*Disclaimer: One should not read this series, if they have a difficult time understanding the use of “white”, in reference to the institutional structure and that a white person has the privilege to exist as an individual.
Recently I have fought myself living my identity at a heightened state with those closer to me. I am not unfamiliar with defending and protecting my identity with strangers. But increasingly, I have found certain opposition with those I would call friend.
A very significant event, that has affected me deeply, recently occurred in my life. And it was not a petty argument amongst two friends but a substantial situation that spans racial, cultural and a psychological spectrums. I was neglected the opportunity to speak with the other party, in hopes to work through these complexities. In this denial of discussion, I found myself attempting to work through the painful situation on my own. This series is an effort to find resolution. In this series, I am not only trying to come to a healing solution for myself. But to help others, who may find themselves in a similar situation. Maybe they will be given the opportunity, unlike myself, to work through their issues. Maybe this will help start many productive dialogues. Having others learn something from my pain, is the best thing I can receive from this situation.
My Four Friends: Part I
AND HERE WE ARE
In the past few months I have broken ties with four friends. Complete clean breaks. Two of them, were more like acquaintances. I would be lying if I said there absence from my Facebook feed or missing their next birthday bar crawl, actually has any effect on me. They both had common issues, in not understanding that the degrading of a black person, is degrading all black people. Including, the ones they called friends. Unfortunately, their subtle racism goes unaddressed by their other friends. The ones who have the privilege of not being affected by their distasteful speech or views. Their privilege friends are able to write off their behavior as silly, confused or that they are just joking. While their “friends” of color, are left to deal with their harmful rhetoric. Their privilege friends just watch as their troublesome views continue the spread of hate towards PoC. Though they were just acquaintances to me, I felt I needed to break any connection I had with them. For my mental and emotional health. Nothing is healthy about seeing negative rhetoric about you and others like you, constantly. Seeing people’s views on how your unarmed death is your fault, because you should learn how to act like another race. Or how your placement in society has nothing to do with the still existing, institutional structure of racism. There is no such thing as racism, they will say. But also post things letting you know, that they do think people that look like you are just lazy or inherently evil. One gets exhausted with constant judgement and hatred of their existence. Especially from others and groups, who have never even met them. And It is a special dig in the side, when you see or hear these things from people you call friends.
The other two relationships were special ones to me. One was a friend from high school, we were really close as kids and reunited years later by chance; hundreds of miles from our hometown. And then there is the most recent one; my best friend. My partner in crime. The person I held very dearly; the person I was happiest around, the person I loved very much and trusted.
What happened between myself and my liberal best friend? What could happen that would cause us to abandon our friendship? What could my best friend have possibly done? My best friend, who completely acknowledges the existence of white privilege and is an advocate of social justice. Well, we found ourselves in a situation, where I felt my identity was being policed. And with the increase of day to day debates, I have found myself completely drained. With having to defend my existence and those like me. Having to fight and argue for our right to breathe. Which, in turn, has caused me to run out of patience with identity policing. It is hard for people to acknowledge or recognize, that the constant day to day conflicts surrounding your identity can weigh on a person emotionally.
So sadly, to do what would be best for my mental and emotional health, even my best friend required a clean separation. Because I live my life as a person of color and these friendships could not overcome that. Race was the sole destruction of these friendships with four white friends.
THE SORTED DETAILS
While having a few pints with my best friend, I started dealing with this uneducated Facebook troll. He felt free to discuss Native issues without any ties or knowledge of First Nation people. I told my best friend about the ridiculous back and forward I was having with this idiot, while we sat at the bar. When I shared the conversation with her and its content, she informed me that she did not believe I could speak as a Native American. Because I am not, I am only partial, she told me. And in her opinion, people in these interactions were not wanting to speak to me, but instead someone who “lives the Native American lifestyle”. Naturally I was a bit taken back and disturbed by her statement. Trying to keep calm, I asked for her clarification on what exactly the “Native American lifestyle” would actually be or look like. So, we dove into her arbitrary, stereotypical list of what would qualify someone to be Native American. Which unfortunately, turned out to be your typical racist grandma’s checklist.
Mind, I am not a professional in these matters. I am not a paid representative, a politician or a psychiatrist. So I kept my calm as best a normal person could, while having their identity attacked or dissected. Though she expected and also demanded a calmer tone, I did the best I could to sit there and listen to her stating her qualifications to me. Through the living on the Rez qualification, to the having been scalped requirement. She stopped short of requiring residency in a teepee. I tried my best to keep my cool, as this was my best friend. And it seemed in her views, I am not “allowed” to speak on behalf of my heritage; nor it seemed, would many of my friends.
