Sunday, May 6, 2007

Growing Up Racist

This weekend I finally got around to reading Mary Crow Dog's Lakota Woman, a memoir that falls into the genre I've come to think of as the AIM biography. In 1973, the year of the siege of Wounded Knee, I was in the eighth grade, living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Leonard Peltier, Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and Russell Means were all familiar from the evening news. They were terrorists.

Mary Crow Dog writes that, "In South Dakota, white kids learn to be racists almost before they learn to walk." I learned my first racist joke from my parents when I was around four. What did the Indian say when he sat down on the blanket? WHOOO-PEEEE! Hearty yucks all around

And so, like every other white kid in South Dakota, I grew up regarding Indians as "prairie niggers." Sioux Falls was a mostly white working class town, with two meat packing plants and lots of low-wage light industry. If kids grew up learning to play an instrument, it was likely to be the accordion. There was a popular fast food chain that sold roast beef sandwiches. The restaurants looked like huge tepees and had peace pipes and pictures of Crazy Horse and such on the walls. It was called Heap Big Beef.

Crow Dog's book describes how generations of extreme poverty and repression boiled over in the early seventies when the younger generation, who identified with the Black and Chicano power movements, and the older generation, who remembered a different time, reached the limit of what they could tolerate.

I remember my dad coming home one day from the Post Office. The old man was OCD, and his most deep-seated rituals involved mail. His letters, sealed with half a roll of scotch tape, were quite distinctive. After placing stamps on an envelope, he'd lightly pound them in place with his fists for several minutes. And then he'd start on the next letter. He could spend an hour there, easy, checking his mailbox, over and over.

Anyway, this time, he said he'd seen "a huge Indian" prying up bricks from the sidewalk and hurling them through the plate class windows of the Sioux Falls Courthouse. It wasn't until years later, when I read Peter Matthiassen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, that I realized what had happened. There had been a trial of an AIM member in Sioux Falls. When the judge came in and the bailiff said "all rise," the Indians in attendance remained seated. The room was sealed, and marshals waded in to teach them some manners. A full-blown riot ensued.

As a teen-age white kid, I didn't have the first idea of what was happening in my hometown and all across the state — the poverty, the nihilism, the intense resentment, the battle lines that had been drawn. I'd piece all of that together later on.

A number of years later, I was working in Boston, organizing homeless people. I wore my hair back then in a braid that went most of the way down my back. The homeless skins would often ask what tribe I was, and when I'd say I wasn't, they'd give me shit about that too. Eventually it occurred to me that, as an adoptee from North Dakota, there was every chance that I had some native blood. I'd never considered the possibility.

This idea sort of shook me. When I was a kid, I always felt inferior to my tow-headed, accordion-playing, blue eyed peers. My face was a bit rounder. My eyes were large and brown. By skin was slightly olive. A bit Mediterranean maybe. It was just enough to feel a little different and not as quite good.

To this day, adoption records being sealed in that state, I have no idea. My mother denies the possibility. My sister, adopted from the same place as I, was once picked out of a crowd at the Mitchell Corn Palace to be dubbed an "Indian Princess" by some faux descendant of Sitting Bull. She got her picture in the paper, and my dad bought an authentic Sioux oil painting to seal the deal. While there's no blood relation, she has my eyes.

This, for me, was a lesson in the subtleties of racism and self-loathing. While I may or may not have native ancestry, the mere fact of being slightly shy of the Northern European ideal was enough to make me feel somewhat "less than." Here's the remarkable part. No one ever said a thing. It was just mutually understood. There was an ideal, and I wasn't it.

As an urban organizer working with homeless people, I had plenty of opportunities to come to grips with my own racism, but this one was, by far, the most personal.

1 comment: said...

This can't succeed as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe.