This last Sunday, the staff and board of Real Change took a day to talk about race. There’s a story I sometimes tell at these things. It’s about whiteness, and the ways we use race to beat up on each other and ourselves.
The story begins in Sioux Falls, S.D. I grew up there but have mostly avoided the place since I left thirty-five years ago.
When I think about South Dakota, I think about the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations, which are among the most economically ravaged places on the planet.
Growing up, I was taught that racism was something others did. The one black girl in my grade school was generally popular. This made us “unprejudiced.”
I was also taught to hate Indians. My parents said they were dangerous and dirty and everyone else seemed to agree.
You just didn’t drink from the same water fountains unless you wanted to get sick. We called them Prairie Niggers.
The early to mid-seventies were the heyday of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, and Dennis Banks were regulars on the evening news. They were terrorists and criminals. Everyone knew that.
There was a courthouse riot when I was 14. I remember my dad describing a huge Indian pulling up paving stones to lob through plate glass windows.
“Crazy damn Indian,” we said. That’s how they were. He was probably drunk.
My unlearning of racism began haltingly. In Air Force Basic Training, someone with a sense of humor assigned Tim Harris, a black guy from Brooklyn, the bunk next to mine. That’s where it started. Thankfully, it never stopped.
In college, I learned that the riot my dad saw occurred during an AIM trial. When the roomful of Indian activists didn’t rise for the judge, U.S. Marshals locked the doors and waded in with nightsticks.
That part wasn’t in our paper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
After college, I moved to Boston and started organizing homeless people. I worked in an area called the Combat Zone and got to know lots of poor people.
Native Americans started asking about my tribe. “I’m white,” I’d say. “Bullshit,” they’d reply.
I thought it through. I was adopted as a baby in Fargo, N.D. My whiteness was, perhaps, in question.
My parents always told me I was of northern European ancestry. Maybe.
My birth dad was described in adoption papers as a “dark-skinned German.” I recently learned I was adopted at eight months, and not immediately as I’d always thought. White babies go faster than this.
Then there was the kindergarten picture. My face was rounded. My eyes were brown. My skin tone slightly olive. I saw myself and hated how I looked. I didn’t understand why, really, until years later.
I’d turned all that racism I learned so early on myself.
Sherman Alexie writes about white people who discover a sliver of native ancestry and start wearing medicine bags and going to pow wows. He calls these Instant Injuns. I never felt an urge to be that guy. I’m white. Never been anything but.
But whiteness is something invented.
Real in its consequences, but made up nonetheless. I know that now. And although it took a while, when I look in the mirror these days, I’ve learned to like what I see. That, too, is not a bad place to begin.