Longing for a Post-Racial Society   Leave a comment

Intersectionality Harms Us All

A Post Racial Society

I grew up against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, but it really didn’t affect me. My parents knew racial discrimination, but thanks to the choices they made, I grew up in a post-racial community.

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Alaska outlawed racial discrimination in 1945. Yes, that’s 20 years before the rest of the country got on board with the idea. Why? Well, because in 1945, the population of the Territory of Alaska was pretty much evenly split between Alaska Native and non-Native and the Natives were getting restless. As part of the first generation of well-educated Native folks, the leaders of the Native rights movement here didn’t wave signs and shout, they didn’t march in the streets, they didn’t threaten their neighbors with physical harm. They simply went to the territorial legislature and talked and convinced the all-white board to outlaw racial discrimination in the whole of the territory. I can’t help but think that a large part of the reason for this was that these were their neighbors that they saw every day on the street and it’s hard to look your neighbor in the eye when you know their lives aren’t what they could be because of an arbitrary law designed to protect bigots.

Two years later, my mother and her first husband moved to Ketchikan, Alaska. A stateside Indian who wasn’t raised on a reservation, Mom quickly noticed that nobody was giving them a hard time about renting a house. Yes, her husband was a white man, but in Seattle, where she’d lived before, they had struggled to find housing. Not much had changed when they moved back south in the 1950s, so in 1956, they moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, and stayed.

Meanwhile, my father and his first wife experienced the same difficulty. Dad, a red-headed second-generation Swede from the Pacific Northwest, married a Creole woman when the Merchant Marine took him to New Orleans. They weren’t out of place in NOLA’s Creole community where interracial marriage wasn’t unusual, so it never occurred to them things would be different if they moved elsewhere. They returned to the Tacoma region because that was his home base and quickly discovered housing and jobs for June were hard to come by. Dad had fallen in love with Alaska when he’d passed along the coast in World War II, and so they moved to Anchorage and experienced a similar lack of racial segregation there. June became a successful business owner and when she retired in the 1990s, the news article relating her half-decade in business mentioned her triracial status without making a big deal out of it. It was her reason for moving to Alaska, not the definition of her life.

Growing Up Nonracial

I grew up in Fairbanks, where about a third of the population was Native. Because my father was white and my mother was stateside Indian, Natives considered me “white”. What did that mean? Not much. I played with a whole range of brownish kids. Because my eyes are blue, I kept people guessing. I comfortably wear a kuspuk (Eskimo summer parka) and eat muktuk (avoid the seal oil and it tastes like really salty bacon) and aqutiq (Eskimo “ice cream” and, it’s better if you don’t want to know what’s in it). We all went to school in the same buildings and we played in each other’s houses. Our parents drank together, played cards together and rooted for the Alaska Gold Panners or Nanooks basketball. My mom, who weighed about 92-pounds, was popular for blanket tosses. Since the whole team was judged by how high they could toss the person on what amounts to a portable trampoline, her lightweight and athletic grace meant she was invited to participate even though she wasn’t “Native”.

The Civil Rights Movement perplexed me because everybody here was “just people.” My mother’s first husband worked for a local car dealership and his boss was a black man. “Great mechanic,” he’d say. “Good supervisor.” And when someone would mention he was black and didn’t that bother him, Roy would shrug and say “Not sure what the color of his skin has to do with how good he is with cars.” I just couldn’t understand why police would go after people of any skin color with water cannons because they were walking down a street. When I heard about lunch counters closed to black people, I happened to be sitting in a cafe where my mom worked and I looked right and left and saw all shades of brownish people. I just didn’t get it. What was the big deal? My mom put her darker arm against my lighter arm and said, “Some people think that matters.” So perplexing! Later I would hear from folks who’d grown up in “the Lower 48” and I met my father’s ex-wife and she told me about the South. I believed that racial discrimination was real, but I still didn’t understand why it existed.

A Brief Interlude

Then the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline started and a whole new type of person came to Alaska. A lot of Texans and Oklahomans, some Louisianans — folks from the Gulf Coast. And for a while, there was turmoil. The federal Civil Rights laws were less than a decade old and some folks from the South still hadn’t let go of their privilege. But in Alaska, you quickly find out that you don’t care what color the man is who is pushing your car out of a ditch at 30 below zero. You’re just glad he stopped to help you. And if you’re a teenager and you make a racist remark in the cafeteria, the dark-haired girl with the blue eyes might speak up for her Native friend and tell you to shut your mouth. So might the red-headed Swedish guy on the construction job. Or the green-eyed brownish woman in the cafe. Racism just didn’t fly here and our new “Alaskans” adapted or they found themselves shut out. You wouldn’t get invited to the card game at someone’s house and your new “white” friend might turn away from you to talk to their Native friend because they considered you rude. Yes, there were racists among us — maybe as they had always been — but they weren’t tolerated, so they kept it to themselves. Maybe they chose not to frequent the cafe where Mom worked because she was Indian or the beauty shop where Ruby worked because she was black, but I think most people quickly learned that it didn’t make any difference and they stopped trying to force the issue.

Encounters with Racism

So, I really didn’t experience racism growing up. Or did I?

