Privilege Before Breakfast, Part 2

Today there is no snow. There is no sun. Only that Oregon slate gray. And rain.

The conversation that began yesterday and for which I had some hope would end with revelations and learning, has ended (as too many conversations of this nature do) with racism and ugliness. The white woman writer was told repeatedly, by numerous Native writers, that the title of her manuscript contains a term (“half-breed”) which sounds to Indian ears much the way the “N” word sounds to Black ears. As fellow writer, Carmen Lane, said to me, all of these ugly words are “spoken from the same mouth.” “Half-breed” resounds in Native bodies with a heavy thud and the cracking of bones. The white woman writer came to her own defense again, saying, “A half-breed is half-white and that gives me the right.” And with that statement, my hope that she might learn something from the conversation left my body in a puff of air much the way a balloon shrivels to the floor.

Sometimes it feels hopeless, this work to educate people about other cultures. This work of waking up to privilege, this work of waking up to racism, this work of waking up to non-revisionist history and all the pain, guilt, and shame that come with it. I worry about how long it will take to find the ground of understanding and compassion. I wonder how long it will take before people stop talking and start listening.

I stepped back from the thread of this painful conversation to see what was happening around it. Someone asked us to stop giving away our thoughts to this woman and share what we were writing. A new conversation began. Indigenous people sharing with each other the joy of their own work. Work that has emerged from lifetimes and generations of listening. Work that is steeped in pain, struggle, healing, and hope. Work that soothes the souls of the worn-out. Work that inspires the hearts of the exhausted. Work that encourages us to keep going.

I read the poem, “Alphabet” by Native writer and educator Deborah Miranda. And the breath came back to my body. I thanked her for her poem. I told her it is an example of story as healing. She said, “I believe Leslie Silko is right: there is nothing more powerful than story, nothing, and however we have to frame it, whatever alphabet or language, story is what saves us.”

Yes! This is story as medicine. There are words that hurt us and words that save us. Be careful that your words are of the saving kind.

I look out my window again at the gray, gray, gray and the wet, wet, wet and I remember the day I complained to one of my Buddhist teachers about the rain. He said, “Look at the space between the raindrops.” There is much more space than rain.

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