Questioning the Status Quo

Carol A. Hand

I do try to look at the lighter side these days, but that doesn’t always work. Life intervenes in the oddest ways at inconvenient times. Recently I received an email from a Euro-American Dean at the college where I teach as an adjunct. Her email informed me that I was REQUIRED to take an online training on diversity. My response to her was honest and direct. “I have no intention of participating in this training.”

That doesn’t mean I think I know all there is to know about diversity. Living all my life in the liminal space between Anglo-American and Ojibwe cultures taught me a great deal, as did my interest in taking every chance I could to learn about diverse cultures and people. Mostly, I learned not to accept simplistic stereotypes that supposedly fit all. There is always more to learn about the rich diversity of people who share the earth – but standardized online trainings are definitely not the best way to do so. Learning for me only comes through leaving my relative comfort zone, if such a place exists for those of us who live between cultures, to enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care.

As a serious scholar, I have studied cultures and histories from many perspectives. Not surprisingly, I discovered how biased so many accounts of “others” are. I wonder how many Euro-Americans have had the same opportunity to see their cultures and themselves through other lenses.

Thinking about the Dean’s email, I remembered an amusing article I read as a young person in an introductory anthropology class, Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner (1956). (Links to the full public domain article can be found here and here.)

Wikipedia provides the following overview:

“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”

By the way, did you notice that “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards?

The Dean’s email also brought to mind a book that a friend gave me years ago, Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, by Beverly Slapin and Annie Esposito (1990). Miner’s article and Slapin and Esposito’s book remind me how often I have read ethnographies that describe Ojibwe people in my mother and grandmother’s generations as “children of savages,” or make sweeping generalizations about Ojibwe people on the basis of limited samples superficially portrayed through colonizers’ lenses.

I wonder if the Dean has ever seen her culture described through different lenses. Here are a few excerpts from Slapin and Esposito’s satirical work that provide an example of what that looks like.

***

Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

“Forward

“…. This book leads us along a fascinating trail. Its pages are alive with the tang of smoke-filled caucus rooms, the sound of beat boxes, and the swift flight of Stealth bombers. In it, Beverly Slapin has caught the magic of the Caucasian. May her “talking leaves” add to your store of knowledge and take you into the Caucasian world of mystery and beauty.” (Doris Seale, Curator, Museum of the American Caucasian) ….

Caucasian American Education

“The way Caucasians prepared their youth for adulthood (a-dult’-hud) was by educating (ed’-yew-ka-ting) them. The education rites were held in cavernous gray temples call schools (skoolz), which often resembled cavernous gray temples called prisons (pri’-zonz). Both kinds of temples were used for similar purposes. These rites began when the youth were quite young, often as young as five years old, and continued until the children reached adulthood! Imagine how long schooling must have seemed to them!

“In school, the youth learned such important customs as standing in line (stan’-ding-in-lyn), raising a hand (ra’-zing-uh-hand) when they wanted to speak, holding bodily functions (hol’-ding-bod’-uh-lee-func’-shunz) until a certain time called recess (ree’-cess), ceasing all thought (cee’-sing-awl-thawt) when a bell rang at certain intervals (in’-ter’vulz), and learning the right answers (rite’-an’-serz) in order to pass tests (tests)….

“The right answers were inscribed in textbooks, which were considered sacred, and contained all the answers the Caucasians thought necessary to succeed in life. One of the most important lessons in life for Caucasian children was to learn never to question the veracity (ver-a’-ci-tee) of the teacher or the textbooks….

Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

Caucasian American Government

“Caucasian Americans had a very strange way of choosing their leaders. Their main leader was usually chosen by the people in a strange ritual called an election (e-lek’-shun). In order to be a leader, a person had to have three qualities (kwal-it-eez): he had to be a man, he had to be Caucasian (kaw-kā’-shun), and he had to have rich family connections (kun-nex’-shunz). If he had those qualities, he would ask a council of old trusted men to sponsor (spon’sor) him. These men were called bankers and businessmen (bank’-erz and biz’-ness-men). If the council decided that he was suited to lead the people, he would promise to obey (o-bay’) them, and they would campaign (kam-pāyn’) for him by paying great amounts of money (muh’-nee) to the media (mee’-dee-a) to buy advertisements (ad-ver-tiz’-mentz) to convince people that he was the one they wanted to lead them. The leader would make lots of promises (prom’-is-ez) to the people, and then the people would vote (vot) for him. Once he was elected, he was called the president (prez’-ih-dent) and lived in the White House. His house was called the White House because all of its inhabitants (in-hab’-i-tents) were white.

