Celtic Diva's Blue Oasis: An Occurrence -- by guest blogger, Writing Raven

Sunday, June 08, 2008

An Occurrence -- by guest blogger, Writing Raven

I was downtown this afternoon with a small group of acquaintances, 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.

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.

Writing Raven's blog is Alaska Real


Blogger Ishmael said...

You had men in your group and they did nothing?

6/08/2008 2:11 PM  
Blogger Grimbles said...

While I readily admit to knowing next to nothing about Alaskan Native culture, I would imagine that men would be just as affected by the 'punishment' of public shame. This comes from the perspective of an Anglo, and may be entirely irrelevant, but my understanding (to varying extents) of an array of cultures around the world suggests that losing face is about as bad as it gets for a guy.

Again, maybe not applicable, but the expectation that men should 'defend the honour' of women seems somewhat archaic and not-too-helpful. The only expectation should be defense of a friend, and fellow human being, not defense of a gender by a gender. I've known women who would kick my head in for 'defending' them (my mother included) and men who would rather allow a stranger to shave their head than cause a fuss in public...

6/08/2008 7:23 PM  
Blogger CelticDiva said...

I kinda wondered if the "shame" think applied to both genders as well.

Of the two of us, I'm the fighter as opposed to my husband. He gets protective, as we discovered when we had a recent break-in, and he was body - blocking the guy from coming in the house again when the police arrived.

However, in a situation where there is abusive language directed at my family or friends, I'm the one who'll take a step foreward and get in the guy's face while my daughter and husband are trying to haul me back. Interestingly, if it's directed at me, I just ignore it. I was raised with considerable verbal and physical violence while my husband was raised with none so I guess you can draw some conclusions from that.

6/08/2008 8:05 PM  
Blogger Writing Raven said...

The one man in the group was actually a younger brother of one of the crowd - actually just a teenager. I don't think it was his job to say anything.

From my own perspective, it is the Native women who are leading the way in nearly everything. I do not say this because I think it should be that way, however. I think men, especially, have been beaten back by the sudden (in one generation) inability to provide in the way they know how, to protect against things like missionaries, education systems and disease that were the worst enemies, and their own shame at what things had become, despite the fact that they were supposed to be leading the way. Harold Napolean wrote a remarkable book about it, himself a Native man who became a felon.

Really, it is not so much that I felt we should be defending ourselves to this irate man. But we should have been able to look each other in the face after that.

6/09/2008 12:09 AM  
Blogger Grimbles said...

While entirely the wrong continent, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is an outstanding book, about the affect of colonialism on African culture. The idea of powerlessness and shame are tackled (incredibly sadly), though the main focus is the male pride/shame conflict. I think it's much the same loss that Raven's talking about, the loss of purpose and power.

It probably would hold true for any patriarchal society that the subjugation of said society would hit the men harder - generally speaking - as the traditional 'female' role of carer and nurturer is challenged less by such upheaval than is the 'male' role of protector/warrior.

It occurs to me now, that 'shame' is something that I've seen in many Australian Aboriginals, so perhaps it has more to do with the trampling itself, than the culture that was trampled?

6/09/2008 1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating observations. WR: I noticed this phenomenon in Latin America amongst the Native populations. Though there, the minute they were in the presence of a white person the head was lowered and they wouldn't meet the eye. It is as if centuries of terror made that head bow in the moment.

6/09/2008 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a white man. My wife is Asian, my kids a mix. With them, in downtown San Francisco, a center of ethnic and cultural diversity, we were confronted by another angry white man who yelled, among other things, that I was a "N****r Lover". I didn't then, and I don't now, walk around expecting an attack, loaded with great comebacks and pithy retorts. So you'll understand when I say the shock of the situation definately left me speechless. But, other than shock, all I could think was to get my family away from that guy. I remember we didn't say much about it to the kids (they were so young then) other than something similar to your group's reaction. I didn't make a big deal out of it because I didn't want my wife and kids to think it hurt me to be called that, and I didn't want them to be hurt with a deeper understanding of his meaning. But the shame came on just the same. I knew the hatred of his comments were directed at them more than me. So, I was ashamed that I didn't confront, and ashamed that another person could spew hatred so readilly. With or without the race element, it's shameful even to be in the presence of such a ruined human spirit. But I knew that non-confrontation was the smart move with my family, and I beleive it was with your group as well. More and more these days, that anger is armed.

