Privilege before Breakfast

The sun tricked me awake this morning.

I began opening my eyes because all of this light was streaming into my room and I could have sworn I saw blue sky through the slats of my blinds. An hour later, after checking emails, responding to ongoing Facebook conversations, and dealing with a hefty dose of white privilege (and I haven’t even had my breakfast yet) the sky outside is slate gray.

What happened?

I’m beginning to think that blue sky was an illusion to get me out of bed and into writing. Nicely played, universe. Now I wait for the rain and fiddle with words.

I am tired of non-Native people asking for advice from Native people and ignoring it. Asking for our opinions on issues that directly impact our lives on a daily basis then discounting our voices, our experiences, and what we know in our bodies to be true. I am tired of watching non-Native people stroke their egos on the backs of the indigenous.

I have been involved in an online dialogue in which a white woman writer has asked for the advice of Native American/First Nations writers on her manuscript – a historical novel about a 19th century man struggling with his identity as a person of both white and Indian heritage. Several Native writers, myself included, have responded with honest, mostly kind, sometimes harsh, but always real feedback. There have been concerns about her title, concerns about stereotyping, concerns about appropriation, concerns about language and history, concerns about a white person writing about a culture foreign to her own. To her credit, the author is kind in her responses and does not seem to be taking the criticism personally. However, she is having trouble hearing what  her Native critics are saying.

She is very quick to defend her choices rather than receive our feedback. She says she chose the title because. She says she writes about our culture because. She says she has an Indian friend, she likes our connection to the earth, she wants our opinion, she is grateful for our opinion. But, she can’t hear it.

Someone told her this conversation is not only about race. I agree. This conversation is about privilege.

We all have it. There are days when I sit in my two-bedroom apartment sick with worry because I don’t have enough money for groceries. I complain about how little I have, about how difficult life seems to have become. My heart gets heavy with lack. Then, I open my eyes and look around. My rent is paid. My bills are paid. I have a roof over my head. I am enrolled and almost finished with graduate school. I have TWO bedrooms. Not one. TWO. And that second room is for books and a meditation cushion. This is privilege. And I have to remind my ego that I have plenty. I have more than plenty. I am swimming in a wealth of abundance.

The white woman writer said, “I don’t know what I do that makes me continually face rejection. If I could figure it out, I’d fix it.” Oh, my well-meaning new friend, it is privilege. You are blind to your own privilege. You think it is acceptable to write from the perspective of a people you have only discovered through the writings of other people of privilege. If you want to write about Native people, then come down here with us. Come down here and listen to our stories. Take them into your body. And sit with them for a good long while. Let them cook inside of you until you understand our pain and it is more than you can bear. And even when it is more than you can bear keep listening, keep sitting, keep cooking.

It is frightening to see our own privilege. But, it is better to strike away the illusion. When I finally looked out my window this morning, I saw the illusion of sun for what it really was: snow. And it was beautiful.

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5 thoughts on “Privilege before Breakfast

  1. Pingback: Hope « Pen, Paper, Prayer

  2. Thank you for this post. Very well said.

    I sat on a panel last year made up of authors who write mysteries with Native American characters. There were five panelists. I was the only Native person on the panel.

    I was surprised how hard it was for others to understand that there is a major difference in writing “about” Native characters and writing “from” a Native perspective. I finally made some headway when I explained that if an Indian had written Dances With Wolves, the Indians wouldn’t have had to depend on the non-Indian Army guy to find the herd of buffalo. Everyone laughed, but they got it.

    I agree with all that you said. You write beautifully. Bravo.

  3. How frustrating. But thank you for answering her. Nice balance you manage to maintain.

    Interesting little UU tidbit — related — well you decide if it’s related. I am doing some teaching at church with the kids. the lesson this week is Unitarian Universalists who live in the Khasi Hills in India. It is that corner of India that is up and over Bangladesh. It’s so interesting, they are tribal and were not Hindu’s or Buddhists — their original religion was a belief in God, just God, in everything. Their founder, Harum Kissor Singh, converted to Welsh Calvinism and then rejected it because of Hellfire, sin and its punishing aspects. He somehow found out about Unitarianism and started corresponding with Unitarians.

    They are pretty amazing. Very God infused, unlike their Western counterparts. Very, very, very poor. But they are still around and still UU.

    But I was kinda ticked because the lesson is based on a white lady from England who worked with them in the 20’s. She is a cool lady, met Ghandi, was pretty indomitable, and all that, but … well, aren’t they interesting enough on their own!

  4. Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!! LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. You are such an amazing writer – so many phrases so well-said – but also so heartfelt and deeply powerful.

    You said: “Let them cook inside of you until you understand our pain and it is more than you can bear…” and I thought of the times we have sat together, you and I, and tenderly held stories for one another.

    Story requires truth and truth requires belief and belief requires respect. A story – but especially someone else’s story – isn’t a new pair of shoes you can slip on for a party. A story is a sacred living body.

    I think well-meaning white people who want to write about Native people can tell their OWN story – find out which well-meaning missionary ancestors live in their family tree. Write about what their family did and what they, the writer, are doing now to make it right. Those are the stories we need.

    I think the truth is that I can’t understand your pain, not really. I can offer you my heart, the conviction and commitment of my body and my pen to listen. I can own the guilt and shame and deep grief I feel that my ancestors have committed genocide. I can own the weight of responsibility for the crimes my people continue to commit. And I can draw connections between being a survivor of other forms of oppression — sexual violence and homophobia — but I will never know what it is like to be an Indian. And that is EXACTLY why and how I need to listen. Because I will never know.

    I have been thinking more and more that what white people need to do is be quiet for a while. It is tricky because we don’t want those who don’t get it to win. But there is also a spiritual part of this – I’ve glimpsed this – that happens when I hold back, when I tell my white ancestors to hush for a moment, step back, make room.

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