Friday, December 2, 2016

A little bit racey - Standing Rock Edition

Two anecdotes to start off this blog - just so we're all drawing from the same Runs Through family cannon.

I was flipping through Netflix looking for a show to watch when I paused on "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness." I'm an old movie buff, and I love Ingrid Bergman.

"What about this one," I said.

My youngest replied, "It looks a bit racey."

"At bit racey, with Ingrid Bergman?" I said, "Never."

"Look, at the hat she's wearing."

"Wait a minute." I looked at my tweenager, "What does 'racey' mean to you?"

I grew up in Montana in a family with seven children. I have a sister who is twelve years older than me. She was away at college and married by the time I was eight. But I have a distinct memory of her living at home. I remember the family sitting around the dinner table (something families did in the 1970's). As my sister talked about her school day, she told a story of her English teacher explaining racism.

"How many of you would date a black person?" The entire class raised their hands.

"How many of you would date an Indian?" My sister's hand was the only one in the air.

I hate to explain a punchline, suffice it to say, racism isn't about the unknown. It's about the perceived known.


Twenty-five years ago I lived in Minot, North Dakota. I liked it. Minot has a zoo near a wonderful park. I remember pushing my first child in a stroller through that park and through that zoo and loving it. I also have memories of North Dakota being a little bit racey.

Example 1: My in-laws came to visit. We went to the KFC. Each of us stepped up in line to place our order. The order was then repeated back to me - which I found odd. When my then-husband placed his order, he ordered two Pepsi's (this was back before bottom-less cups). The clerk repeated his order back to me as 1 Pepsi. Hubby repeated 2 Pepsi's, Clerk repeated back to me 1 Pepsi. This cycle continued until I finally said, "He wants two pepsi's. He'll pay for two pepsi's. Can you give him two pepsi's???" As the only white person in the group, was I really just assigned the role of translator/babysitter?

Example 2: My husband was the Sunday School teacher for a bunch of teenagers. He studied hard each week to give thought-provoking lessons. He would often bring reference books in with him in case anyone had questions deeper than presented in the lessons.

One day a student said to him, "Why do you bring in so many books. Is it 'cause you're proud you can read?"

Another followed up with, "Do Indians have to go to a special school to learn how to read?"

The rest of the class soon followed suit.

Needless to say, when this event reached the ears of the parents, I received a handful apologetic phone calls (ie. I got the calls, not my husband). Remarkably each mother said virtually the same thing, "I heard what happened in class. I am so sorry your husband had to go through this. My understanding is that my child wasn't involved."

Example 3 (The punchline): I finished my Bachelor's degree in Minot and was licensed as a teacher. Shortly thereafter I was hired as a substitute teacher. Once I was assigned an English class where they were studying Huckleberry Finn. I walked into the class and observed the students being unkind to one another. The class had segregated itself into townies and air force brats. The most pronounced aggression was toward an air force child who spoke with a southern accent. I caught the class's attention and told them how excited I was to teach Huckleberry Finn.

"It's one of my all-time favorite books. It deals with themes of humanity and racism."

"Whoa, stop right there." The class was not having any of that. "Why do we have to learn about racism? There's no racism in North Dakota."

"Ah, correction," I said, "There are virtually no black people in North Dakota, there's plenty of racism."


Now, you may think I bring all of this up to point a finger at North Dakota. Not at all.  Each of these events was a learning experience, for me and for the others involved. Our eyes were opened to the judgments all around us and how these judgments influence our thinking.

Once when I was studying the Leonard Peltier case, I came across a wonderful story. The Peltier case was the first high profile case to use jury profiling. The lawyer writing the questions for the jury pool would listen while the lead attorney asked her questions and then she would slip him additional questions as needed. 

The question was, "Have you had any positive interactions with Indian people in this area."

The potential juror said, "Sure." She proceeded to tell a story of how she grew up on a farm. Once during a blizzard, a Native American family knocked on their door and told them their car had broken down. The juror's father allowed the Native family to spend the evening in the barn."

The lawyer writing the questions quickly wrote, "If it had been a white family, where would they have stayed?"

The potential juror was dismissed. But here is the ringer. The question writing attorney was unhappy that the potential juror was dismissed. That conversation had opened the juror's eyes and she was now ready to listen to Leonard Peltier as a human rather than a stereotype.


None of us are born racist. We develop prejudices through our life experiences and we can just as easily dispel our racist ideologies.

Right now there is a backlash against political correctness. "PC has gone too far! Why can't Native Americans just see that team mascots honor them? Why do all these crybaby millennials get offended so easily?"

Political correctness is this century's manners. It is how we help ourselves be aware of those around us. It is how we open our eyes to kindness and humanity.

At Standing Rock our indigenous brothers and sisters are finding their voice. #invisiblenomore 
Let's pray we are #readytolisten

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