Oh hey! Long time no see! SORRY. Guess what life is a wild dynamic thing that doesn’t slow down for anybody. However, that being said, this post needs to be written. The past week left me feeling rather deflated and frustrated.
With Thanksgiving coming up I feel it is important to address some issues with the holiday and our representations of it. (Especially for you TAPIFers out there!)
But first I ask, what do you do if someone doesn’t know they’re appropriating someone else’s culture? How do you traverse cultural differences, as well as historical differences, to stress the troublesome nature of their actions? How, as a white american, can you/I appropriately explain their flaws and be taken seriously? Without feeling like the great saviour?
As educators, we always need to be open to new ideas. We must activity go out and seek them to be able to provide our students with the most appropriate information. It is our duty to support and empower our learners. We must set an example. We lead by modeling this behaviour. What do we do when parents don’t share similar ideas?
Last week, some parents graciously served the faculty and staff a lovely spread of thanksgiving foods! They always deck out the faculty lunch room and raffle off different items to the teachers. Now, as you may guess, as the theme was Thanksgiving, there was a pilgrim present, as well as, an Indian. The parents were raffling off a pilgrim hat, turkey hat, think that one episode of Friends, and a large feather headdress.
I was on my way to get a cup of coffee when I saw it. Beautiful as it was, it instantly put a pile of rocks in my stomach.
Recently, there have been many movements against cultural dress being sold as a costume. Hipsters at music festivals obviously come to mind for many. Now this is not to say appreciating other cultures in wrong, but if a group is saying what you are doing is offensive.. maybe just maybe you should stop.
Cultural appropriation as stated by James O. Young, “is a sociological concept which views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as a largely negative phenomenon.” The same way it is offensive to make Black Jokes, or wear blackface, it is offensive to take cultural dress ( i.e. Bindis, Headdress, Hijab, etc.) and wear it as a fashion statement or a costume.
This is a hard concept for many to grasp, like this group of parents. They in their hearts they felt they were honoring the history and people involved. Being that the one wearing the headdress was French, it is understandable. They don’t share our history. They don’t know about the massive genocide of Native Americans that was caused by the European Immigrants. The forced removal from their native lands, forced education of their children in boarding schools where they’d be beaten for speaking their mother tongue. When Europeans first arrived to North America, there were over 300 indigenous languages being spoken, now there are 175 or less languages still being spoken as of about 2008. Many of them on the brink of extinction with fewer than a few hundred native speakers. (x)(x)
But then again, France was also a colonizing power. They had their fingers on the US for a time and helped us gain independence from Great Britain, but their knowledge of Thanksgiving is rather sparse. Logically, at least for me, if I were not in my native country, wearing the clothing of a peoples that had been colonized and potentially screwed over, I would listen if someone told me it wasn’t a great idea to wear it.
Back to the meat of it, the parent did not know it was offensive. Multiple admin members and faculty brought up their concerns and upset over the headdress. The wears reaction, however, was the most surprising. It took multiple times of being told it was offensive before they took it off. Personally, I would want to understand what was offensive in the situation, if I was them, so I could avoid it in the future, but that’s just me. They didn’t think they were offensive. They felt they were honouring the history and the people (and don’t get me started on how the headdress is not associated with the Wampanoag). Which can easily be chalked up to an honest mistake is an honest mistake, but being told multiple times by school officials to remove an object that causes offense should clue you in, not make you put up a wall.
It is understandable to be defensive. To have something pointed out to you, that you were unaware of can be a shock to the body. To quote my dear friend Jeana, who reviewed this piece for me:
Both those offending and those pointing out the offense need to be aware of this initial reaction, and work through it together through open communication in order for a shift and understanding to occur, which isn’t usually the case, and the offensive person just walks around with hurt feelings *ahem privilege. You are educated and aware enough to realize that a mistake made is not a reflection on your character or your value as a person, where as many people of privilege have never been made to make that distinction, and therefore get offended by what they view as criticism.
As humans, we make mistakes, how we react to those mistakes is what makes us good, or better. This situation turned into a large miscommunication on the part of many. It is apparent to many of the American teaching staff, that the French teaching staff do not hold the same idea of cultural appropriation we do.
In a conversation later in the day, a coworker of mine, who is first nations member, was talking with a French teaching assistant. The teaching assistant stated that they were not upset by the headdress, it didn’t offend them. To that my coworker replied (finally) that it doesn’t matter if you aren’t, it is to multiple other people. You aren’t Native American, should you be wearing their clothes? I wish he had spoken up sooner. It would have given credibility to our complaints.
Which brings me to the title of this blog. “Good White People” is referencing the teaching staff and faculty who were upset by the situation. It also references our struggle with this situation. How we want so badly to fight the good fight and empower all, but our voices are not theirs. When my coworker finally spoke up it was a huge sigh of relief. He had the power in the situation, he was protecting the representation of Native American peoples, not just of his own personal group.
I’ve recently been reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire, he addresses the tools necessary for educating oppressed students. He emphasizes dialogues and providing students with the language to reclaim their world. It is also important to notice that the teachers are not the most important part of the scenario, the students are. Their voices are. It is not the teachers responsibility to speak for their students, it is their duty to give them power to use their own voice.
When this issue was being addressed and not being taken seriously, I felt like I was being the teacher trying to voice the oppressed students’ needs. I want so badly to be a good white person. Do well by all and support those who need it. However, my support isn’t what many want or need. I’m a white middle class woman. My privilege could be written down on multiple pages. My voice is not theirs. They will never be the same, but luckily, I know this. I still feel I can raise my voice up with theirs when times of injustice and ignorance arise.
Where has this post gotten to.. I’m not quite sure anymore. I’m afraid I haven’t made any new discoveries, only I need to learn more. I need to work harder. I need to not be the saviour, but be the ladder. Be the support
So I leave you with this nice little piece of spoken word. She gets my feelings about being the right kind of teacher.
Olivia Fantini- “On Standardized Testing” (NPS 2015) -Via Button Poetry Youtube Channel