Saturday, May 7, 2016

Find a Better Word

I snapped.  At a colleague, that is.  ‘Snapped’ as in, barked out an objection without pre-thinking, pre-phrasing, or otherwise considering how my comment might sound or be received by that colleague.  ‘Snapped’ as in, not stopping to carefully construct my objection in such a way as to avoid hurting this colleague’s feelings or making sure my remark didn’t make this colleague feel targeted or called out.  ‘Snapped’ as in, when you hit my kneecap with a little silver hammer, my foot is going to catch you in the crotch if you don’t move out of the way.

My colleague was fighting the good fight.  Making a case for not moving a very important program out of a primo piece of campus real estate and relocating it somewhere else difficult to access (both for able-bodied and disabled-bodied folks), and all the implications about devaluing that program that would come with such a move.  But what my colleague said was, “So the solution is not, hey, let’s move them out into a tipi.”

Now, I don’t teach at a tribal college.  In fact the most North American tribal things around my university are myself, one Native student about to graduate, and the land upon which the university sits.  So the use of ‘tipi’ was not a casual reference to a familiar Indigenous piece of culture used to house Indian families. 

‘Tipi’ was used, in this case, as a pejorative, the way we might say “out in the boonies” or “beyond civilization.”  Someplace where nobody wants to go, someplace where only savages live.  There be dragons.  That sort of thing.

My mouth popped open and my clever retort sang out like the proverbial arrow: “HEY! … find a better word.”

Damn!  Who said that?!  I guess it was me, because everyone turned and looked.  
Yes.  You see the problem, don’t you?  I wasn’t polite, or quiet; I didn’t even have the grace to frame my comment as a question (“could you please find a better word, please?”). 

“Well, whatever,” replied my colleague before he deflated back into his seat.

What just happened? I asked myself, feeling my heart accelerate, my face blush, and my body coming to full alert.  What the heck just happened here?

A.     I called out a senior colleague who is well-known for being liberal and progressive.

B.     I told this colleague to ‘find a better word.’  Demanded, in fact.

C.     I wasn’t nice.

During a discussion break, my colleague came over and said, “Deborah, I didn’t say that to be intentionally racist.”

That was not an apology.  I replied, “I know you didn’t say that to be intentionally racist.  But as the sole Native professor present, it’s my job to redirect language that perpetuates stereotypes about Indians.”

That was not an apology, either.

Others in the room began to chime in about why they supported my remark, and my colleague faded away.

This same colleague often wears a Redskins jacket.  I have never said anything about that to this professor.  I let it slide.  He does a lot of good work, you know?

Over the years, I have let slide joking requests that I go out on the front lawn and do a ‘rain dance’ during dry spells, being called ‘the Indian in the attic’ when my office was moved to the third floor, and comments that I ‘should wear your hair in braids more often, it makes you look really authentic.’

I have also, however, asked a colleague not to use the phrase, “circle the wagons,” pointed out the problematic nature of a student’s Chief Illini T-shirt, asked repeatedly why our university has a plaque dedicated to the first Black student but not the first Native American (Robert Latham Owens, look him up, he’s kind of a big deal), and a myriad of other microaggressions that frankly, I am too tired to repeat.

Is it too glib to just say in my own defense that I unexpectedly hit my overload point?  That my filter is so clogged with microaggressions that I no longer have control over what comes out of my mouth when confronted with yet another thoughtless comment negating Native lives?  That I backed up like a sewer and let it spew?

I feel bad that my colleague feels bad.  I feel bad that what I said came out so harshly.  Really?!  Yes, it’s true.  That’s how I’m conditioned.  Even now, as a full professor with tenure and a 3 year term endowed chair, I don’t actually want to hurt people to get my point across. 

IT JUST HAPPENED.  If by "just happened" you take into account 55 years of taking in similar kinds of references to Native people and culture as less than, as inferior, as examples of sub-human behaviorI’m not a saint.  I’m not an Earth Mother (although I grow rounder every year).  I’m just an Indian in the academy whose tolerance for crap has hit its limit. 

But am I sorry?  Complicated question.  In other situations, I have done the polite request.  What it usually gets me is a condescending “oh that’s so PC of you” attitude, or a “Come on, it’s just a saying, you know I’m not that kind of person” retort, as if I had insulted the person who used the stereotype. Rarely has anyone swallowed their pride, faced me, and said, “You are absolutely right, thank you for bringing that to my attention,” (Jim Warren, looking gratefully at you).  So I’m not sorry that I objected; it needed to be said, particularly in the context of our discussion. 

I do regret that my colleague feels hurt.  But I’m wondering if that hurt might not be a better lesson than anything else I could have said or done – for my colleague, not me.  I’m wondering if my colleague might not think about that choice of words, and all the years of ignoring or bypassing Indigenous issues and history that allowed the word “tipi” to come out, a little more than if I’d simply smiled tightly, taken him aside later, and said quietly, “Can you use a better word, please?”

Because I have felt hurt, marginalized, belittled, and targeted many more times than I have spoken up about it.  Because I’ve bitten my tongue enough times to know that my own blood tastes bitter.  Because, let’s be honest, my white male colleague has enough privilege to overcome this small moment and, if willing to do the work, come out a better person.

Decolonizing language is a painful process. 

Sometimes the hardest people to educate about race and class are people who define themselves as liberal and progressive. 

Sometimes we have to look closely at what comes out of our mouths ‘naturally’ or ‘unintentionally’ in order to see how deeply embedded racist language really is in our culture and our lives, and we must think about what that means for us as individuals committed to social justice.

And yes, sometimes a reflexive objection speaks more truthfully than pre-composed remarks.  

And now that I have spent three hours processing this brief interaction, I'm going to go reward myself with a mountain.  Where, by the way, I stay in a cabin.  Not a tipi in sight.

1 comment:

  1. Plus, there is always the undercurrent of "girls are supposed to be nice, inoffensive, and peacemakers" at all costs. I get a bit nervous and hyperventilate a little when I stand up to something like that, especially if the offender is a male. Our society has truly hobbled our minds! You did very well!


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