“Once the leader became president, he would go back on his promises and tell lots of lies to the people. Sometimes the people would find out about these lies, and they would be angry….

The president almost always consulted with the council before making a decision that concerned the whole tribe. But sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would just talk with another council of powerful war chiefs called generals (jen’-er-ellz), and he would make war, often without telling the people. The only people who knew about many wars were the young men who were sent to fight in them.

“Making war on other people would make the president feel good and strong, even though he didn’t do any of the fighting. It would also make the bankers and businessmen feel good because it would bring them great amounts of money. These war chiefs were very strange people, indeed, and their system of government was very strange.

Caucasian American Leaders
(keep in mind that this book was published in 1990!)

….

“Probably the greatest Caucasian American leader of all time was Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s father, also chief of the Great Council of Bankers and Businessmen, taught his son all the qualities he would need to become a leader of his people: extreme self-confidence (self-kon’-fi-dens), greed, lust, and delusions of grandeur (de-looz’-unz-of-grand’-ur). As he grew up, Trump became a great admirer of the Mogul Empire (mō’-gul-m-pīr), and when he became an adult, named one of his commercial palaces (kom-mer’-shul-pal’-u-sez) after their famous shrine, the Taj Mahal (tadj’-ma’hal’). Trump fought well in battles against other business chiefs, and soon became a famous warrior and the most important Caucasian leader in New York (noo-york’). He was savage in battle, and believed in the common Caucasian practice of putting prisoners to death. Although many considered him a ruthless (rūth’-less) leader, Donald Trump provided many jobs by keeping the scandal mills (skan’-dul-millz) going.”

Illustration by Annie Esposito, from Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

***

I hesitate to share satire because it stereotypes and often pokes fun at or demeans groups of people despite the tremendous diversity within any “group.” Rarely do I find it funny. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end and we have more than enough meanness in the world today.

Yet I often learn from the wisdom of my students. One of my Ojibwe students asked me how they could be expected to imagine something different than what they had always known. A profound question, isn’t it, that gets to the heart of diversity.

How can a Euro-American Dean in a Euro-American-led institution in a predominantly Euro-American culture know what it feels like for people who have lived their difference every day to be told that they don’t know enough about diversity? That decades of study and work with diverse groups on program, policy, and curricular innovation mean nothing? That sitting alone staring at a computer screen wearing headphones is the right way to learn what diversity means?

Some battles are just not worth my time, though. I’ve said all I have to say on this topic to those in power who believe their comfortable versions of truth are the only ones that matter. There are many far more important issues to focus on these days.

Work Cited:

Beverly Slapin & Annie Esposito (1990). Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook. Berkeley, CA: Oyate. (a joint project of Oyate and the Teaching Peace with Justice Task Force)

***

35 thoughts on “Questioning the Status Quo”

  1. “Learning for me only comes through leaving my relative comfort zone, if such a place exists for those of us who live between cultures, to enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care.”
    ~ I have also found this the best way of understanding and caring for others. As you no doubt know from your own experience, this is not easy as we open ourselves to insult and rejection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments, Brendan, and for sharing your dad’s experiences and feelings about diversity trainings. It’s a lucrative business for the for-profit companies that market them to schools at every level.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol, this is marvelous!
    In a few weeks I will be attending a diversity ethics conference as part of credentialing. I know from past experiences with these gatherings, that I will be enraged by the end of the first of four hours. Usually I am the only Native identified person in the room. There will be much discussion about “people of color” and zero about the experiences of eastern U.S. Natives who appear to be European. And no acknowledgement of Vermont’s dreadful history re Native people, nor of the fact that many Native people here continue to pass as white. Given that most Native people will not share their ethnicity with their therapist, not talking about these things ends up repeatedly being incredibly destructive.

    At the last of these events we attended, the presenter insisted on calling both my wife, who is multi-ethnic, and me, white, even after we repeatedly corrected her. it was enraging, belittling, and humiliating, and no one else stood up to her on our behalf.

    Of course, you know all this already. Thank for letting me rant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Michael, painful though they have undoubtedly been for you and your wife. I am sorry to hear that you will be forced to attend yet another such event.

      I have to admit that early in my career, I participated as a speaker/facilitator in diversity “trainings.” I have many amusing and troubling stories I could tell. Nonetheless, those experiences confirmed the ludicrous ineffectiveness of “experts” telling others what they need to know and do to become “culturally competent.”