I have always found it interesting, when it comes to my heritage, the only push back or disrespect I receive is from white people. Other Natives or people of color, simply just nod. Or sometimes inquire which tribe, because it’s nice to know who your brothers and sisters are. And then, that’s that. No statements of disbelief, mocking or demands to prove my identity. I even taught on the Rez, near my hometown and was completely accepted. The Cultures teacher actually used me as an example once, to explain to the children different types of Natives. No one asked me for proof and the students completely understood. That was my identity and that was that.
But the most push back Black Natives receive is from the government; the white man. The government has always taken the rights of Black Natives away, sending them adrift in the sea of identity. In many cases, tribes have cut members with African descent from their roll call. This is usually done because the government makes an ultimatum in regards to tribal benefits.
Events like this have left many members of my family without connections to our tribes. Often excluding us from opportunities, like government benefits or even employment. As my father experienced once, having a job offer rescinded on tribal land, because of his inability to produce tribal documents.
And so it is not uncommon for me, or others like me to encounter the “White Person’s List of Native Americaness”. Usually, in most circumstances, that person would have been cursed out already. But being that this was someone I loved. Though she was basically giving me her requirements, of the things it would take to earn her respect of my identity. I still wanted to give her a chance to work through this mishap of unfortunate cultural disrespect and her overstep of white privilege.
Though her tone became more passionate as I continued to reject one stereotype requirement after another, she continued to demand that my tone stay calm and soothing. But when it came to the point, when she basically asked for my papers, I felt the sharpest knife dig into my chest. “Can you even claim it on your taxes?” she said, with the most disdain for my existence. I took a deep breath, swallowed the disrespect, the tears, the fire fueled by the insult and did my best to answer with the briefest history of the disowned and dejected black American Indian. To which she replied with anger, in the fact that I did not speak to her in the manner that she approved of. My inability to swallow the unintended bigotry and speak with a sweet tone through my belittled existence was not suitable for her. So she replied, in a chastising manner; moving in close, digits pressed into the table. “See, this is why no one can talk to you about this stuff! And we will never talk about it again!”
It took all of me not to raise my voice, though she had accused me of doing so. In that moment, she became every white authority that ever tried to silence or police my existence. She was no longer my friend but just this representative of the institutional system, I had been raging against since my awareness of my otherness. I could not look at her, I could not speak any longer, I could not hold in the pain; the anger. It took all I had to stand up from the table, thank her for the drink and walk out of that bar.
I come from centuries of people that lived in a world that wanted them dead. As an inconvenience to the great white dream or as a tool to substantial wealth. I come from people who looked their circumstances in the face and said, no, I will survive this. Their spirit of resistance, of determination in the face of utter hatred; is the very reason I am here today. And both tribes, on each side of my family, walked that trail westward and refused to die. They made it, so that I could make it. And even though they walked along side their brothers and sisters, the government said that they could not claim them as their people.
But we have that photo, of my great great aunt. That photo, one of the very few pieces our family has of our history. It shows my great great great grandmother, when she reached the tribe’s forced destination. And in that worn image is her face. Her face; that sign of strength in desperation, it is burned in my memory. And though the government will not take that photo as documentation or the power of my cheek bones or the strength inherited in my face; as proof. I would have hoped that my best friend, would have at least taken my word.
And this is what fueled my fury as I rode my Vespa from that bar. I could just see my aunt’s face and all that pain tighten my lips and fists more and more, as I drove. I was in such a state, it took a few miles until I realized I needed to pull over and put my helmet on.
Once I reached my destination, I called my mother. I roared and cried. I was in shock, I was hurt. I didn’t know what to do or why it even happened. Why my best friend thought I deserved this treatment. I told my mother I did not think I could speak to my best friend ever again. I did not know what to say, she had disrespected me, my family, my friends; all native people. She showed know restraint, no remorse for subjecting me to her racist verbal diarrhea. I did not know how to move forward, I did not know what to say to my best friend, if we ever spoke again.
My mother calmed me and agreed the situation was distasteful. She agreed the statements were absurd but she said she was not surprised. My mother informed me she knew it was coming. My mother loved my best friend, for being such a great friend to me. But unfortunately, my mother who has lived through much more extreme racial trauma could see the signs. To my mother signs were showing a racial fallout to be inevitable.