Laura Tait, now an Assistant Superintendent in the Nanaimo, British Columbia once said
“You want to learn about Indigenous culture, make an Indigenous friend.”
Sage advice. With friendship comes trust that you are valued, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to give “the benefit of the doubt” to a person. It is not always something we are able to structure. I have many different circles of friends. Many are based on common experiences such as interacting at the same elementary school, secondary school, university, or workplace. Some came out of a common interest or a chance meeting that you would never be able to plan, like meeting while dancing or at parent-teacher conferences.
The mother of one of my friends in high school was an amazing chef and owned a French restaurant in Kits. During one of our very infrequent snowstorms in Vancouver, the busses stopped running. We have a history of being ill-equipped to deal with snow in Vancouver. I convinced my friend, Florence, to walk many, many kilometres to my house so I could escape her mother’s bouillabaisse and seek comfort of the oh so familiar macaroni and cheese at my house. This has become a reference point for me in contemplating how many amazing opportunities are missed in the quest for the familiar.
Being aware of different ways of living in the world certainly create an openness to learning about different people and their lived experiences. That’s where books come in. Engaging in new cultural experiences and food are also good starting points. However, it is reaching out in friendship that provides the scaffolding to avoid awkwardness and the impetus to participate in the unfamiliar. I have been lucky to have had people reach out. It is the reason I have been able to participate in Eid celebrations, been welcomed into homes while teaching in China, and Pow Wows in Ontario, Quebec, and North Vancouver.
I love all things Cuban and yet, I didn’t travel to Cuba until relatively recently with my husband. The appreciation of the art and the literary tradition came much later in life. Travellers complain about the diet of roast pork, black beans and rice. For me, it is comfort food. My parent’s marriage was in trouble when I was born and the relationship with my father and stepmother evolved with a healthy dose of tumultuousness. In high school, I became friends with Armando, even though he was making fun of my name in Grade 9 Math. We spent lots of time at his house and his family restaurant, and I was embraced by his family. I gravitated to the warmth, multi-generational interactions, and unconditional acceptance. I didn’t identify difference. I hung-out. I laughed. I cried. I danced. I established enduring relationships. Race or identification as BIPOC did not enter the conversation until this year. On the golf course, Armando shared his conversation with his brother, ruling out Latin-X as a descriptor. I googled it and we considered “Hispanic” was a possibility. And yet, it didn’t seem to fit either. If this has never been a reference point for Armando’s family, is it helpful now?
The persistence of racism has come to the forefront during the pandemic. “I can’t breathe” brings the horrific social media images of George Floyd’s last moments of life at the hands of the police and the palpable inequity in the great American experiment in democracy. No freedom and justice for all to be seen. Since I joined Amnesty International in university and started teaching in the 80’s, the problem of systemic racism has been the focus of many actions and initiatives. Yet, here we are in 2021 with racism used as a tool to solidify political control by more than one world leader, open acts of racism, and palpable anger. Tessa McWatt does a nice job of boiling down the purpose of race as a construct. As she cites (p.20-21), Aristotle justifying enslavement of “barbarians” by the Greeks in 322 BC. Queen Elizabeth’s justification for the conquest of Ireland and its’ “savages in the 1650’s. The 17th century manufacturing of racial difference to justify the expansion of the African slave trade into British territories in the Americas and Caribbean. Difference was created to justify the actions of those in power at the time. It was perpetuated for strictly economic purposes. Sugar. Cotton. Tobacco. Coffee. Financial gain for some is so much higher if you don’t need to pay a work force.
I recently asked another of my dear friends why I talked more about her Indigenous heritage with her Dad and her youngest son. Another warm and welcoming family who have embraced me and my family with open arms. With her Dad at the helm, her family embraces their father’s Cherokee background with pride. Judy has said that in academic circles, where we met, it just wasn’t a conversation that people wanted to have. Her son taught me about the concept of “white passing “and the annoyance of having his own heritage dismissed because he doesn’t look “Indian” enough. I was honoured to be in the room when his Grandpa presented him with an eagle feather when he graduated from university. The significance of the ceremony is not defined by skin colour but of family and cultural tradition.
I learned more about Indigenous teachings, residential schools, and the systemic inequities in our Canadian system as a result of my cultural support worker in Coquitlam. Latash, then known as Maurice Nahanee, asked me to sponsor an exchange with Indigenous students in the Coquitlam School District and a neighbourhood house in Ottawa. It involved the trips to common Indigenous sites but with the family stories and experienced layered over top of the official version provided by Latash and the students with varied degrees of knowledge about their Indigenous ancestry. I learned about Latash’s Squamish ancestors living and giving birth in Stanley Park. I learned about the precious cedar baskets being taken to the Museum of Anthropology for safe keeping, then requests for use for ceremonial purposes being denied. I learned about the legacy of residential schools and the long road back. I also learned what it was to be “other”. I was the voice of white authority. The keeper of schedules. The one who decided what was appropriate. I held the power whether I wanted to or not. I was not liked for much of the trip. I was the other. It was not defined by the colour of my skin in our Canadian context. Many of the students in group were “white passing’ with ancestors from many countries. What set me apart was my white privilege. Listening circles were an opportunity to be heard and foster empathy. However, this very basic tenet of democracy, the right to a voice, has not shifted the power structures to one of equity. At that time, Canadian “multi-culturalism” did not include or value our Indigenous population, and not even entered into the conversation about the systemic racism that explained why.
