Racism and Protests

In this post I want to talk about the strong emotions that fuel the protests currently going on in the States and in parts of Canada. I’ve been struggling and I’ve desperately needed an outlet for thoughts I’ve had on this topic and how it relates to personal experiences.

Recently I’ve had a couple of pretty big failures, like many of us do. There’s a reason why I appreciate what Brené Brown says, especially about vulnerability. She says that when we put ourselves out there, we are guaranteed to have our asses kicked. When we share something we’ve created with the world or with colleagues or family, we are putting ourselves in a risky situation because we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of rejection, hate, or to be pointed out where we’ve err’d or came up short. When this happens, the painful emotions that are associated with feeling unworthy or not good enough can spur, especially if you’re Black or Indigenous.

There’s a lot of causes that create this feeling for Black and Indigenous folks, and I can’t speak for Black folks but we do share a lot of commonalities in the racist systems that we live under in Turtle Island, very much due to the fact that both groups have experienced historical trauma from colonization. My research has focused on Indigenous folks, so that’s where I’ll speak from.

I remember when I was a child. My father would shame me, he would call me down, he would make me feel unworthy and not good enough. This effected me because once I got older, I realized that my immediate assumption, when I made a mistake, was that I was unworthy and not good enough. That emotion of shame is a key piece to my research. When you’re treated like a dog, your dignity and humanity is stripped from you. When I was shamed as a child, I felt shame and powerlessness. When you’re in that state, the research says you have two options: withdraw… or fight back.

Fighting Back

We shame dogs to get them to be good, not humans, and Indigenous and Black folks in this continent have been treated like dogs. For many Indigenous families, shame is the language we know because that’s how English was taught to us, in a manner that put us down constantly, and so we unwittingly pass that trauma onto our children. When a people have been treated in such a way, in a way that tells us that we’re less than, or unworthy (which is the core message of racism), that shame and powerlessness creates an anger.

When you’re assaulted, many folks will feel the same way. It’s not the assault that created the trauma, it’s the shame that created the trauma. Victims will tend to feel angry, at themselves, and at the person who harmed them. Wishing to find blame.

What we know from the research is that shame is a painful, painful emotion. When we feel unworthy, when we question the worth of our self, the pain can be devastating. This is, in my opinion, why it’s so hard for white folks to understand the pain in our communities. You don’t have to face a society that constantly questions the worth of your self, of your soul, of your very existence, and you don’t feel the painful emotions that come along with those experiences.

Recently I had a couple of big failures. I immediately questioned the worth of my self, because, again, as an Indigenous person it’s what I’m used to feeling, it’s what my society has wanted me to feel since the start of colonization. I felt all the emotions associated with shame. Dis-empowerment. Anger. I immediately wanted to either withdraw or fight back, but as any Indigenous person can tell you, when it comes to the feeling of shame, “you can run but you can’t hide.” So we fight.

The Protests: Blaming or Daring Greatly?

The fighting back option is a function of blaming. So when I first started thinking about protests in my early years with the context of my research and understanding, I thought: “Are we just blaming society without actually taking accountability for our own lives?” And you hear this argument from the other side often. You hear things like “You just gotta act this way and you won’t get killed or harassed by police,” or “if your people weren’t so lazy/bad, then you wouldn’t have the problems you have right now.” As an Indigenous person working in academia, I thought, damn… maybe we are wrong.

…Or maybe that’s just my predisposition of feeling shame in a society that thinks less of me. On that note, I immediately thought this needs to be flipped the other way.

So today my key message is this: we’re not blaming society because of our own mistakes, because of our own shortcomings. In fact, this isn’t a shame response as a result of doing something wrong, or of failing. The current protests and other recent protests are a “We’re tired of feeling fucking worthless and so we’re going to burn everything to the fucking ground” response.