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  3. I always enjoy your essays: intelligent without being pedantic, well-informed yet well-grounded. Although I enjoyed the satire in the Caucasian Americans Workbook, I appreciate your sensitivity toward racial stereotyping. It shows you have real integrity, that this bothers you regardless of who it’s directed against.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Art. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback on a topic that is often difficult for me to address without provoking strong emotional reactions from others.

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  4. As a former teacher, I know all about the “diversity” narrative/manipulation. The “Value Diversity” catch all narrative, which serves only to satisfy the political machinery. It’s another elite bone tossed to the easily fooled masses.

    At my end of the year review, my administrator would ask, “Did you include multicultural/diversity concepts in your lessons?” And I answered Yes. Because I taught music to high school juniors and seniors seeking a career in music, I wasn’t lying. The arts are naturally diverse and multicultural, without any politics being involved.

    And that was it. He never asked me how I included multicultural/diversity concepts. My yes answer was evidently good enough.

    I had a great administrator, but he knew, just like me, that this question had nothing to do with truth, it was just politics as usual.

    B.S. still comes to mind, Carol! And good for you, in refusing to take part in this kind of political farce!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I wish we did value and respect each other, Carol, as I know you do, as well. But these political devices have more to do with dividing us than bringing us together.

        For as you know, Carol, unity of “the masses” would mean doom for the ruling oligarchs.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Carol, I grew up in neighborhoods with a mixture of cultures and races. However, working at a historically back college for 10 years where I was 1 of 3 white employees (and the only white woman) on campus taught me just how little I knew. I had grown men on my crew, working 40+ hours a week, tell me that a social worker said the best thing they could do for their family was leave. Yet we complain about absentee fathers in the black community. Those years were an eye opener to the bias and prejudice that is embedded in white society. As you so eloquently said we need to get out of our comfort zone and be willing to “enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care”. Thanks for reminding me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Kathy, and for sharing your crucial observations about the ongoing challenges posed by taken-for-granted privilege and structural oppression. I wish more people had the courage you have demonstrated by entering diverse settings alone with an open heart and mind and bearing witness to and questioning discrimination up close. ❤

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  6. I like your student’s profound question, as we all sit in a matrix of experience, we only know what we know is my oft retort. I agree so much re satire, unless its generic in some way. But I loved reading this, it gets to the heart of the dissonance I feel at present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank so much for your thoughtful comments, Don. Please forgive my belated reply. I got behind with my responses when I became ill and still have a lot of catching up to do. I send my best wishes. ❤

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    1. Dear Sechaim, please forgive my belated thank you for your thoughtfulness. I got behind with my blog when I became quite ill and am still trying to catch up. I send my best wishes to you. ❤

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  7. I agree…and don’t. I have learned many things online (just today, the first women-led permaculture course officially started, with ongoing registration all this year)…if you ask me, learning permaculture is a life-long process and nobody will ever finish learning it all that is, as permaculture is so vast and based on the wisdom, observation and practices of so many cultures, systems thinking and so much more…but there are many good reasons to learn things online too, such as saving the carbon footprint of traveling and allowing people to read and reflect, something that not always is available when you are with others (particularly the reflection piece)…the world is so wrong in so many ways that we sometimes need to use what’s available, even the imperfect, to get to where we want to be.
    I don’t particularly like diversity courses, neither online nor in person or in books: they simplify and label entire communities, as you wisely wrote here…but there is training and writings that are deeply necessary, particularly for those who are in the privileged groups (again, with caring as not every individual responds to the “average”, even when historically speaking, certain groups may have experienced more systemic privilege than others).
    Have you seen this website?: https://whiteawake.org/self-education/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful discussion, Silvia. Somehow replying to comments got away from me as the semester drew to a close and gardening time arrived.

      I appreciate your insights about the value of long-distance technology in terms of creating access to life-long learning. The essential difference for a training like the one you are hosting is individual self-selection. People who are interested have a choice and are willing to invest time and money to learn. There’s a powerful incentive. Few college classes can make the same claim. Those who want to learn do no matter what the medium of delivery is or who’s teaching. I would argue, though, that few will learn anything positive if they are forced to participate and made to feel as if they are somehow deficient in the process. That’s certainly something I react to strongly, both as a learner and teacher.

      On another note, I hope all is going well with your new initiatives and send my best wishes. ❤

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