I just finished listening to the 2003 Massey Lecture Series by Thomas King. He’s such an awesome story teller. Listening to him so wittily talking about everything that has gone on and continues to happen to us Natives is simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching. I found myself laughing out loud, and yelling “Yes! Exactly!” thank Goodness I listen on my own in the car. But by the end of it I wanted to cry. My eyes are still burning with an itch to let it all out. My chest feels like it’s overflowing with emotion, and that’s what’s pushing me to my laptop. I am writing this, because I need to write something, to let some of the pressure out. The following is a reflective rant of sorts.
The last lecture was titled “What is it about us that you don’t like?” and it’s something I’ve asked myself a million times. He tries to find answers, and I almost decided that it’s not a single one of them, but all of them combined, it’s the perfect combination of this and that, that makes us so unlikeable. But maybe I’m just being lazy. Because I frankly decided a very long time ago (I’m not that old, I was just very young when I decided this), that I don’t care. I’m never going to please everyone, and this isn’t a goal I or anyone should ever attempt to achieve. It’s a worthless endeavor, and a thankless one if there ever was one. But I wish it were enough to just decide not to care and be done with it. Fact of the matter is that how we’re perceived has very real implications in our lives. What jobs we get, what schools we go to, what funding we can obtain, and so on and so forth. Despite being a Native, I’m no warrior. I avoid fights, as much as I reasonably can. I won’t back out of a fight if it has to be fought, but I will sneak away if I see someone else who can take better charge, or if it’s just not one of my battles to own. Does this make me a coward? Perhaps, or maybe I’ve internalized some of this self-hatred myself. Have I decided that this isn’t a battle worth fighting? I don’t think so.
I don’t want to argue with anyone. And I hate condescending preachers like the next person, so I won’t do that either. But I do find myself in a storm of conflicting ideas, feelings, and ambivalent messages on pretty much a daily basis, as a Native. Add to that Muslim. Add to that married to an African Arab. Add to that having family and deep connections to conflict areas. Add to that my undying passion for everything Spanish and Latin American. And you’ve got a pinball in the works. Constant works, flashing, banging, bouncing, and ricocheting all over the table in a dizzying motion that would make the most seasoned seamen purge.
But it’s all good. Because I see it. It’s there and I can touch it, I can taste it, I can smell it. Racism, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, Dehumanization at its subtlest. Because I blend in, I’ve heard things most racists wouldn’t have dared mouth (pre Trump that is) had they realized who was around them. And it’s not always middle aged white guys saying some of the worst stuff. It’s often young people, women, and it’s us. Many of us have internalized this hatred in order to better cope with it, and it’s eating us up from the inside.
It’s us. Doing it to ourselves. To each other. Tearing each other apart, as though we had a deadline to shred ourselves to bits before the white man checked in on us. Like the vermin of suppressed memory eating up Naomi’s aunt in Obasan (if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out). Ibram X. Kendi identifies this as a form of internal racism, or internalized racism, the one we do to ourselves and each other. Women, perhaps, especially. We do this. Matronas. We do this. To each other. Because we carry the burden of overlapping intersections of subgroups: WOC, mutahajjabas, SAHM, WM, etc., etc., etc.. The tragedy of it all, is that we’ve internalized some of the hatred and now spew it onto those around us, as though doing so might better prepare them for the cruel world out there. Not realizing that there can be nothing crueler than having no safe space in which to take stock, breathe deep breaths, and obtain a healthy dose of mirroring and self examination.
Years ago I read an article about how Indian (as in the Asian country) women are not to be messed with, because since childhood they’ve been told they’re not good enough, they’re not strong enough, not smart enough, and they’ve had to prove themselves from the get go. It was interesting, because the battle women are fighting there is very real, and quite serious. But the problem is that not everyone reacts to oppression the same way. Some will push against it, some will try to blend in (dumb down, as a fellow blogger recently put it), some will try to simply keep under the radar. The armies of women who have internalized the hatred, and made it their own to be able to function even if only marginally, is remarkable. They are the pragmatic ones, who realized that fighting against generalized oppression is a lost battle, and when they have kids they try their best to prepare them to choose the most worthwhile battles that they can actually win. They teach them how to maneuver within their limited spaces, and make the best of what they can get. To keep the peace.
