Being “white-ish”


It feels like the world is burning right now. The news has been heartbreaking and my empathic self is feeling all kinds of chaotic and disturbing energy in the air. I am always so heartened when shit goes down and my social media is flooded with people who are fighting the good fight; I have chosen my friends wisely and I’m grateful for that every day. But my brain has been fighting something this week. Something that no one can help me with: I am racist.

I realized this afternoon that when I wrote my very first blog post and introduced myself to you that I didn’t even mention the fact that I am Metis. I have a complicated relationship with my indigenous heritage. This is hard to explain, but I will try my best. My great-great uncle was a council member for Louis Riel’s provisional government during the Red River Rebellion in 1885. I am extremely proud of that. My forefathers relocated to Saskatchewan once all that started to go down, and from what I can tell, that’s when they decided that being Metis was not something you wanted to be. My French Catholic family lived in the Willowbunch area, and that’s where my grandma was born. I know that some branches of my family tree did maintain some ties to their Metis/Indigenous heritage more than others did, but at that time, when residential schools were still very much a “thing,” it was probably safer for most of them to adopt a colonial, farming lifestyle. Through the grace of God my family was spared the horrors of residential school. But with that came complications, in the form of internalized racism.

I remember my mom telling me stories of when she was growing up. Being called a half-breed, criticized for her naturally darker complexion, being followed around in stores because she looked like an “indian.” Being Metis was not something to be proud of. It wasn’t until I was old enough to begin forging my own identity that I began to wonder about that part of myself. I wanted to learn more, to possibly find a place for myself in that part of my heritage. I read Maria Campbell’s autobiography Halfbreed in high school and remember being simultaneously horrified and inspired. But this has been a difficult and complex journey.

My family did maintain some ties to our Metis heritage. I still have the tiny pair of moccasins that my great-grandma made for me when I was a baby. My grandma made the best “bangs” that I’ve ever had (that term might be colloquial, it’s the word my grandma used to describe her fry-bread or bannock. I think it came from the French term beignet). We sometimes ate “bullet soup” on rainy days (think tasty hamburger soup). I am eligible for my Metis card, but have yet to be able to collect the documentation necessary to apply.

But as I got a bit older, I realized that I still felt a lot of confusion. Am I truly Metis? Legally, to be considered Metis, you have to be formally recognized as Metis by the community. I don’t have my card, so technically I am not recognized. I feel often that my attempts to embrace my culture lead to feelings of appropriation. The Metis scarf I bought for myself from my first visit to Batoche is a source of pride but also makes me feel like a poser. I stood reverently on the grave of Gabriel Dumont and saw the bullet holes that remain in the steeple of the church from the Battle at Batoche. I have worked several jobs specifically designated for FNMI students, I received several generous bursaries in university for indigenous students, I am passionate about indigenous students and their education, but still something feels amiss.

And this week I think I realized why these feelings keep happening. Through no fault of my own, I was raised in a society that is built to keep brown people down. There are actual, “legal” government documents designed to do so. I have witnessed the horrific crimes and injustices our country has wrought on our First people. I see the news of our missing and murdered women. I hear the racist comments, the off-hand remarks, seen the disgusting apathy and I have learned of the genocides and the meticulous disenfranchisement that has happened since the settlers first set foot on this land. When I was in university and told the woman who was responsible for registering me for my classes that I wanted to take Cree as my second language (I already had a good background in French), I was literally told that it wouldn’t be worthwhile and basically made to register for French instead. And I became afraid. And I became ashamed. And I have learned that it is indeed much easier to be white.

I have the privilege of being able to walk through this world without anyone knowing that I am “brown.” And whether I like it or not (or even if I’ve been aware of it or not), I have completely taken advantage of that privilege. And while I am a victim of systematic colonialism, I am also very much aware of the fact that I have taken advantage of my indigenous heritage when it benefits me and hidden it when it doesn’t. I am guilty of staying silent when I should be speaking up. I am guilty of not using my privileged position to be a stronger ally and a more vocal advocate. I was once called an apple, which is a term used to describe an indigenous person who is so colonized that they have lost all their heritage (red on the outside, white on the inside). I am racist.

And with the news that has been coming from the States this week (and indeed for many many many years, long before I was born), I have recognized that I have hidden behind my privilege for far too long. Most black or brown people can’t hide the colour of their skin. Most of them have to live in that skin every minute of every day, and they don’t have the privilege of “turning it off” when it suits them. I need to learn to stand up proudly in my indigenous skin and become comfortable with all the things that come with that. I need to become more vocal, to learn how to better educate myself so that I can become more informed and thereby become a better advocate for our people who are struggling. I want to learn how I can become the best educator and ally I can possibly be.

I don’t know how I’m going to go about all of this yet. But I know that learning to embrace my indigenous heritage will also allow me to become a more effective leader in my classroom. It will allow me to learn what I can do when I see racism and injustice happening, what to say, how to approach it, how to firmly and decisively act on it. I want to stop hiding and learn to speak up. I want to live in this brown skin and become the best damn anti-racist, truth-speaking, fact-slinging, moccasin-wearing Metis person I can be.

And so, in the language of my ancestors,

Avoir du courage et être gentil

A bientot, mes amis

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My hand-made baby moccasin, my grown-up moccasin, and my Metis sash from Batoche

One thought on “Being “white-ish”

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