When I was at Occidental College doing my Masters’ work for my CLAD (Cross-Cultural Language and Academic) Teaching Credential, I took a race and ethnicity class. Oxy was an extremely progressive institution unlike any I had experienced in my prior education. The R&E class was that times 100.
I was the only white student. That disturbed me. Why weren’t more white people interested in learning about different cultures and races? I soon discovered why. There were many difficult conversations in that class that always came back to white right and the suppression of other cultures throughout time by white people.
But not me. That’s not how I thought. I didn’t want to be the poster child for that. I understood the perspectives shared in the class. I wondered if they could see past the hurt and pain to understand mine. This was especially true of the professor who just seemed angry I was in her class. I tried to work out the unnamed issue in her office hours. I tried to participate in class. She just didn’t like me. Was it because I was white?
I still don’t know the answer to that question to this day, but I decided that the class was a great opportunity for me to understand new perspectives. From the teacher. From the students. From the raw, honest feedback. My goal was not to be liked or even understood. It was to understand where others were coming from. Their experiences, both good and bad.
We studied history like I hadn’t studied it before. We looked at the native perspective instead of the pilgrim perspective. We studied matriarchal cultures instead of the traditional patriarchal one I found myself living in each day. We pulled out the pain that people feel because of the race/ethnicity/gender they were born into and took a good look at what it all meant. Emotion soup.
Tonight, that all came flashing back. At my son’s rehearsal for a play which retells history in Shasta County (and many places, really) from an indigenous viewpoint, those feelings filled the room with the first run through on the script. The play tells the story we didn’t hear in grammar school. It tells the story from the perspective of the native. The play is called “Undamming History” and will play at the historical Cascade Theater on Saturday, October 22. It is a project put together by the Shasta Historical Society and includes indigenous tribal leaders from the area.
During one scene, it all came rushing back. The heated talks in R&E at Oxy. The crap way I felt after each class, not only because of my own white guilt, but because of the hurt and pain of so many others who had been treated a particular way because of the way they look. In this scene, a woman had to read lines about how the explorers cut the natives’ hair and force them to assimilate. Explorers said the long hair went against the their religion, their perspective of what was good and right. As she read the lines, her voice cracked…her pain tangible and audible. Just reading the lines brought up so many feelings. Though this is not a new idea, and one I have seen before, watching the emotion of someone who experienced such treatment hurt my heart.
I felt the pain bubble to the surface. The long hair symbolized spirituality the natives felt. They were told it was wrong. How confusing for the children in school, the children who were teased. My son plays a bully in this play. In real life, he is the child who defends anybody who is underrepresented. It was hard for me to watch those words come out. I know it’s acting, but it was still hard watching how kids treat other kids. When I was teaching, I started developing communication skills in my students on Day 1 so they wouldn’t interact like this. Still, they do. To see the truth of how people treat those who are different than them, and to realize this is still so true today, puzzles me.
Why is it so threatening to be around people who are different than we are? Why do we feel the need to convert them to our viewpoints, be they religious, political, or other? Why can’t we celebrate the beautiful aspects of varying cultures and ways of being in the world without feeling we need to make them line up with our own?
I think we can. It’s plays like this one in a conservative town that give me hope. It’s themes like “Women in Filmmaking” that ran through the local Fire Reel Film Festival last weekend I find progressive and promising. Sometimes it might feel like it’s a slow moving train, but I do fancy it’s moving.