I always say that living on the Rez was the best training I could have hoped for when I moved to Libya. People coming and going, tea always on the ready, large extended families, big parties, and even bigger wakes, everyone in your business… And it’s true. Not just because tribal life is similar in and of itself, but because the way it is viewed from the outside, and the way it deals with this perception is very similar as well. What we offer each other in a tribe, and what persists despite all efforts to “individualize,” “eliminate,” “assimilate,” or “civilize” us, is that we make discomfort comfortable, we work around malaise together, through jokes (even if they are poked at our own members), through clever manipulation (always to be maintained oral, so as not to be sensed or discovered by “outsiders”), and with poignant lessons (by example, physical or anecdotal). We live our lessons, and we laugh at them. We don’t explain, we show, sometimes in cunning ways, other times more crudely, but we waste no time in making lists of rules, checking boxes, defining terms. [Just a note here to consider the depth of Steiner/Waldorf methods of teaching… which has an interesting history in and of itself]. It’s no surprise then that Thomas King, who was raised by his single mother, would become a great story teller and appreciate the weight of oral history.
If you live long enough, you learn the insides and outs, and if you’re clever, you’ll learn to use them yourself, as they are incredibly effective for the preservation of the larger unit. This thought brings me to a related topic I recently heard Samra Zafar describe as she explained how she perfected matronal manipulation to make the system work for her, to play the game right, or… how I’ve come to call it: dance along with the music you’ve been given. Learning the subtleties can save you, but it’s a dangerous game, and if you get it wrong, you’re out. Tribe protects you, but it also keeps you in what Arundhati Roy jokingly calls a “bear embrace” (she wasn’t referring to tribes, but to the India/US relationship… but it’ll do!!!). I’ve written a bit about this topic before, as it’s something I am still grappling with on an almost daily basis. This love-hate relationship is all-encompassing. But I don’t want to seem to have made up my mind yet, because I haven’t. I love my women, and I don’t want to disrespect them by judging them solely by the negative traits in which I found myself enveloped, there’s a lot more depth to it, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. All that negativity, as awful as it is, comes from a place of caution and self-preservation, as well as a good dose of protectiveness and good intentions. Which isn’t to say they leave the individual unscathed, you’re going to suffer some bruising (of the ego mainly), but if you can make it through that, and learn the deeper lessons, you’ll be much the wiser for it. Is this the only way to deal with such injustice? Clearly not.
When you revert to a new religion you’re tempted to reject everything you came from and adopt whatever is presented to you as the ideal. Of course, this is all a fictionalized view of life, and each one would be wise to take everything that’s handed to them with a grain of salt. Burning all your bridges isn’t the wisest course of action, as you’ll likely want to return, once you’ve realized that there’s good and bad on both sides. The old familiar might come in handy when you’re down and out and just can no longer bring yourself to keep up with a rhythm that is only artificially imposed upon you, and you truly have no allegiance or obligation towards it. Home should be a safe space, and we all need one, even if it’s only a temporary one.
I recently visited an acquaintance at her place for the first time, and one of the first things she asked me, after inviting me in to sit, was how I became so fully Arabized! This came as a complete shock to me, because I had spent the last two decades protecting myself from loosing my own identity. Although I often get mistaken for an Arab, I still occasionally get the extra wide smile that acknowledges the recognition that I’m a revert, but this is at a very superficial level. I never thought that someone that I’ve actually interacted with quite a bit would consider me fully “Arabized” (whatever that means). I actually encourage new reverts to be very cognizant of this initial desire to drop their own culture and assimilate into their best friends’ or husbands’ cultures. Kaighla Um Dayo has a few horror stories to tell about this particular horror. But one must also recognize that there’s a lot of good in cultures other than our own. They persist because the bad is intertwined with the good, and overlooking this might be a fundamentally grave mistake. I tread a very fine balance out of self preservation myself, but this doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the intricacies that are found in my own or in cultures I hold near and dear. I in fact find myself often defending Arab and Native women alike against generalizations and unfair simplifications (which they are often victims of). Perhaps this apparent assimilation simply means that I’ve found my place within the interstices of all my beloved cultures. I can only hope this is what it means, because I dread to think of what the alternative might be.
Being able to look at all these interstitial spaces from an insider’s perspective is a privilege I don’t take lightly, and I attempt, every opportunity I get, to allow this knowledge to build bridges, rather than burning them. Having seen the flip side of so many perspectives garners me the ability to empathize with conflicting views, while still seeing the tort in them. Finding a space where I don’t get sucked in is the tricky part. This, to some extent is a struggle all empaths contend with, and it certainly comes with a certain degree of responsibility not to betray any one of them, whilst simultaneously attempting to critically observe and sometimes tactfully counter contradictory beliefs.
I keep thinking about these issues, and reading, and listening, and studying. I don’t know if I’ll ever come to fully understand the dynamics, but I intend to continue delving into this topic for as long as it affects me, and being a Native and a European, married to an African Arab, with African/Arab/Native/European children this means it’ll be a subject near and dear to my heart for as long as I draw breath, inshallah.