White-Washed History, Radical Listening, and Turning Dialogue into Action
Mule Days is happening this week in Bishop, California. It is an annual festival celebrating the mule, over a six-day period leading up to Memorial Day. More than 700 mules compete in 181 events and the largest non-motorized parade in the United States. It attracts as many as 30,000 spectators. Already this week hoards of trailers have posted up in now overflowing grassy lots. The scene is reminiscent of a Big 12 college tailgate party. Really, this is a celebration of colonization. These mules carried supplies and "civilization" to the Sierras, but in truth they came with a lot of baggage.
What these 30,000 people may not realize is that their beloved holiday excludes and invisibilizes the Paiute people who have been here, living on this land, for time immemorial.
For so long America has told itself this myth that this land is our land, this land is your land, but really we are descendants of white settlers driven by a notion called "manifest destiny" who came over and killed and raped the people and the land. This is still happening to this day. How do people go on knowing that there are communities still suffering because of what happened when white men stormed the shores looking for gold, wealth, and nobility all in the name of some King, and some God?
There is a water war happening right now between the Paiute and the city of Los Angeles. This is tied to Standing Rock. This is tied to climate change.
This is tied to the livelihood of everyone living in this country. The Paiute people are standing up in unity and speaking up for their rights and for their land. Last night at a film screening of the short film, "Paya," a native elder named Paul reminded everyone that, "The Earth is not a resource, it is the source." The Paiute people are not "they," or "other," they are us. This war will not be won by courts or military effort. It will be won by people realizing their own individual potential to be catalysts of change.
Oftentimes, we take granted the power of a conversation. We are using words so often we forget their meaning, and how they hold so much.
In our treaded voices, we drop and pick up where each other leaves off. Words can be dangerous. They can provoke. They can quiet. They really can change the world. Through conversations you can gauge how people use language and how they don’t. What words they feel comfortable with sharing, and what words they don’t feel comfortable with sharing.
Discomfort is not something our culture welcomes in social interactions and conversation. Discussing taboos like politics and gender should be as welcome as sunrise over the mountains. Going into the unknown by way of scaling the side of a cliff should be synonymous with going into the unknown of a difficult conversation. They are alike. Becoming accustomed to discomfort is somewhat of a requirement for mountaineers and climbers, or any outdoor-oriented person. It is time we translate this into our everyday lives within our social circles, work relationships, and casual conversations.
The societal ills of our country are quickly revealed through exploring the unknown of taboo topics. White people are just too comfortable. The privilege of being white is that we don’t have to worry about a lot of things that people of color may have to worry about. White people never have to worry about walking into a room, restaurant, gas station, hotel, or store and fear feeling out of place. White people do not have to be taught a special protocol for when a cop pulls them over on the side of the road. When white people are pulled over they do not fear for their life.
As a woman, I have had my worries being in the body that I am in. I have also had a lot of privilege in my life. Not just for being white, but also for being straight, and for being from a comfortable, suburban, middle class background, and for being able-bodied, and for being cisgender. All of these things give me privilege and ease of access, and ease of moving through a world where so many are persecuted just for being themselves.
Some bodies are deemed more valuable than other bodies in this world. We are in a war for collective liberation and more allies, better yet, accomplices are needed. An ally is someone who questions reality. An ally interrogates everything they have been taught and does not stop. Being an accomplice is about taking what you have learned through examining the perceived “reality,” and extending yourself to take meaningful action. Being an accomplice is about going beyond your comfort zone. To be an ally or accomplice is not an identity. It is a verb. It is action.
In Bishop, California it is too clear how segregation is still alive and well between white people and the Paiute tribe.
A good starting point for anyone wanting to join the fight for true equality in this world would be to acknowledge and articulate your individual relationship to Indigenous peoples whose land you are occupying. For too long Indigenous peoples have been invisibilized by the state and by invaders occupying their homeland. It is important to not only acknowledge, but articulate. This means communication. This means building relationships with Indigenous peoples. This means investing time into these relationships. There must be more listening than speaking. How radical?
This fight is not only about unlearning oppression, it’s about smashing it to fucking pieces.