In fact, the Black and Indigenous folks who protest are a people daring greatly. Brené Brown uses the term “Daring Greatly” because she says that, when we’re open and vulnerable with the world, we might know the feelings of high achievement, but that, if we fail, at least we fail while daring greatly because putting ourselves out there is part of living, of thriving, opposed from just existing. It’s a quote from Theodore Roosevelt called “The Man in the Arena” quote where he suggests that putting ourselves out there is the difference between living and simply just existing, and that the credit belongs to those who are putting themselves out there, not the critics. Early colonizers seen Indigenous and Black folks as people who shouldn’t be living, and that if we were to live, we should be useful or we should be dead. And because of that, Indigenous and Black folks have had to simply exist because we weren’t allowed to dare greatly. That was a thing for the white man, not for us.

Now anytime we attempt to dare greatly in our lives, we are taking on a society that actively pushes us down, using racism with shame as its cleaver to stop us in our tracks.

Almost every generation since colonization has had to be vulnerable, to put ourselves at risk through protest and riots in order to look the colonizer and the colonizer society in its eyes and say:

Our lives matter. We won’t be idle anymore. We are worthy. We deserve to live and not just exist.

Closing Notes

As I’m dealing with my own stuff, my own failures, I continuously remind myself that I am daring greatly. I never do anything small because I want to live my life to the fullest. I went through multiple surgeries in my life, I almost died in one of them, I’ve gone through abuse, trauma, racism, abandonment. I’ve gone through so many situations in my life that have cemented the thoughts of “I’m not good enough” into me. Now, I’m healing, like many Indigenous folks are today.

I’ve worked and lived in mostly a non-Indigenous atmosphere and it’s truly exhausting because of the reasons I’ve shared in this post. I was talking to a friend recently and she told me she understood, that having to work in an environment that doesn’t have many Indigenous folks can be challenging and lonely. I guess I’ve gotten used to it, or at least I’ve gotten used to the struggle.

I wish I had a better message to leave on but, as the protests continue, life is still challenging for folks like me, and that’s the urgency that protests brings attention to. That’s why we demand change and representation.

Because it matters.

The Indigenous Vote: Misunderstood

I’ve had time to talk with other indigenous people as well as do a bit of personal reflection and I think I know where I stand regarding federal politics as an Indigenous person. There’s a large section of the Indigenous community that’s ignored or not taken seriously because we don’t represent a fantasy of what Indigenous people should be like. In the “Inconvenient Indian” Thomas King talked about the dead indian, he says “they are the stereotypes and clichés….” We put on regalia, do grounding ceremonies and THAT is what society is okay with. The suicides, addictions and apathy to social and political correctness are less appealing, and not just to white folks but to other minorities as well.

I’ll make you even more uncomfortable. Because of poverty and historical trauma Indigenous people just don’t care about big election topics like immigration, climate change, middle class commodities (buying houses, child care, etc.) and taxes. We just aren’t the indians you want us to be, the kind that are tree huggers and are vehemently against capitalism and modernity. Those folks exist, but I’m certainly not one of them.

“What do you people want, then?” That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for a while. The more desperate nations in Canada, first and foremost, need clean water, food and access to medicine. For the rest of us, we need cultural change. The old ways and the white ways aren’t helping us. Plain and simple. In fact, learning about the old ways is just as much of a privilege as it is to access the white ways (employment, etc.), and both aren’t helpful. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of utility in Indigenous ways of knowing, but it has as much utility as old western philosophy (such as philosophies on perseverance like stoicism, or Blackfoot values around prayer and spirituality) — both of which can be useful when traversing structural racism and trauma, but they aren’t going to be a game changer, they’re simply ways of adapting to the game that’s already in play. What my people want is a game changer so that we can join society and at the same time learn our traditional ways of knowing (which is, again, a privilege).

What does this game changer look like? Well we need to address two things: Historical Trauma and poverty. I’ve talked a lot about historical trauma, check out my blog entry titled Suffering and Resiliency as well as my first blog post if you want to hear my take on this.

