Friday, September 18, 2015

On Being a Non

Terminology nearly always figures into diversity discussions, especially when White people are involved. We want to say the right thing -- and the right thing always seems to be changing.  Other times I've noticed that White people will latch onto a discussion of terminology to divert the real discussion. I can't tell you how many university meetings I've had to sit through where we've spent an hour trying to define diversity so that we don't actually have to talk about it.

The writers on this blog talked a lot about word choice before we launched so that we'd all be on the same page. Do we capitalize the B in black and the W in white?   Latino/a or Latin@? What term do we use for American Indians or Native Americans? (Our friends and fellow bloggers Debbie Reese and Cynthia Leitich Smith advised us to use First/Native Nations.) We all agree that it's important to let people self-identify and name themselves. Words are important.

There's one term that always trips me up: non-white. I know, I know, it's a quick and easy term that designates everyone who's not white, who doesn't benefit from White privilege. etc. But I feel uncomfortable calling anyone a "non," defining people by what they are not.

I've been called a non only once that I know of. Back in 1989-90, I served on the Coretta Scott King Award Committee in one of two slots designated for a non-Black member. So for two years I was a non-Black on the committee. I can't say it bothered me. In fact, it was really more of a novelty for me to be a non. But it did make me have to stop and think about my own race, something I don't usually have to do on a daily basis. It placed me in an "other" category where I am not used to being. I'm not sure how I'd feel if I'd had a lifetime of being other, or of being a non, of being defined in contrast to something I'm not. I reckon it might wear on me.


SktzofrenicMuse said...

I teach at a high school where the White kids are the minority, and I am often the only White face in the classroom. I am constantly reminded of my race--whether it be by students' good-humored or not so good-humored comments, or a quick look around my classroom or staff lounge. It's a safe place to be "other" because I drive home to a different city where I racially blend in. In other words, I can leave my "otherness" when I choose to--my students don't have that option. When my students and I talk about race--and we can do so only after I've helped to create a sense of trust in the classroom--I'm always amazed by what they say, the hatred that some of them have for White people, how they think most White people are out to get them. At first, I took a defensive stance and tried to "explain" things to them--but I have learned a lot more, and they have opened up to me a lot more--when I just shut up and listened. And allowed them to teach me for a change.

Nina Lindsay said...

Sktzofrenic Muse, thank you for sharing an experience that I don't think is unique. Thanks for listening, and being open to learning, in your classroom.

I wanted to offer my own take on what sometimes comes across (and is sometimes expressed as) "hatred" for White people. The trauma of living within the threat that White privilege presents, every day of your life, seeing it reflected through generations, and then being presented, daily, with white people who seem oblivious to this reality... I can only tiptoe within sight of trying to understand this before I get scorched. Now try to imagine a young person trying to come to terms with this.

It is hard for me to express this, but I recommend highly reading Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN. This won the National Book Award for Poetry last year, but if you are a poetry-phone, don't shy from it. It's a series of linked prose poems and images, really an extended multimedia essay. Take it slow, it's not too long. This book more than any other I've read has helped me get the closest I've been able to to understand this perspective.

K T Horning said...

I really appreciated your comment SkMuse. Good for you for dropping the defensiveness to open the way to some real understanding and conversations. I know that can be hard to do. I'd love to hear more about some of the discussions you have with your students, and the context in which such discussions come up.

K T Horning said...

Thanks for the book recommendation, Nina. I just ordered it from my local independent book store. It sounds great!

Here's a link to more info on the book for anyone else who is interested:

Debbie Reese said...

Good morning!

Thanks for linking to my site, K.T. The what-to-call a Native person is really complicated. I have a page at my site, "We Are Not People of Color" that is intended to help people understand the political dimension to who we are (sovereign nations). Within most of our nations, you'll find people whose parents or grandparents or great grand parents (and so on) married or had children with someone who wasn't of their nation. Hence, there are Black Cherokees who are citizens of the Cherokee Nation. I use Native Nations when speaking broadly because it conveys that sovereign nation status in ways that American Indian or Native American does not. The latter two focus on individuals, and my recommendation on individual identity is to be specific (Debbie Reese is a Nambe Pueblo tribal member).

I wrestle with "non" when writing about books and authors. Sometimes, when trying to make a general point about an error in a book that is not by a Native writer, I write "not Native" or "non Native" rather than say White, because I've seen (this year) books in which a Black or Latina writer err in their depictions of Native peoples.

I avoid using "Natives" because in my head, it is linked with "the Natives are restless" and therefore conjures up outsider images of attacks by savages and the like. I prefer "Native peoples" because I think the use of "peoples" humanizes us, moving us away from that image of primitive savage.

In lectures, I often tell people that when Europeans first came here, we had conflicts (of course) but that the existence of treaties indicates that people recognized our nationhood and they knew we weren't primitive or savage or uncivilized. In a lot of those early writings, Native peoples are referred to as "brothers." That changed to all manner of derogatory depictions, as Europeans (and then Americans) wanted Native resources. Dehumanizing language laid the ground for taking those resources, for ignoring the treaties, for removing entire nations, for being able to put bounties on Native men, women, and children, too.

As that paragraph shows, language matters. It allows "civilized" societies to do horrible violence to others. And, I believe, words in children's books that show "other" as less-than and something to be feared, do a lot of work in the adult mind. They become part of a psyche that justifies the wars that nations engage in, today. There are examples of that in the recent wars, with US soldiers and journalists using phrases invoking Custer and "we were surrounded." That much celebrated book/movie, "American Sniper" has "injun" in it and "savages."

Sorry to go on in this comment. I didn't mean to! I'll stop with this: Words Matter.

Moyrid said...

Thank you for this comment. Words matter so much. They reinforce an image and they become part of our culture. They create stereotypes that become embedded in our minds. Some of those words I don't even realize I'm using until they are pointed out to me.

K T Horning said...

Thanks for your insightful and informative comment, Debbie, I do find myself saying "non-Native" with ease -- maybe because there are so many non-Native authors and artists of books about Native peoples.

Carol Hinz said...

I just have to second the recommendation of CITIZEN. I read it earlier this year--shortly after after reading BROWN GIRL DREAMING--and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since then.