My friendship with Latash has opened me to many opportunities and my mind to consider other perspectives. I’ve been invited to naming ceremonies, pow-wows, and plays. The fear of making a misstep is cushioned by the friendship. My friend, Joyce Perrault, another amazing Youth and Family worker, has helped me to continue my learning journey through her work with students and the publication of her book, All Creation Represented: A Child’s Guide to the Medicine Wheel.
I got to know my good friend Kanwal, when we were engaged in a community building experience for our Faculty Associate orientation at Simon Fraser University. I asked him if his turban was folded according to a specific region or whether it was a dress turban. His response:
“It is the Gucci of turbans.” The conversation started there, and it continues.
As a faculty associate team and we created our “Mind & Heart” module on a quote from the Dalai Lama. We were invested in planning engaging interactions for our students who had completed their undergraduate degree and were completing their professional year to qualify and Kindergarten to Grade 12 teachers. We grappled with how to frame our important professional knowledge in a context of social justice. Of all my South Asian friends and acquaintances, I have learned most from Kanwal about what it is to be Sikh. Conversations and participation in his daughter’s weddings, and the freedom to ask questions to have allowed me to experience the culture. Dressing very inappropriately for the Gurdwara at his first daughter’s wedding, led to parents and colleagues at my school at the time, stepping in to help be ready for future Indian events. I now have an Indian suit to die for and a selection of saris that require a professional dresser to wear.
I did not know my friend Sandy’s dad very well. I knew he was an amazing Dad from Sandy’s stories about him taking her skiing and his overwhelming pride as he handed out sushi to the bagpiper, Scottish heritage in-laws, and mixed bag of friends at her wedding. Sandy is Canadian. We taught in the same school when I was first hired in the Abbotsford School District and became what would become life-long friends. I got my first rice cooker after a conference to Kelowna when we stayed with her family. Her family showed shock and dismay that I was cooking substandard rice in a pot and that my mother had used minute rice when I was growing up. This catalyzed me into action. It wasn’t until her Dad died that I learned the impact of the Japanese Internment policy by the Canadian government had on his life. Japanese internment was not just a historical misstep that could be apologized away. Sandy does not identify as BIPOC. We can hypothesize about why that is the case. However, if the label restricts rather than uplifts, is it helpful to her?
The death of George Floyd represents an inequity in how people are treated by police in the United States. The high rate of incarceration and death by capital punishment in the United States needs to be questioned. Systemic racism needs to be addressed. The concept of white privilege needs to explore and understood. How the conversation is navigated matters. Who are the voices that we listen to? How do we make sense of the anger? How do we respect the fact that not everyone has the same understanding? The same experience?
Ibram X Kendi has been masterful in opening up this conversation to all people. I first listened to his audiobook, How to Be An Anti-racist, and loved being able to hear what he emphasized during the reading of his text. However, I found that there was so much depth, I needed to read the book, to develop a deeper understanding. It is a book that is a call to action. He challenges us to more beyond a passive stance of “I’m not a racist” to an active stance of being an anti-racist working towards equity and justice for all human beings.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt opens up a whole new layer of conversation. “I know from stories that my ancestry of Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African, and Chinese forebears. And there are rumours of hidden bloodlines – that possible French Jew.” (p.17). Her book takes us through her journey to discover who she is. An identity that is defined by blurred lines. She challenges us to create a “new language of belonging”. It too is a call to action.
Joe Truss and his online sessions on Dismantling White Supremist culture have challenged my thinking. Although I believe it is my role is to define the work I need to do, he poses many good questions. Who do I feel affinity with? The first session I attended with a group of colleagues. Affinity groups were defined by skin colour. The colleagues that I identified as my people, did not have a chance of being in my affinity group. I had the wrong skin colour. When I questioned it, my facilitator, Shane Safir, introduced the many difference types of affinity groups we can be part of. I am not questioning the merit of affinity groups based on colour for creating safe spaces for people. It has just made me question who is in my affinity group.
As I have many circles of friends, I have many affinity groups. But the lines are blurred. I remember being challenged by a woman in one feminist group because I was wearing red lipstick. Apparently, my affinity group on that day was feminists who wear lipstick. A cousin expressed surprise that I was a good mother and worked because I wanted to. My affinity group is apparently mothers who value their career and love being a Mom. Being a proud Canadian born in California. A sun worshiper who loves snow sports. A person who has been underestimated based on appearance and gender but has white privilege. How and with whom we feel affinity is very personal and sometimes situational.
I understand that friendship does not always serve as an entry point to breaking down systemic racism. It can define belonging in new ways. Perhaps it is the mindset that leaves us open to empathizing with others or trying to understand a different perspective and work for meaningful change. Perhaps it is the willingness to adopt the stance that we may not have all of the answers or the right to tell others what they need to do. Ultimately, I am anti-racist because I believe my actions matter. There is no either-or way of approaching the work. There are many perspectives coming from people living with many blurred lines. Taking the time to listen to stories from people coming from many contexts with blurred lines is what will result in the will to try to share power and form new understandings. There is no one right answer. There is no one path. There is not one talker and one listener. The work requires reciprocity. If we really want to move beyond tolerance and beyond representation toward belonging, it will require the full participation and engagement from people crossing all kinds of affinity groups in listening, speaking out and taking action towards equity and justice.