Poverty and Structural Racism

My definition on structural racism focuses on racial exclusion from the labour market. It can be a boring topic so I’ll summarize it here: Basically people of colour have a hard time finding jobs because white folks will tend to hire other white folks. This is the same with people of colour though: south Asian folks will likely hire other south Asian folks, and so on. It has more to do with trust than hatred, but that’s beside the point. Natives aren’t getting hired even in low skilled jobs because of their race, which is, by definition, racism (and structurally so).

And because of the trauma, natives aren’t completing education in order to increase their skills. This is horrible in this time period because most jobs require education, this is called “Skill-biased technological change” in economics, which means the labour force will only hire skilled workers opposed from unskilled workers. Looping back to the previous paragraph, less skilled workers leads to less opportunities for Indigenous to hire Indigenous.

Outcome: Natives are stuck using social assistance.

Economic theory by Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart suggests that if a nation is struggling with poverty and scarcity, their value orientation will be set to survival mode opposed from self expression mode. Survival mode is when you care less about working with people and more about, well, survival. Self expression mode is when you have the privilege to worry about things that aren’t rooted in survival and scarcity.

In conclusion, natives don’t care about being politically correct, we don’t care about housing costs and child care because we can’t afford it regardless, we don’t care about taxes because in our progressive tax system we’re likely low income and don’t pay as much in taxes, and we don’t care about pipelines — in fact we kind of like them because they’ll hire us.

How I feel about pipelines is perhaps a topic for another blog entry but I am for fighting climate change, but through international cooperation policy and carbon taxes.

Anyways, if you’re an Indigenous person who feels this way, don’t feel bad or shamed about it. Do what you need to do to bring food to your family’s table and to be able to live the life you want to live.

My Political Stance

So where do I stand on federal politics? Well, just like I told Trudeau on CBC, federal leaders have the wrong idea when it comes to Indigenous issues, and perhaps that has to do with the fact that Indigenous people don’t have a voice in parliament (another form of structural racism). We’re always out voted by the conservative farmers that we’re surrounded by, atleast where I’m from. I just don’t feel like our real perspective is being recognized in federal politics, only the dead indian perspective that others want to see.

Maybe it’s also the fault of our advocates. My one issue is with activists lately. Many are pretty radical and are therefore misinformed and harmful to the Indigenous community (even many Indigenous activists). I think our civil rights predecessors did a great job at deconstructing the system for our entry; Our job is to work towards rebuilding a system that is equitable while we have these windows of opportunity. Equity that helps boost Indigenous voices in parliament or opportunities that allow for Indigenous to hire Indigenous, things like this will help shift the culture of survival to a more optimistic and empowered one.

The Current Approach to Social Justice is Harming our Cause

I’ve been thinking about how social justice is approached by many of my colleagues and folks I look up to. This last year I’ve done a lot of work into how people respond to criticism and social transgressions and I can’t help but think we’re approaching social justice wrong to an extent that we might be harming our cause and our communities (at least in the context of pedagogy).

Today I’ll talk about how we need to understand human nature when addressing structural discrimination and those that perpetuate it (whether knowingly or not).

Changing or Harming?

Researchers June Price Tangney and Rhonda Dearing wrote a book called “Shame and Guilt”, a book I have heavily relied on in terms of examining sociocultural issues on Indigenous communities. While exploring this literature I realized that this knowledge could also be applied to issues in Social Justice. In a nutshell, the book talks about how shame and guilt are distinct emotions but are emotions that can occur in similar situations, particularly situations where there is criticism or social transgression. Anything socially related where a person is being corrected can cause one of these emotions to arise. The book emphasizes how guilt emphasizes the “Made” word in “I made a mistake”, and that shame emphasizes the “I” in “I made a mistake.” Guilt is a focus on behaviour (made=the behaviour of doing something), and shame is a focus on self (I=a personal pronoun, the self). If the person being criticized views the criticism as a reflection of self “I made a mistake, I’m the problem” opposed from viewing the criticism as a reflection of behaviour “I made a mistake, that was not appropriate behaviour”, the outcome will be defensiveness.