We all have our skills and resources to offer. If you are an intellectual who is in academia you could seek ways to leverage your resources and material support, and betray the institution to further liberation struggles. If you own a gym you could offer five free showers a day to houseless communities. If you run a media company you could choose to make aware issues that don’t get talked about in mainstream media. If you work at a school you could teach your students the true history of the nation.
We live in a world that lets Brock Turner off the hook, that votes Donald Trump into office. We live in a world that allows faucets on the reservations to run with poison, like uranium and arsenic. We live in a world that allows missing people of color cases to collect dust, while white little girls, boys and adults are smeared over milk cartons and publicized on the nightly news. In a world that deems white lives more important than people of color, it is up to white people to help de-center whiteness – to show up and build relationships and be accomplices.
Those who want to be accomplices need to get rid of any romantic notions. White people are not saviors, missionaries, or God-appointed therapists.
The job of an accomplice is to do the work not out of guilt or shame for having privilege, but because we truly do want a world built on mutuality, compassion, and community. You are not an accomplice if you are only there to advance your own self interests. Accomplices don’t show up with their own agenda, don’t seek notoriety, and do not expect cookies. Being an accomplice is not a performance or an hour long meditation.
Sometimes I have encountered men who will come up to me and say, “I love women. Women are so strong. Women are so badass. Women are great. I have a lot of women friends.” What is that? That’s like me going up to my friend J and being like, “I love Indians! You’re so great. You’re so mythical and magical. Indians are so cool.” This kind of show-y, ego-driven display of insisting that you are definitely not a sexist or racist is simply not needed. What is needed is less talking and more doing. Are you standing up for those people you say you love? Are you standing up, speaking up, and advocating for marginalized communities in everyday conversations as well as at formal events or protests?
Lilla Watson points out that our struggles are not separate when she said,
“If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
This is not about proving how progressive you are. It is not about performance. It is about doing the work without ego, without the desire to be patted on the back. This struggle is a struggle that is not about you at all. It’s about the greater good, the community, and helping this world heal. You don’t need to wear your activism as a badge. It’s like running around and being like, “I’m so zen, I just meditated for like ten minutes. I am so enlightened.”
Understand your privilege. Privilege does not mean that you’ve had an easy life, that you’ve never had to struggle, or work hard. Privilege simply means that because of the body you inhabit you will not have to worry about certain things that others do.
Accomplices must get informed and self-educate. Reading blogs, tweets, news articles, and getting caught up on the issues that are important to the community you want to help are all great things. Unlearning the messed up things you were taught in public school and through mainstream media means you are bound to make mistakes and that’s okay. It is key to practice humility and apologize. This is all part of the process. Nobody will get it right all the time. It’s about acknowledging when you mess up and going forward more aware and committed to being better. It is also about accepting that it is not about your intent, but about your impact.
It is not impossible to bridge the divide between white people and native tribes, though it will take investment and striving on the both sides. It will take an emotional commitment and deep concern for building healthy and loving relationships with each other. Democracy, liberty, and justice depend on these things, but it turns out our government lacks these values. So, it is up to us as individuals to band together.
The reason why there are toxic systems in this country, and why our political landscape is so messed up is because on an individual level we are not going outside of ourselves enough. We are not shaking hands with our indigenous neighbors.
It was Audre Lorde who said, “The master’s tools never dismantle the Master’s house.”
When is the last time you read a book by a person of the Paiute tribe? When is the last time you read a quote, book, excerpt by John Muir? How many times has someone suggested I read John Muir or Emerson, and how many times has someone suggested I read an author of color? We need to starting listening to voices that are not available in mainstream media or at the surface. We have to dig deeper to elevate the presence, voices, and platforms of those who have been pushed out, marginalized, and invisibilized by colonization.
Our differences can be acknowledged, asserted, and celebrated while we also unite and become communal. Audre Lorde pointed out that, difference does not have to threaten communal cohesion. Lorde wrote, “…we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression."
It is not our differences that separate us, but our reluctance to acknowledge them and to see the humanity still within our differences. We are all oppressors. It is an insidiously deep and internalized presence within us. Revolutionary change is very much dependent on transforming our own individual blueprints of thinking. Self-examination and personal transformation are a must.