We assume whiteness.

That’s true of all readers by the way, not just white readers. Unless the character is given specific cultural markers, we assume they are white because even if everyone around us is not white, everyone that is being written or talked about is.  A few months ago Kerry and I talked with Angela Gray on our podcast and she mentioned David S. Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey, which I subsquently picked up, read, and return to periodically.  He writes about the task of the writer to address race, to think about why we write things the way that we do. What we assume about ourselves and our subjects. To talk about it even if what they are talking about is whiteness, because even whiteness is not a monolith. The midwest is not the same as southern California. Whiteness that arrived here from Europe at the end of WW2 is not the same as the whiteness that built the colonies. Writers should think about that, about the backstory or real story of the characters we are writing about, because fiction and nonfiction both deal with characters, and the choices we make in the way that we talk about things.  We should think about how we engage with that overarching concept of whiteness that consumes everyone. What do we willingly comply with because it benefits us even if that benefit is marginal and lifts us ever so slightly from those who are darker.

Wouldn’t that make a more interesting story than the blandness of uniform whiteness? And wouldn’t that be a possible entry into a meaningful solidarity with those who are racially marginalized. A solidarity that goes beyond crisis situations, goes beyond all lives matter and we all bleed red or  I don’t care if you’re purple and all those moves to innocence that create a superficial kinship which refuses to engage with power because we rarely talk about power and we need to.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others .. one ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

WEB DuBois

He references Du Bois’ double consciousness, the awareness that how we (a marginalized group) thinks of ourselves is different from how whites think of us and the price of this warring double consciousness. And that’s half the work in the book I wrote, Becoming Kin, because I keep trying to shift that lens for white readers, to shift how they see us because it is exhausting for us. Take the way that whites have looked at us for hundreds of years and tip it a little bit, what if you looked at us this way? Then what would you see? What about now? Does it look different? And if it looks different, how does that change our relationship?

It’s true that how one group thinks of another is going to be different than how that group thinks of themselves, but add in the power differential and you’ll see why it matters. Identity is not constructed in isolation. It isn’t just my life and I’ll do what I want, our mother’s were right. Things impact other people and we are responsible for those impacts even if it was unintentional.

What kind of interested me is that I went straight from this book to Doodem Council Fire by Heidi Bohaker. It’s a book about Anishinaabe Governance and while she is not herself Anishinaabe she is a legal scholar who has worked to develop relationships and knowledge about Anishinaabe forms of governance. She takes the knowledge that she has learned from existing communities and then re-interprets colonial records in that context. She is, to return to Du Bois’ observation, working very hard at seeing our governance the way that we do and then explaining it for the white reader.  I keep notebooks of all the books I read, jotting down quotes or thoughts prompted by these books. What I should also do is write a quick note about why I chose this book next, even if it’s just that it arrived in my mailbox, because it’s an interesting juxtaposition. Mura’s Stranger’s Journey and then a book about Anishinaabe governance.

Anishinaabe governance is rooted in relationship, not only relationships between clans but between other groups.  And not only between people but between all beings, for the Anishinaabe all life has a soul, is a person, and therefore has rights. We aren’t just named after animals, we understand ourselves as descended from them, carrying their soul as well as our own.  When my ancestors signed treaty documents with their clan symbol, the caribou, it wasn’t that they couldn’t write. They were signing as Anishinaabe and as caribou, tying the caribou themselves to these agreements.  Additionally, women did not lose their dodem, as if it was a maiden name that they shed when they got married. The children took on the father’s clan, but the women retained their own. This kept relationship between clans active and meaningful.

Kinship networks did not stop at borders because we didn’t have borders. Sure we skirmished and fought when we came up against other communities but those conflicts ended with treaties that laid out how these two different groups of people would live together in this place. They didn’t lay out boundaries that kept us distinct and apart but created a way for culturally distinct people to live together without needing to interfere with each other.

We became kin, giving gifts that represented relationships and agreement, alliance and duty of care which is why people got so mad when some Cree men gave the pope a headdress. Kin meant you were safe to trade with, travel with, marry with.  When I discovered that reindeer, an animal important to the Sami people, were the same animal as caribou I joked to a Sami friend that we were cousins. It was only a partial joke because in our belief system people who have the same clan would be related even if they aren’t the same tribe.

The gifts that the Christians gave came with conditions, they saw us as potential converts and the gifts they brought us were about gaining access not creating a reciprocal relationship between equals where we didn’t interfere in each other’s lives. Their whole purpose was interference.

It makes me think about when I worked in child welfare and so much of our work was in communities that were impoverished by government policy decisions, stripped of resources and when they didn’t want to met with me my supervisor would say things like “find out what they need and offer to bring it to them” which I would do and they would agree and I thought I was helping but now I understand I was only buying my way into their home and that’s really ugly isn’t it. But that’s what we do, those of us who are tasked by government or church with helping the less fortunate. They get impoverished and destabilized and we come in offering a fraction of what was stolen in exchange for access and they give it, because what are they supposed to do. Starve? Be cold?

How we see us and how they see us, whoever we and they are, matters deeply.  Misunderstandings arise from these disconnections, misunderstandings that can be exploited when there is a power imbalance. The history of colonial places is rife with these flawed and exploitative relationships. One way out of it is to change how we write. So, just as Mura does at the end of his book, I’m going to give you a writing exercise.

  1. Name whiteness as also being racialized. Don’t talk about racialized people as if non white people are the only ones who are different.
  2. Sketch out a family tree. Don’t worry about blank spots but make note of dates and places the best that you can.  Alongside those dates and places, add notes about what was happening historically. Who was president or prime minister? What were the big news stories? What was happening for Indigenous people, for Black people at those times, in those places.
  3. Use that to situate yourself in your writing, reject the notion of being unbaised. Imagining that we can be unbiased only protects whiteness. Recognizing how your position creates bias helps you to see differently.  Indigenous writers will often begin by introducing themselves, placing themselves in family and community. I do this in my book with myself as well as a few friends, tying to them to historic events through their family trees. Even if you can’t do it in the finished piece, start your essay by reflecting on your family and how you are connected to the community or situation you are writing about. Let that initial reflection shape how you write the rest of the piece.

The peculiar sensation

Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others