Other than that, as a fellow human, I apologize for his ignorant hateful spew. In my case, arguing with the guy would only have given him what he wanted: confrontation. I just wish in your case someone else around your group, preferably another white person, could have pointed out that, a) he is more than likely standing in the middle of an old native village, and b) if there is any "going back" to be done, flights to Europe leave on the hour.

6/09/2008 3:12 PM  
Blogger Grimbles said...

"if there is any "going back" to be done, flights to Europe leave on the hour."

That's one of the most amazing things: you have the racist bogans (Aussie version of redneck) complaining that "the Abbos are coming to our country and stealing our jobs". ... Wait, what? "Our" country? Where do you think they're coming from? *facepalm*

6/09/2008 7:38 PM  
Blogger Ishmael said...

It's easy to be intimidated into silence, that's true, and maybe because I'm 6-foot-plus and 250-plus I'm not intimidated easily... I'm Native and I certainly would've loved to have given that jackass something to make him think twice the next time he was in that situation.

I'm not saying outright violence, but rather standing together to intimidate a threat. People like him are cowards and are easily ... well, cowed. Your group - or any group - could take the advice given to those who wander the backcountry and see a bear: stand together as one. All it takes is one of you to take the initiative.

And if that fails, pepper spray works on jackasses just as well as it does on bears.

6/09/2008 10:48 PM  
Blogger Grimbles said...

Bears don't mark your face and beat you up when they next see you alone...

Even being Australian - and thus not so many damned guns - I'd be reticent to do that here. And Diva knows I'm not exactly one to back down from a fight. It is true that many people who take out their anger on others are cowards. But I've seen plenty of people do it just because they're bastards. Because they want to pick a fight.

Generally, people like that are best ignored, or faced with indifference along the lines of "You have a nice day too". Escalating a confrontation like that might cause them to back down, or it might cause you to get shot/stabbed/beaten.

Aside from anything else, the level of ignorance required to be racist means that any 'thinking twice' would not come from a stern talking to: they just don't understand logic. It would take violence - which tends not to be legally excused by 'he was being a dick'. And even if they did run off with tail between legs, it wouldn't stop them being aggressive like that: they'd get pissed, and when thinking twice they'd think 'okay, next time I'll pick on someone more vulnerable.'

Trust me, I understand the urge to punch someone. I may not have been faced with longterm racial prejudice, but I know what prejudice is like, I know how infuriating it is. But getting up in someone's face, punching them, or spraying irritants in their eyes (only two of which I've done), none of those things actually do anything except make you feel better for about 10 seconds, make them angrier and move 'down' a rung on their 'vulnerable people to be picked on' ladder and take out their frustration there.

Schoolyard bullies may sound a really pathetic metaphor for people like this, but its generally how they start out. And many times in my years at school I stood up to bullies. The first time, they tried to fight me. The next time they thought better of it, and later that day beat the crap out of a friend of mine.

6/09/2008 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wanna meet the video store clerk who stumbled upon the Wiseman recording of shooting Alaska Natives with paintballs.

That is how something 'legal' actually happened to the tools who actively shot frozen paintballs at another race.

The video store clerk had the balls to say something about it.

I figure this clerk has some morals that reach far above anything representing typical racist Alaska.

6/10/2008 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Polarbear said...

Writing Raven, you said "Talk about it to those around you, and you only increase the anger and hurt, with nothing left to do about it." In writing, I believe you have done something positive about the incident. I promise I will say something about the incident in my largely Anglo church this Sunday. As that guy left the park, here is hoping he stepped on a two-day old diaper that missed the trash can.

6/10/2008 9:59 PM  

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