I would occasionally visit relatives on my tribal reservation in Oklahoma. Post-Wounded Knee, I heard plenty of people say really mean and mostly untrue things about my father’s people. And they thought I didn’t know what word they used to describe me meant, but I wasn’t uncomfortable with being a “breed” — as indeed most Wyandots technically are. By the way, most American Indians I’ve met outside of Alaska really don’t like black people more than they really don’t like white people.

In high school, I was in a store with a decidedly Alaska Native friend and the black shop owner said she needed to leave, but I could stay. We left and I never went back (cheapest ice in town during the fishing season and I wouldn’t let my husband buy there until after the owner died 30 years after that incident).

As a school paper reporter in high school, I went to the office to cover the story of a school-yard fight and the head of the local NAACP was there shrieking about how this was a racial altercation. I knew the kids involved and it was a fight over a girl. Yes, one of the boys was black and he might have been objecting that his sister was dating a white boy, but it wasn’t a white-on-black attack as the strident community organizer insisted. It was actually the other way around, although both boys said really awful things about the other’s race as they were being pulled apart.

In college, I took a trip through the Southwest US with some friends. We hiked and attended an evangelical college gathering in New Mexico. Outside of the Navaho Nation reservation, a white shopowner kept popping up and asking me if I needed anything. The shop was awash in the afternoon sun so I kept my sunglasses on (hiding my blue eyes). I had a deep-brown tan and my curly dark hair was in a braid. I was also wearing turquoise earrings. I thought she was rude and I chose not to buy anything, but when I got out to the van with my friends, one of the girls asked me how I put up with “that racist nonsense.” I’m sure I looked very intelligent with my mouth hanging open because I’d forgotten I’m Indian because in Alaska it never mattered. My friend was from Washington State where apparently it mattered. She admitted that she’d never thought of me as anything but human until she tried to figure out why the shopkeeper was bugging me, and whoops, maybe it’s because she’s Indian.

We tested the theory on the way back a week later— no sunglasses or turquoise earrings and my hair loose and, by gum, my friend was right. Totally different experience wrought by blue eyes and unruly hair. I still didn’t buy anything because I don’t reward racists — but there were some nice earrings there I would have loved to have bought (more on that in a minute).

In recent years, my husband and I were stopped on the Cherokee Nation reservation for no discernible reason and I watched the Indian cop treat my husband pretty shabbily. When I pulled out my tribal card as identification, suddenly, the encounter became “friendly”. What changed? You can guess, I think!

Racism is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. It’s a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles. It’s a political or social system founded on racial prejudice or discrimination.

Racism is real and no skin color is exempt from its coercive effects. Are there white racists in America? Yes. Are there black racists in America? Yes. Are there Indian racists in America? Yes. Name a race and you’ll find members of that race who discriminate against or actively hate members of another race just because they judge those people by the color of their skin. Are any of them justified in their racism? NO!

Content of your character, not the color of your skin

If you’re looking for a racist behind every bush, racists will be dancing in front of the bushes with flaming torches to attract attention. If you think the broad scope of Americans are not racists, you’ll run across an occasional person who is rude and you’ll think they’re having a bad day.

I’d rather have the second experience. Some of this might come from my Alaska childhood in a mostly post-racial community. Some of it might come from 12 Step work. There are things I can change. There are things I can’t change. I have developed a modicum of wisdom to know I can’t change other people, I can only change myself. I choose not to go through life pissed off because I’m part of some intersectional group that’s been given societal permission to be pissed off. That just seems like such an artificial way to live my life.

I think the northern Trail of Tears was a shitty way to treat my ancestors, but I’m not angry at white people who live now, generations later. THEY didn’t do it. And it wasn’t done to ME. And am I expected to be angry with portions of my own DNA? I’m white AND Native American. How schizophrenic would it be for my Indian DNA to hate my white DNA? Why can’t I just love myself and other people without consulting my tan lines?

I don’t want to try and read the minds of everyone I encounter. I have friends who are white, Indian, Alaska Native, black, Asian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander. I see them in shades of brown. Their skin tone is a handy means of identification, like eye or hair color, or height or weight. I don’t think it has anything to do with who they are as people, although sometimes the different cultures associated with those “races” lead to some interesting conversations. I hope they think of me as Lela, a nice human being who is interested in their culture, and not the intersectional groups I belong to. I prefer to think the shopowner is just annoying, not that she’s worried I’m off the reservation. I would buy the earrings today because I like the earrings and if I suspected the shop owner was a racist, I’d take off my sunglasses and enjoy her floundering in the folly of her bigotry (though that hasn’t actually worked in about 20 years — which should tell us something). I feel more human exercising pride for all my DNA. My white father’s Swedish culture is as precious to me as my grandmother’s Wyandot culture or my grandfather’s Irish culture. I’m a blended Alaskan and I’m comfortable with that.

And, you’d be surprised how much less stressful life is if you don’t see yourself as a member of an aggrieved group so you’re not angry at people you don’t even know for something they don’t even know they’re thinking or doing.

People are just people and we’re all some shade of brown. I almost never encounter racists because I’m not looking for them, so 99% of my encounters with people are civil.

Lela Markham is an Alaska-based novelist and blogger who is interested in a wide range of topics, often from a libertarian perspective. You can reach her at lelamarkham@gmail.com.

Posted February 19, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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