Brené Brown explains this very well in her TED Talk “Listening to Shame” where she says that shame is “I’m not good enough” or anything “I’m not ____ enough” (fill in the blank). Shame is a painful emotion and brings up the fight or flight response, but guilt is an uncomfortable emotion but not painful and much more adaptable for behavioural change. It makes sense if you think about it, if I think you’re telling me that I’m a bad person I’m going to get defensive or find someone to blame, or simply withdraw. My behaviour can change, I as a person cannot — and we’re not differentiating the difference between person and behaviour enough. I know many folks in anti racism who think that if you do racist things, you are a racist, and therefore you are no good and should be outcasted.

How do we improve our society with this paradigm? We don’t. We’re not considering human nature and therefore we are harming our cause and our communities.

Social justice is filled with social rules and expectations that are overwhelming in an increasingly diverse western world. I’m not advocating that we give up or that we need to be softer and gentler with the racist systems and structures that we live under, but we ultimately need to understand shame and how it makes people defensive and has, as Brené Brown puts it, an inverse relationship with accountability (i.e. people who feel shamed, or feel their self is under attack, will be unlikely to take accountability for their actions and will either find someone to blame, withdraw, or fight back, and in the end, no change has occurred).

We often call this “White fragility” because people who react defensively, cry or withdraw are upholding the racist institutions that they benefit from because no change happens when they take on those reactions. This is true, but what’s also true is what I’ve talked about so far, that shaming people will create this reaction to begin with.

So what, are we in a catch 22? This is where I’m open to debate and where I’m constantly thinking about what our next steps should be as activists.

My concern didn’t arise only by considering white, binary cis and/or hetero folks, my concern for our approach to social justice arose when I seen how marginalized people shame other marginalized people or members of their own group. This shit happens in our own community under the guise that we’re holding each other accountable, but if you’ll remember what I said about shame and accountability, they don’t usually go together. Shame is the least effective means of holding each other accountable.

So how do we approach things with a guilt approach? Is there a way? Some researchers say people are guilt-prone or shame-prone and will react with that emotion regardless, as long as the person transgressed socially (i.e. made a mistake, did a taboo or insulted), and that it depends highly on their upbringing as children. If this is strict, then I would say our approach doesn’t matter and that we are in a catch 22 where our communities will continue to fight, create conflict, and one side will prevail and others will have to submit in what is, for all intents and purposes, a culture war of the 21st century.

Maybe there is no answer but I think, at the very least, activists need to understand the difference between the person and their behaviour. Humans can be bad, they can be good, but it depends on what they’ve done, what their behaviour has been. If we focus on how the person is no good, whether we know it or not, we are dehumanizing that person or their social group which is exactly what happened to us by the folks who marginalized us in the very beginning (white folks to POC, men to women, etc.). How dare we talk about social justice when we can so easily dehumanize another person? Didn’t our ancestors fight to have us humanized so that we could live the lives we currently have today? Would they be proud that we began to do to others what they had done to them by their oppressors?

In Indigenous languages there are no bad people, there is only the consequences to bad behaviour that affect the community. We have much to learn from how Indigenous nations corrected behaviour and how English has strayed us afar from human nature.

Suffering and Resiliency

I do a lot of research into Indigenous issues, particularly around how Indigenous people can begin to decolonize their minds from colonial violence. I don’t claim to be a psychological expert or anything like that, however I do have my own lived experience and education that has helped me uncover truths about the Indigenous condition, or at least for some of us.

In my experiences there have been resilient people who can create and be vulnerable without fear because they know in the end that, even through rejection and betrayal, they will be fine in the end. These folks tend to go far in life. Then there are less resilient people who can create and be vulnerable, but not without fear and struggle. These folks struggle with vulnerability but learn how to adapt, they remain curious about their own psychology, and never lose hope that one day they will succeed. Then there are folks that cannot create nor handle being vulnerable because life has given them reasons not to, or have learned not to trust in themselves or anyone else because the world they were born into has always been a world where personal shields and a metal heart has meant survival.

