July 17, 2018 by readlisaread
Hello, gentle reader. Were you thinking I’ve been quiet so long there should be a parade to welcome a new post? Funny you should say that, because my thinking today is about celebrating and embracing things, like diversity, culture, the human experience.
A bit of a metaphoric stretch, certainly, but before you put away the ticker tape and confetti, consider what it means to be an ally. At first blush, the word has such a strong militaristic bent, does it not? And yet the way I am considering my allegiances today, is certainly not in a Military fashion. Websters offers this definition: “close political allies, associates or (informal) peeps” [Side note– how much do I adore the notation “informal”.] And certainly this is about my peeps… Shall we dance?
My daughter gave me a nickname a few years ago. “Yes but, Mum”, she said, “you are the Queer Whisperer”. She wasn’t being rude, or crude, or even mildly salty. She was simply pointing out that I had a lot of friends who were not traditionally hetero. And a number who were traditionally homosexual. And then a bunch elsewhere on the spectrum. I liked it. Ever so much better than the erstwhile phrase “fag hag”, which makes me think of collecting fake-friends from low-budget Drag bars serving cheap bourbon. Because here’s the thing. I have gay friends that I’ve made as a full-grown adult, too, but there is a big percentage of my LGBTQ2 friends who were actually just my friends first. Like when we were kids. Like, before we even knew exactly what we were. Back in the day, when the only way to gender identify was to look between your legs and see what was there. Before we knew there was a choice and a spectrum. When the phrase “Coming Out” was invented and it was a big deal. Another friend pointed out to me, one day, when I mentioned that perhaps it was a bit odd that as many or more of my high school and childhood friends identified as queer than were straight (that is, of the friends I still keep in contact with), and she said “Darling, you’re straight, not narrow.” I liked that, too.
But it’s easy for me to be an ally to the LGBTQ2 community. Good heavens, I’m a 50+ year old white woman who lives on the West Coast of Canada. It’s not exactly Putting it Out there to join a Gay-Straight Alliance and support the painting of a Rainbow Crosswalk. It’s kind of a thing here, actually. That does not mean I have not behaved with ignorance myself, in the past. I have a story about that, actually, when we get to story time.
But first, this brings me to my next opportunity to identify as an Ally. This came in the form of an invitation to sit on a panel as an Aboriginal Ally. Shall we unpack? So, I am middle-aged, blonde haired/blue eyed Canadian Woman. I grew up next to many Indigenous kids, have a number of Aboriginal colleagues and have conversations frequently with First Nations neighbours. Oh, yeah… there’s my first struggle… what’s the correct…um… words….to…uh…that is….. what should I call….er….how…. Yes, that struggle. The struggle that makes it difficult to even say “The N-word” (and I’m not talking about the ACTUAL N-word, I find it difficult to even say “N-word”) Speaking of N-words, I could also have thrown in “Natives” there– that used to be a semi-acceptable term, before we all started to grow in our awareness, and our desire to not give offence. But what has also grown is our hesitancy to speak openly. And let me hasten to assure you, kind and genteel reader, that is not some form of veiled attempt at “telling it like it is”. There was nothing great about racism back in the day, and there is certainly nothing redeeming about it now, despite the attempts of our southern neighbour to make some things Great Again. But let me get back to the panel… where I took my seat beside other professionals, educators, locals and people from away. None of us Indigenous, all of us Allies. My co-worker and I spoke of being on the panel together in the days leading up to the event, and he commented on the fact that we were both invited, though we had certainly not walked the same path to get there. I said that makes us Pallies, then to each other, because we are allies to the same groups in our community.
Some days later another colleague asked me how it was that I was selected for this event, what is it that makes me identify as an ally. I had to admit that while I wasn’t sure how it was that I was invited, I was ever so grateful for the opportunity. At the time of this writing, I know the meaning of and a rough pronunciation for about six Hul’q’umi’num’ words. And I realized that I was about as ignorant about the lives of the Indigenous kids I went to school with as I was about the Coast Salish language. At one point in the conversation, I took a chance and told a story which highlighted this ignorance. And therein completed the circle of what it meant to be an ally. That I was safe to admit my failings while lifting up the people my ancestors had failed, who in turn lift me up, so that we continue to move forward, sometimes side-by-side, sometimes leading and following, but always together and always forward.
And so I promised you two illustrative stories. I think an important part of my journey to being a good ally has been in embracing all that I have to learn. And celebrating all that I have learned.
Ally Story #1 is about my friend D. He moved into the apartment block near my house when we were in 8th grade. Gormless, nerdy 13 year olds, theatre geeks, long before geekery was cool, and both just trying to fit in. We remained friends throughout high school, and it became more and more clear as we all matured that D was not like most of the other boys in our small-town, red-neck high school. Now, granted, I wasn’t either, like many of our classmates, but that little group of theatre-geeks and StarWars nerds are still friends today. I told D, recently, that I was ashamed for not being a better friend to him then. That I joined in the laughter when I heard one of the hockey boys ask if the school was doing a production of Pinocchio, would D audition for the Blue Fairy? That I was uncomfortable knowing we both had a crush on the same boy. That I was nervous about sharing a pop with him at the height of the AIDS crisis. My redemption came some 30 years later, when I carried one of the part of the flower bouquet rainbow at his wedding. And when I congratulated he and his husband, I kissed them both on the lips. And I brought my family to the wedding. He has graciously told me that he only ever felt my steadfast friendship, never felt let down or disappointed by me. I hope that’s true.
Ally Story #2 is just as rife with ignorance, but not all of it was mine, and so it is less a story of redemption, more one of shining a light into a (formerly) dark place. I shared this story, with not a little hesitation, at the panel event. In the audience were several of our local elders and other Coast Salish and First Nations people, and just a random assortment of residents.
I shared the story of being in the 4th grade, and studying (here I paused and double clutched on the word “Indians”, but I said it, because that’s where we were in 1975) the Indians of Canada. I can still see the girls sitting next to me at the table– I even remember their names: Mary, Priscilla, Phyllis, Sheila. And we were all drawing and colouring and cutting out the illustrations of Indian Life. You know, buffalo, and Tee Pees. Birch Bark Canoes, and leather pants with Fringes on them. (Gentle Reader, you may not quite be able to detect my derision and sarcasm from whence you read, let me help– all of the aforementioned, while certainly the purvey of some members of some North American Nations had no more bearing on our local Aboriginal population than Russian Nesting Dolls or a boomerang.) And it’s actually the Pants with Fringes on them that feature in this tale. As we sat, working away, on our “Indian” unit, one of the First Nations girls at my table turned to her friend and said “How did they make those pants?”. And rather than understanding that their culture was not being reflected, at all, in this project, my 9 year old brain thought “That’s weird… they are Indians, shouldn’t they know this stuff?” I don’t know if my 52 year-old-self blushed telling the story, but that 9 year old’s face was hot with the shame of realizing, in that moment, how pervasive and still incredibly damaging racism is, despite the blandness within which it is wrapped. My discomfort was immediately ameliorated by one of the elders, who thanked me for acknowledging and using the word “Indian”, even though I was uncomfortable doing so. It was, after all, the language of the time. It can be our “I-Word”, I guess.
I find myself at the end of my ramblings on this topic, having neglected to mention Rallies. And it seems to me that that would be the place to start– go to a Pride Parade, attend Metis Day celebrations, watch the Parade of Nations at NAIG Games. Then learn. Be present. Listen. Bear Witness. I don’t have to learn the entire Hul’q’umi’num’ language to start using the words I do know.
Huy ch q’u, Siem
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