Friday, June 16, 2006

Educational Blind Spots

As I was picking spinach yesterday with Clayton, one of the Youth Harvest kids, he told me a little bit about his activities--one of which is to teach a class at a detention home about Native American history and culture. Clayton is a member of the Blackfeet tribe.
I sincerely regret my profound ignorance of the Native history of this place, and regret even more my inability to retain the information I have read in the past about Native cultures, only remembering vaguely the stories of Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph but knowing, practically, NOTHING else about the people who still share this land with "us."
Last summer, during my work with the MHCOP students, I was struck by the fact that I had grown up in Montana, yet received almost no information about Native Americans as part of my public (or private) education.

It's interesting how privilege protects itself--"mainstream" American society learns nothing of the marginalized communities living in its midst. How was it possible that I grew up in Missoula and had no contact with Indians, no formal or informal introduction to their cultures, no sense that they were a significant part of this place, historically and currently. My only exposure was the annual Kyi-Yo pow-wow at UM, which isolated and generalized Native cultures in such a way that it became a spectacle no different, to my youthful ignorance, than the annual Shriner's Circus which was presented in the same venue--the university's basketball arena! It was interesting and magical, but I made no connection between it and the community in which I was living. And I don't think most people do. Even trips through Arlee and St. Ignatius were only occasions to buy little trinkets at Doug Allard's and admire the beauty of the mission mountains. I got no sense of reservation life while zipping along in a comfortable car...

Now, I can only feel ashamed in conversations like the one with Clayton. I try to avoid insulting him with my ignorance. I try to ask sensitive questions. But ultimately there is no excuse for how little I know, and I am angry at the privilege I have inherited, which promotes and perpetuates such ignorance, which only maintains the racist tendencies which have continued to separate Indians from whites since we came into their land. While I cannot be blamed for my initial ignorance, I must accept responsibility for the privilege I enjoy at others' expense, through no effort of my own. If I don't continue to educate myself, such knowledge of my own ignorance might just turn into "white man's guilt." To avoid it requires continual learning about race and class inequalities in the U.S. and deepening sensitivity to the ways and moments in which white privilege facilitates my personal abilities and opportunties.
The most helpful tool in this examination can be found in Peggy McIntosh's essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Here is an excerpt. There are 50 such statements in all...very interesting!

Daily effects of white privilege

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.


Another really interesting site is: http://www.whiteprivilege.com/


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