Faith Works 8-24-13
Racism from a different perspective
Four days ahead of the 50th anniversary of the "March on Washington", we've got much on which to remember & reflect. It was jarring to hear Rep. John Lewis introduced on an NPR piece yesterday as "the only living speaker from the platform that day," but then I realized that, of course, that's inevitably true. King himself was cut down just a few years later, but time has been catching up with all but the youngest from Aug. 28, 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial.
These last three years in my personal and professional life have given me a new appreciation, somewhat de-coupled from the usual politics and infighting, about racism and anti-racism efforts. Being involved with the Ancient Ohio Trail project, and the Tribal Outreach Project of the Newark Earthworks Center led by Marti Chaatsmith, has given me repeated opportunities to look closely, and uncomfortably often, at racism as it exists towards American Indians. The events and interactions and public reactions have brought out the myriad, complex, and deeply interwoven ways that racism contorts our understanding of each other, of cultures, and of the past . . . let alone the search for justice in the present.
It can be as seemingly simple as what to call Native people: should you use American Indian, or Native American? The correct answer is "it depends," but more importantly, the best answer is to ask "how would you like me to refer to you?" And almost without exception, the answer is "Thank you for asking, and I'd really appreciate it if you referred to me as Eastern Shawnee" or "Please refer to my background as Muscogee Creek" or "I appreciate the question, and you can simply say I am Comanche."
The point being there are over 500 nations, sometimes called tribes, in the United States, and they have from largest to smallest a great deal of pride in their heritage, and an understanding about how that heritage has been damaged over the years. If you think "Indian" is enough, then you also think it makes sense to call Padraig O'Malley "of white descent" or to confuse Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans (which many of us do, thinking somehow refried beans defines them all, which is a whole 'nother conversation). Using a tribal affiliation, and using it correctly, is important: when the Wyandotte Nation's chief is visiting, you make sure that you've spelled it correctly, because there are four other related groups with similar but different names.
And on the most basic level, when you don't get it right, and when we act – dominant culture folk as most readers here are – as if it really doesn't matter, then we're saying in a way that's heard clearly exactly this way, that THEY don't matter. Or even more brutally, "Shut up and take what we give you." If that seems a harsh reaction to misspelling or misusing a name, keep in mind that their ancestors heard, on this land, less than 200 years ago: "Shut up and take what we give you."
To say of any one comment, statement, or act "That's racism" is often difficult, even when all involved are willing to admit that racism is active and involved in what's going on -- yet if you can never say that "this" is racist, then you are left with platitudes, and generalities, and ultimately inaction. There are assumptions and expectations and casual slurs and off-handed denigrations that have to be called out and identified, even as we debate what exactly is "over the line." But as a majority culture representative, I see so clearly how it simply can't be my call, and I've seen again and again how, from the perspective of minority cultures, what's invisible or subtle to me is a clear slap in the face to them . . . and my not seeing it (at first, or at all) is a slap from the other side.
It has been an unexpected challenge to navigate these issues, and an unanticipated value to me as a pastor of being involved in this work, even if my actual involvement has more to do with history and archaeology and resource interpretation. This effort to understand and explain our ancient assets in Licking County has unearthed some unresolved conflicts, and some still-recent injuries. We still don't know where it all is going, but I hope (and pray!) it ends, as Dr. King said, with its long arc bending towards justice.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he's been proud to help tell the stories of our local history to diverse audiences since moving here in 1989. Tell him your story of conflict and resolution at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.