Sunday, June 6, 2010

What I've learned this year

Posted by Mona

What I've learned this year, by Mona Halcomb

After reading a multitude of theorist I am finally able to have a clearer picture of some of the complexities in my life that have frustrated and eluded meaning for me until now. Like the chemical reaction that happens when film is processed which brings the amber silhouettes of a negative into a positive image I am able to take the theories (chemical solution) and submerge my experiences (negatives) and come to a more informed understanding of these experiences. While there could be several sites of investigation to consider in my life, as a Native American woman, I will concentrate on two very important and fundamental ones. I’ll take two situations with my dad and brother and putting them in to a broader context that allows me to look at them through a more compassionate lens. As the quote, “I am all the daughters of my father's house, And all the brothers too” - William Shakespeare suggest the relationships of daughters, fathers, and brothers are worthy of deeper contemplation.

One Saturday my dad and I were shopping at Costco for a family picnic. A man approached us and said, “I like your boots sir.” My dad proceeded to put one hand on his waist and the other in the air and twirl around in a 3600 circle saying, “I have a matching belt.” I was so embarrassed I leaped three aisles in a single bound with a heavy cart all the while saying to myself, “I don’t know him!” When I returned to work on Monday morning I talked to a friend who taught Native American Studies about the episode. He kindly shared with me the experiences of some Indian children in boarding schools, their school clothes, which usually consisted of ugly, green, and cheaply made uniforms that resembled current day scrubs many hospital workers wear. My parents were stripped of the self-expression as many young people typically are allowed to experiment with clothes and hair when discovering “who they are.” The fact that both my mother and father were raised in boarding schools, and were both “fancy dressers” and could even be labeled as “Clothes Horses” which refers to a person excessively or obsessively interested in clothes was a result of being in boarding school. As Stanley J. Grenz states, “truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate.”[1] When my friend shared with me the boarding school experiences, I was given the gift of looking at my parents through the lens of the community they were a part of and not see their love of clothes as personal idiosyncrasies and flaws of theirs but rather in the larger context of historical domination and the results of that domination.

I have never heard either of my parents speak about their personal boarding school experiences in great detail. I do know that the affects that boarding school had on both my parents extend far beyond their clothing choices. Nor have I had the opportunity to learn about boarding schools during my education, even in a master’s level program about culture, the attention of Native American policies and experiences remains on the peripheral of inquiry and only receives a modest level of inclusion. Therefore, the implication of Michel Foucault’s theory of power-knowledge[2] is critical in understanding why this is. As Foucault explains power is based on knowledge, yet power (re-) creates itself through knowledge. We are often ambiguous to the fact that knowledge being produced has it’s own intentions. Some of these intentions are to make invisible in a systemic way the experiences of marginalized groups. Another theorist, Chela Sandoval claims, “Under conditions of colonialization, poverty, racism, gender or sexual subordination, dominated populations are often held away from the comforts of the dominated ideology or ripped out of legitimized social narratives, in a process of power that places such constituencies in a very different position from which to view objects-in-reality than other kinds of citizen-subjects.” (104) [3] Had some of the events of boarding schools been taught when I was in school I might have understood my parents a little more as a young person. However, as Ien Ang points out this is not a problem that only Native Americans face, she says that cultural studies is not in daily conversations of people because it is not considered relevant. She cautions that research institutions collaborating with outside funders must be able to look at a situation in its complexity, and not “name a problem” to research.” And lastly, that cultural study must contest meanings negotiated and constructed for these groups and become relevant. [4]

Moving from a daughter / parent relationship to one of a sibling / sister I would like to look at an exchange between my older brother and a neighbor. I had just moved to Washington State from California, it is prudent to say something about the cultural norm in California, you could be in a supermarket and meet someone in line and be invited to a bbq at their house on the spot. People may not have been deep life long friends but they were often very friendly. In my new apartment I expected similar types of interactions. There was a neighbor who was a middle aged white woman. Our doors faced each other. I tried everything I could to be friendly with her, I’d always say hi, good morning, or can I help you with those bags? She never spoke or replied in any way to me. After eight months I began to think she was a deaf mute. One morning around 4:00 a.m. the fire alarm sounded. We all rushed out our doors and in her panic she looked at me and said, “What’s going on?” I was stunned, not by the alarm but by my neighbors voice. I replied, “Oh, you can talk!” Which angered her beyond measure and she rushed down the stairs. My older brother who grew up in the Northwest was over for a visit just after this incident. He and I were running an errand and the neighbor was coming up the stairs as we were walking down. Being the eternal optimist I looked her straight in the eye and said, “Hi!” She in her usual manner ignored me. My brother on the other hand (who was loud and outgoing) dropped his head immediately to the ground and refused to make eye contact with her. He became meek and subordinate in a split second. I was furious with him. I’d lost a lot of respect for him in that moment. How dare he become humble and timid because of this one individual! I needed an older brother I could look up to and emulate. Someone to be a role model for me not someone who had learned the lesson of subordination.

Reading scholars like Grenz, Foucault, Sandoval, and Ang shed some insight but did not completely rectify my disappointment with my older brother’s response. Then upon reading Carole Pateman describe the public / private debate in feminist theory a light came on for me. In, “The Disorder of Women” Carole Pateman speaks about the role of men and women. Men are seen as breadwinners and women are not seen to be owners of their own persons, and are not able to bring their persons to market.[5] She does a nice job or laying down the dichotomy and polarization of men and women’s roles, however she fails to articulate the complex space men of color inhabit. Despite the fact Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, the right to vote was enforced by individual states and until 1957 some states did not allow Native American’s to vote. By looking at the complex relationship between men and women that Pateman outlines and then looking at even more complex policies that affected Native American’s to the mix, how can I be angry with my older brother for situating himself into a role that society had prescribed for him? Can I expect him to rise above the societal roles of dominated cultures single-handily? Of course I can’t and if he were he still with me I’d apologize for my anger. I didn’t say anything to him at the time but I am sure he could tell I was seething beneath the surface at something. I didn’t have the words to articulate my emotions at the time. But now having read some of the theorist I am able to see these in a new light.

Reflecting on the two experiences with my dad and brother reminds me of doing beadwork. When you are concentrating and focusing on the individual process: one red bead, two white beads, five black beads, etc…it is hard to see the larger picture. Once you are far enough along and hold the piece at a distance you can begin to make out a picture, which after some time comes into focus of what is being created. Looking at these two experiences closely and in isolation I only felt embarrassment or anger. Holding them at a distance and seeing the larger picture of what society has constructed through the lens of these theorist allows me to view them in terms of power-knowledge which has created roles for public / private citizens. And by having these roles come into focus the possibility to create paths that move beyond prescribed locations.

[1] Grenz, S.J. “Star Trek and the Postmodern Generation”

[2] Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981 (see pp. 92-102)

[3] Sandoval, C., “Semiotics and Languages of Emancipation” in Methodology of the Oppressed

[4] Ang, I., Who Needs Cultural research?

[5] Pateman, C., “the Disorder of Women” 1989

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