I don’t blame these folks.

I identify as somewhere in the middle, and it truly is a spectrum. Recently I fell into a hole in which I had to consider whether or not I would choose the path of a metal heart and hate, or the path where I honor the struggle and find resiliency. In other words, I faced adversity and how I managed that adversity would determine how I would continue on. Fear is a painful emotion, and how we manage that pain is how we become less resilient or more resilient (and it’s okay if you disagree with me).

Sometimes we think that if only we were enough in certain areas (money, appearance, status) then maybe, just MAYBE we’d be enough and we wouldn’t be suffering in the way we currently are. This has been my last couple of weeks, particularly around being triggered on abandonment and unworthiness from sci-fi books my English professor assigned to the class, and then subsequent life events continued me on a spiral of unworthiness and fear. To stay in that mindset of “If only I had… then maybe I’d be good enough or have enough” is to exasperate your pain and fear, because even if we had all of those things we’d still find a reason to be miserable because our resiliency would be low. The rich, the beautiful and the popular all struggle if they stay in that mindset and refuse to build resiliency.
For me, I have considered resiliency to be two paths, and they often work in tandem or separately, depending on what you need, and most importantly they’re a practice rather than a quick fix. Those things are Self Compassion and Empathy.

Dr. Kristin Neff was the researcher who studied self compassion and identified three components: self kindness (how you’d talk to a friend, but to yourself), mindfulness (recognizing the pain), and common humanity (recognizing that pain is part of the human experience). Read more here.

Dr. Brenè Brown was the researcher who studied empathy and identified four ways of developing resiliency over the “I’m not good enough” thoughts (i.e. shame, or the belief or experience that we’re not worthy of acceptance and belonging): Acknowledging personal vulnerability (the stories or triggers that made you feel not worthy, or, literally, “open to attack”), critical awareness (what cultural or environmental conditions reinforce your perception of your worthiness? e.g. what our culture says about body weight, or masculinity, or maybe it was personal trauma in your environment), reaching out (receiving empathy from another person, someone who can feel with you, or better yet, to say “me too”), and “speaking shame” (knowing the difference between shame and other emotions and expressing it appropriately). A great video that explains this.

For me it has been easier said than done, because it truly is a practice. Since I was a child I always believed I wasn’t good enough because I was queer and a God fearing christian (I still am a Christian… and, surprise surprise, a queer). I’m neither so resilient that vulnerability isn’t so tormenting, nor so non-resilient that I must numb every pain and vulnerability I experience.

Again, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, we can’t be happy unless we learn to be kinder to ourselves, and although that sounds cliche, it’s one of the deepest truths about the pursuit of happiness — not money, status or appearance. Life is difficult, or life is suffering as the Buddha said it, but it’s our job to find meaning and purpose even in the darkest of times otherwise life will do us in; it’s a force of nature, not a fairy godmother, and it waits for no one.

“A Leap of Faith”; Impressions on Spirituality and Self Harm

When threat is present in ones life chronically, you have a couple options: catalyst change, self harm/suicide… or have faith. One of my favorite videos on YouTube by The School of Life is a video on this philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard. The British narrator explains Soren’s life in a very elegant way, explaining someone who reminds me much of myself, someone who struggles with life and its many contradictions. Ultimately the video ends with Soren suggesting faith as an answer to dealing with the anxieties that comes with being human.

I really enjoyed that message because it let me understand something significant about myself and perhaps about human nature as well. There’s growing research on human threat and its relationship to human happiness and wellbeing. It suggests that there are three types of threats that humans can experience; interpersonal (like relationship problems), economic (like recessions or job loss) and existential (literal threat for your life). Maslow refined his research on his Hierarchy of Needs from the Blackfoot People, and his theory suggests (in a nutshell) that by fulfilling your most basic needs, such as water and shelter, you then go to another set of needs like safety… then relationships, then esteem, and then finally “self actualization”. Combining this with the “three human threats”, I believe that it’s the same mechanism.

