Some time ago, I stumbled across a Facebook post claiming (either on the post or through a shared article, I can’t remember now) that Aboriginal cultures and languages were dying a natural death, that their inferiority/primitiveness/etc. meant that they could never survive and be useful in our modern world, and that all the efforts being undertaken to keep these cultures and languages alive and functioning were a waste of time and energy (I could say the same about social Darwinism). A young woman of Aboriginal heritage responded in a justifiably irate, hurt, and defensive way. She was basically just told that she was destined to die due to her inferiority anyway so there was no point in trying to protect or preserve her. It’s horribly dehumanizing to have such ideas hurled coldly at you by strangers over social media, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she were to tell me that she has to endure that kind of thing on a regular basis. The original poster, predictably enough, came back on the defensive, told her all the ways in which she was wrong to think she was worth keeping around, using every racial stereotype, sweeping generalization, and piece of misinformation about Aboriginal cultures available in society’s racial arsenal to belittle her pain and anger.
In my own frustration at this person’s inability to conduct a simple Google search, in my horror at his lack of empathy towards the woman he was talking to, and in my inability to refrain from compulsively correcting anyone and everyone when I think they’re wrong, I gave all his misconceptions a lengthy debunking, and after a bit of an exchange he began to relinquish some of his previous viewpoints. Although he still refused to acknowledge how terrible his original comments had been, and wouldn’t entirely let go of his careless and dehumanizing attitude towards Aboriginal peoples, at least he was listening more and being less defensive. It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start. A few days later, he private messaged me to thank me for explaining everything so thoroughly, to say that I had given him a lot to think about and that his opinion was beginning to change, and to ask how I had learned so much and where he could go to do the same.
This seemed like quite a victory. How often does one manage to change the mind of someone else over social media, over an argument in a comments section? And if I had to change anyone’s mind about anything, I was glad to encourage someone towards greater tolerance and a desire to learn more. It wasn’t until much later that I thought of something that really should have occurred to me right from the beginning of the exchange.
When I started my political science degree, I could see the terrible conditions faced by Aboriginal peoples in this country and wanted to help fix them. I had grand visions of coming up with some genius solution that would end their troubles for good. To that end, I tended towards classes and chose research projects directed at learning more about Aboriginal history, politics, and policies in Canada. If you know me personally, and you’re thinking, “I didn’t know she had goals like that”, it’s because I never talk about it, because in hindsight it feels pretty stupid and offensive and like most people, I hate having to admit that I’ve done or thought something stupid or offensive. As I learned more, and spent more time listening to Aboriginal voices on the problems they uniquely face, it became apparent that as a white person it really wasn’t my place to take centre stage and play the part of some kind of saviour, and the idea that I could do such a thing was silly and naive at best. I simply lack the cultural, societal, and political experience and context required to truly understand the full extent and causes of the problems, and therefore to determine and implement the most appropriate solutions to them. I do, however, possess the ability to learn, listen, and empathize. I discovered that in order to really make a difference, my efforts were best spent listening to and supporting Aboriginal people as they attempt to explain their problems and implement solutions. Though this may be a supporting role rather than a lead one, that doesn’t make it small or unimportant or not worth doing. However, white people are so accustomed to having a highly valued voice, the idea of taking a back seat on an issue often doesn’t even occur to them, and when they’re asked to, the request can seem strange, unappealing, or even threatening (even though it isn’t in reality). This is a serious barrier to real progress on issues of inequality. Good people who could be making a positive difference are actually contributing to the problem by digging in their heels, refusing to listen and understand their part in the whole thing, and thereby holding back any progress that could be made.
When that fellow from Facebook asked how he could learn more, my answer to him was that I did so by going out of my way to put myself in situations where I could read and hear the perspectives of Aboriginal peoples and those who study their culture, their history, and their current circumstances. And that’s what bothers me so much today about my exchange with him then. Listening to Aboriginal perspectives is exactly what neither of us did during that conversation. An Aboriginal perspective was offered almost immediately, and he shot it down just as quickly. And instead of supporting her perspective and encouraging him to be a better listener, I offered my own and was readily accepted while her participation in the conversation gradually decreased and finally ceased altogether.
It shouldn’t take a white voice to educate white people on Aboriginal issues when so many more experienced voices are so widely available. Although I would dearly love to go on a debunking spree, complete with amusing gifs, to whitesplain the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to those fellow (mostly white) Canadians who’s negative and dismissive responses have been so frustrating and disappointing to me, I’m not going to. I would be making the same mistake now as I did back then, and while my lengthy debunking wasn’t necessarily wrong, I hope you can understand how that whole situation was extremely problematic. If you want to know which opinions need debunking, Google them yourself. Or you could, just, you know, actually read the Commission and take the time to think it over before jumping on the defensive. This is a time for listening, empathizing, and supporting. Your needs and desires can take a back seat for a little while without your world coming to an end, so get over yourself and try to spend some time listening and attending to someone else’s needs for once. It’s not actually as difficult or as scary as you think it’s going to be. Take the recommendations seriously and consider ways in which you can contribute. It’s really not going to hurt you, and it can make a world of difference to someone else.
I appreciate you reading to the end and listening to my story, but my story isn’t the one you should be listening to right now. Take the time to explore some perspectives less familiar to you, and do so with an open mind, a respectful attitude, and a restrained ego.