“What color are your eyes,” this little girl asked me. I shrugged my shoulders, while she continued, “they’re pretty, they’re green, with brown specs, and some blue too.”
“Mostly green, I think,” I replied. And while I said that, I stared back into her own chocolate colored eyes. She was about twelve.
I was working, and I was busy, and so, at that moment, I really didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until later, while walking around that same community, with the sunset reflecting this beautiful pink off the snow peaks of this extraordinary mountain in the backdrop of town that, even now in June, still cover the mountain, that I thought more about what this little girl had said. I reflected on the color of my eyes, and I thought of my own ancestors, of my own great-great grandparents, the Irish, the French, the English, the German, the people that gave me these green, brown and bits of blue eyes.
What else did I inherit?
You see, I work in a culture that is not my own. I am a white person, a Canadian, whatever that means, of European ancestry. And racism and racist ideologies are, unlike, my pretty colored eyes among the more-ugly things that I have inherited and which I find I am continuously having to challenge. It is exhausting work. Racist ideologies and racist thoughts are, what I would consider, the default setting of white privilege. It is much easier to believe that your own way of doing something is the better way of doing, than it is to question why things are done differently and why different cultures behave in different ways.
Why, for instance, do I prefer a green, manicured lawn to sand, which is the common front yard to most reserves around the country? A green, manicured lawn is artificial. It isn’t natural. When was it decided that a green, manicured lawn was important? Who decided that?
And what’s wrong with children playing in sand? Why was it that I would often get in trouble for coming home filthy or for taking off my sneakers? Was my mother wrong to do that? Or is that just our normal?
I started working with First Nations people almost two years ago. I never considered myself a racist person, but then as the outside culture, racist ideologies are embedded in us whether we want to acknowledge it and challenge it, or ignore it and accept it. These are, of course, two very different courses of action, with the latter being ultimately the easier route to go. It is not easy to continuously have to question and challenge these notions and ideas.
On a different walk, last week, I spoke to my fiancé about how I have been feeling, how exhausting it can be. I feel like racism has somehow seeped into me. But the truth is, or at least what I believe the truth is, is that only in the presence of another culture do racist notions come to surface. They’ve always been there, but I simply didn’t need those same beliefs and ideologies to protect my own worldview from perhaps being in some ways a lesser worldview.
I discussed how I am struggling with this. We talked about how different cultures have different ways of doing things, and that it’s not better or worse, it’s just different. And I have talked about this same idea hundreds of times. I know this. I studied this in the social work classrooms, but you really have to live it to understand it. Cultural competence and understanding was not wrapped up in my degree. It is something that I am learning and re-learning every single day that I set foot on First Nations land. My worldview is shifting, and changing, and opening, and refocusing. And I am questioning and challenging, and it is literally mentally and physically exhausting.
At one point, my partner said, “you know, First Nations culture is more honest, more genuine, more real. We pretend our crap doesn’t exist.”
“I never thought about it like that. My fear of becoming or somehow being perceived as racist scares me,” I told him.
“Mandy, when you were asked to be a support during a crisis, you agreed to get on a plane right away and you went. You didn’t question that.”
“The first thing you always think is human being.”