1938 Taken while the Hanks and Maslow were conducting anthropological research on the Siksika reserve

This mechanism is also called “aspiration adjustment” in other literature. I believe that if you’re experiencing threats that are life threatening, then your economic or interpersonal threats will not matter. Rationally, acquiring “food and shelter” is to help avoid death. When you are not longer at threat of your life, then your next set of needs (according to Maslow) would be safety, and obviously your economic situation is a large factor in determining your safety and autonomy. If you’re not in economic threat, then I believe you are more conscious and aware of relational based needs, like relationships with family, peers and partners, which is what Maslow suggests. This need to fulfil relational needs is to avoid interpersonal threat, and I believe a lot of academics don’t really see this as an important distinction to take note in.

Religion has been very important in human history. It’s been with us during plagues, during natural disasters, genocides, loss and suffering. All of those ceremonial activities, like smudging or doing hail Mary’s, have an important role in addressing times of pain and difficulty. It helped humans think of a better afterlife, to prepare for something more meaningful and prosperous. For the Blackfoot it was the “Happy Hunting Grounds”, makes sense, lots of Game meant securing health, prosperity, and community–and all at the same time, thus preventing all three human threats from occurring.

Something else Religion gave to humans in times of trouble was making certainty uncertain. The possibility that Creator would help us in our times of need or times of threat has been priceless. What do people do when they get cancer? Pray. What do people do when they lose their job and have a family to provide for? Pray. What do people do when they have interpersonal problems? Pray–perhaps, it depends. The point is, is that we pray in times of trouble. It allows us to consider the possibility that our troubles will be handled in a way that Creator deems fit, and how can we argue with what’s in God’s will?

I used to consider myself agnostic while I tried to make sense of my life and my purpose for being here, and what I found is that, when in times of trouble, perhaps it’s best to just ask Mary and hear her say “Let it be”.

Or maybe a good smudge. Either way, faith has a purpose and can be useful when your only option might be self harm, addiction or violence.

I often wonder if our modernization has anything to do with the uptick in addiction, violence and depression happening in society. I often wonder if, as we grow father and farther away from what the Blackfoot deemed “enough” for their happiness, if we’re falling farther away from happiness all together? As societies begin to modernize, secularity begins to raise and religiosity begins to fall, and now we’re all hooked on something, whether it be our phones, an evening drink, or a shopping splurge. We obviously don’t feel fulfilled. Our needs don’t seem to be fulfilled, and perhaps that’s an indication that we feel at threat in some area of our lives. For many Indigenous people, threat can come in all forms: workforce exclusion causing economic threat, high mortality rates for Indigenous women and LGBT, not to mention water and food scarcity for many First Nation communities. With Cultural Genocide my people don’t even really have their tribe anymore. There are privileged Natives, like myself, who never had to worry about food growing up (though I seen my parents worry about it), or having to worry about my life chronically, nor did I have an absence of love growing up from my mother and grandma of whom I call mom as well. There are plenty of Indigenous people like myself, just as there are privileged and not-so privileged white folks.

In our diverse society, I see that we as a nation are slowly turning into zombies. My people have struggled with the zombie-act before, with the genocides and terror my people have experienced. Hyperinflation in Germany after WWI made Germans zombie enough to allow Hitler to come into power. Economic inequality in the United States ushered in Donald Trump. We’re naturally not evil as a species, we just become vicious when we’re threatened or are faced with possible threat and that’s what happens with being a part of nature. Nature is vicious and unrelenting when it needs to be, and calm and plentiful in other ways.

It’s understanding this nature that will help us guide the seas with understanding instead of frustration and confusion.