Bear with me while I go on a bit of a tangent, but I think it will frame a context for what I’m about to write. My husband sometimes hates to go out with me in public. That sounds harsh, but there is a strong element of truth there. Walking from our parked car to the doors of a grocery store, mall, what have you, wreaks havoc on his nerves. Driving from home to a restaurant or a store causes him to break out in a sweat. Watching Jon Stewart with me can start his ears ringing for days. The reason? I abhor injustice. I despise the actions of others that cause harm or create unfairness. Example? Let’s go back to the nerve-wracking walk in a parking lot. As we’re walking, my husband is running a mental list of groceries or other items to buy. Me, I’m scanning the parking lot for the jerks parked illegally in the handicapped spaces. Or the dummies who take up two spaces. I’m poised and ready with a withering look for the speed demon who creeps up on us while crossing at the pedestrian crosswalk, or who blasts through the lot at dangerous speeds. By the time we reach the swish of the automated doors, I’m ready for battle, and my husband’s ready for a Tylenol.
I’m being tongue-in-cheek with the above scenario so let’s get serious. I want to give you some foundation to why I have such a strong reaction to when people treat others unfairly, or act for their own benefit only – the beginnings of one of my “why’s”.
I am one of three children, and the oldest. I have a brother two years younger than me, and a sister seven years younger than me. Not only are all three of us adopted, but our journeys to becoming a part of the same family are very different. I was adopted privately at birth. It was a turbulent two years for my parents as apparently my birth mother kept missing court dates to legally give up her parental rights. My brother was adopted at nine months from a foster home. He is First Nations, a member of the Algonquin band. My sister came to us through the Children’s Aid at the age of five and her adoption was finalized when she was twelve. My brother and I have no memory of having any other family than the one we were raised by, and my sister has some memories and connections to her birth family.
The fact that I had a brother who was First Nations was completely natural to me. But my detestation of injustice, and my shock at how people can treat others was starting to be fueled by how I witnessed my brother go through his formative years. There was a family that we were connected to as we were growing up. My brother and their son were friends, my mother babysat their kids and my father worked with the other father. His name was Ron. Ron saw no problem in calling my brother “Chief” and the “Little Wagon Burner”. He would never say hello to my brother and instead would say “How!”. Any girlfriends of my brother were referred to as “future squaws”. As a teenager, my brother would fall victim to racial profiling – pulled over by police with alarming frequency and questioned about drinking, stopped by police to ask if he had anything to do with local petty crimes even though he clearly didn’t fit the description. At one point he grew his hair long and people would comment on his “gorgeous Indian hair” – let’s not even get started on the inaccurate use of the word Indian.
In July of 1990, the Oka Crisis hit the news. This was a land dispute between the Mohawk people and the Quebec town of Oka. The Mohawk people erected a barricade to the land they claimed for themselves and armed themselve to protect it, resulting in a tense stand-off between them and the government. This shone a national spotlight on Native rights. And my brother earned the new nickname of Oka. He, and by association I, became the target of slurs and ignorance. First Nations Halloween costumes were everywhere – feathers and guns combined to make an Oka protester costume. I watched my brother draw into himself. A friend of mine at the time referred to him as my Chief brother, and Oka, and she bore the brunt of my anger, my disgust and my frustration. I never fully trusted her again, nor have I spoken to her since the end of high school. And it was the beginning of my realization of the human potential to hurt others by seeing them as inferior, unimportant, different and unworthy. And my confrontation with my friend was the beginnings of my action plan to not stand for it. It’s sad how many times I’ve been witness to this, most recently at a cultural proficiency seminar. Yes, you read that right. At a cultural proficiency seminar a colleague practically bragged about how she demanded a staff member to remove her burqa because she found it unsettling and there were no men around.
This is but one in a series of defining moments that has formed part of my “why”, part of my moral principle. Why I despise people treating others badly, unfairly, or with no regard for the impact. It could be as mundane as parking inconsiderately, to racialized comments and actions.
I invite you to join the conversation as I have, to change the direction of the conversation from being “what”-based to “why”-based. I echo Shannon – what is your why?