is a very common misuse of the term, and can absolutely be a trigger if you are Indigenous. A powwow is a massive gathering to celebrate our culture and traditions. It represents community, tradition, song, dance, art, sharing, and our unity as Indigenous people. Referring to a meeting at work as a powwow massively diminishes what a powwow represents. Call it what it is, a meeting...that has absolutely nothing to do with our culture or traditions.
Asking what my spirit animal is, or referring to something as your spirit animal just because you like a cute picture or meme...
This is another tricky one. People who say "that is my spirit animal" probably do not understand why this would be offensive. If you are trying to express your love for a certain cute meme or animal there are other effective ways to do so that do you don't dilute the cultural importance of the term. Also, not all tribes have spirit animals. This is a common stereotype but it is not always the case. It will depend on the tribe the person is from and what their individual belief systems are, but assuming every Native has a spirit animal is again just making assumptions based on someone's race.
This one you may not be doing individually, but is worth mentioning so that you can be conscious of it when it occurs. The media is probably one of the main reasons that so many negative stereotypes are still alive and thriving today. They consistently use recurring stereotypes and misrepresent Indigenous peoples. Victim blaming is very common (a tactic that tries to lay blame on the victim of a violent crime to somehow justify it happening to them).
For example this headline was from Globe and Mail: "Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she was killed: toxicologist." This was referring to the murder of Tina Fontaine. She was a 15 year old girl who's body was pulled from Winnepeg's Red River. Her body was wrapped in plastic, a duvet, and weighed down by rocks. The man charged with her murder was acquitted. This girl was just that, a child. No person deserves such a fate, even if they happened to have consumed drugs or alcohol. This headline only distracts you from the awful tragedy that occurred, the fact that a young innocent girl's life was violently taken.
In stark contrast, a media headline from Nova Scotia's recent mass murder tragedy (where the offender was a middle aged white man) read " Nova Scotia mass shooter was a denturist with a passion for policing." This title basically falls tone death to the tragedy that occurred and diverts attention away from the fact that he murdered 21 people and burnt 5 buildings to the ground.
Huge double standards.
My two cents here is that the media often portrays us as drunks, drug addicts and people of violence. We need to be represented in the media with equality and fairness. I wish I saw more representation of Indigenous people who were doing amazing things. The success stories, the positive role models, the people working hard to break through the stereotypes.
Using us as mascots
This is something I am still shocked to be honest has continued to this day. It ties into the whole "our culture is not a costume" but runs even deeper. Being used as a token, an object, is dehumanizing! Probably the worst example of this is the Washington Redskins. My blood literally boils just having to write that name down. It is simply unacceptable. We are people, we are more than our skin colour, we deserve respect and kindness just as every other race does.
I would like to end with saying that racism can seem overwhelming and almost a hopeless cause. BUT each small change in our actions, our beliefs, and our accountability MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE. Just as the small negative things can build up to create trauma, small positives can create healing.
If you want to take action today here is what you can do:
If you see or hear any of the offensive sayings or terms I mentioned here today, stop to educate whoever is using them. Do it with kindness, but don't just ignore them. Tell them why it has offended you, or why it may offend others.
Take the time to educate yourself. If you are living in North America, do you know who the Indigenous people were who lived there before it was colonized? Chances are there are still there and you know nothing about them. Be kind, you are living on land that was stolen from them, and they are apart of your history.
Educate yourself on the hardships that these people endured. Do you know what really happened during slavery or during residential schools? Once you learn the atrocities they endured, you may be a lot more compassionate.
Speak up when you see an injustice occurring. Do what is right, not what is comfortable or socially acceptable.
Learn about white privilege. How do you know if you have it? What does it mean? How can you use your privilege to support others?
Take action! If having a sports team called the Redskins is wrong, speak up! Write a letter, sign a petition, join a protest, boycott the team, educate others!
Probably most important of all.....talk to your children. Tell them about racism, prejudice, and different cultures. Do not tell them to ignore skin colour, instead tell them to respect and embrace another human even when they are different from us.
Welalin (Thank you) 🙏🏽