Tag Archives: oppression

Revisiting A Darkened Auditorium

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I revisited one of my first posts and decided to share it. Perhaps this will be one of my last entries. I have joined NaNoWrMo for the month of November to provide structure and motivation for working on final edits for the manuscript I began in 2015. It’s time for me to take the risk that I’ll once again be sharing my authentic voice in a darkened auditorium to the censure of critics. The message the book contains about the importance of preserving even limited tribal sovereignty in order to preserve cultures that value life is too pressing to ignore for me in these times.

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As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.

By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.

Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.

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Microsoft WORD Clip Art

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The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.

At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?

I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.

Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.

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Photo Credit: Carol Hand, Carlos, José, and children, 1973, photographer unknown

 

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Perspective

Carol A. Hand

Feeling chilly and achy today

as little viruses have their way

making my body their temporary home

My muse visits easing distress with a silly poem

and with memories of times long ago

about how differing perspectives

profoundly influence what we think we know

***

Perhaps many of you are tired of my stories about teaching research, but increasingly my muse insists I do so anyway. She tells me to write about my own life and experiences, to speak from my own heart regardless of what others find amusing or meaningful.

It often happens that teaching brings new insights that I didn’t really think about before I needed to explain something to students. It happened again during this semester when I was pondering how to explain the importance of perspective. There is a quote that I think about every time I take a photo.

“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

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Looking East from Enger Tower – October 14, 2018

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I remembered a study I did when I was completing my last degree. We had to analyze the effectiveness of a social welfare policy using empirical data. Big words, perhaps, but that’s academia, making obvious and simple concepts somewhat obscure. The meaning of empirical asserts that what we can see and measure with our own eyes is somehow more real than things we imagine or feel.

Empirical means – 1: originating in or based on observation or experience, 2: relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory, or 3: capable of being verified (proven accurate) or disproved by observation or experiment. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Take elder abuse. At the time I was enrolled in this class (late 1980s), elder abuse was a topic that was gaining national attention in the United States. States across the nation had enacted reporting laws similar to child abuse reporting laws passed during 1960s. Both statutes required key professionals to report suspicious injuries to state authorities for further investigation. And similar to child abuse, the most commonly substantiated category for elders was “neglect.”

For children, this meant neglectful parents from the perspective of investigators. For elders it meant “self-neglect,” defined as doing things that were considered foolish, unhealthy, or life-threatening.
When the professor asked members in the class to describe their topic, I was told that my topic was foolish.

It’s obvious why elders are abused,” he definitively asserted. “They’re a drain on families and society’s resources.

Research on elders suggests otherwise,” I replied, before listing a number of studies that identified strengths on many levels. As the professor with a national reputation, he was not inclined to yield to a mere student’s views. He proceeded to tell me how stupid I was in front of the class. Several times, I replied calmly with yet more research that supported my perspective. Finally I had to interrupt this repeating cycle by smiling and gently stating, “I think we need to agree to disagree about this topic, Professor.”

In a prior job, I often had to confront ageism among social service practitioners. I remember standing before large audiences of service providers a number of times, asking them to introduce themselves to everyone by name, title, and chronological age, At least one third of each group, primarily middle-aged Euro-American women, refused to state their age in visibly angry ways. It underscored the point I wanted to make about the power of social stereotypes about aging and elders. I wondered if my graying-haired professor held the same fears and denials of aging.

Of course, I couldn’t resist following up the next class by giving him a gift, a little badge with a message printed on it – “Aging, all the best people are doing it!” Needless to say, he wasn’t amused and he did make me work incredibly hard to pass his course.

But the topic wasn’t through teaching me about perspectives. I gained access to the state’s elder abuse reporting system data set through another professor with a national reputation. “I want you to do a simple analysis,” he said, “to show that the system does a good job serving populations of color because they are more likely to be reported.” This time, I took the path of diplomacy and remained silent. I thought about the disproportional representation of people of color in the prison system and knew it was not something I would mindlessly support to please someone in power who probably shouldn’t be publishing research findings.

I met with a former research professor and asked for help to design a different study. Unlike the other professors, he asked me what I wanted to know. “I want to know if the legislation improves the lives of elders,” was my honesty response. “Well, let’s figure out how you can do that with this data set, then,” he replied.

It wasn’t an easy task. The study he helped me design explored how well the elder abuse legislation in a particular State met two competing goals, protecting elders from harm or allowing them to exercise their right to self- determination. The paper that resulted was titled “Elder abuse legislation: Protecting vulnerable citizens at the expense of personal freedom and self respect?

The findings of the study were complex and inconclusive, but ultimately they raised ethical concerns. Statutes that require professionals to report abuse should be accompanied by sufficient funding to support appropriate interventions that help survivors and perpetrators heal and preserve or regain a sense of worth and dignity.

I am grateful for the lessons and memories of years past, and perhaps to the little viruses, too. Sometimes it takes feeling a bit under the weather to force the choice between writing rather than grading papers with a somewhat foggy mind.

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Look west from Enger Tower – October 14, 2018

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Illness certainly gives one a different perspective. Yet the central point remains. Perspective matters. One can use neutral tools like research to perpetuate stereotypes and power-over approaches or as a way to explore more liberatory possibilities. Sadly, it has often been used by those in power to support the legitimacy and supremacy of their particular agendas and lenses.

Source Cited:

Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller, eds., Doing Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999), 3.

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Just Wondering…

Carol A. Hand

Teaching always makes me wonder about taken-for-granted assumptions passed down through the generations and how they affect our ability to really see and understand the world. For some reason, this morning I couldn’t help thinking about the way we refer to everything in the cosmos as the universe. The prefix uni- means “having or consisting of only one.”

 

Abell 520 – Hubble Image

 

Initially, I viewed the suffix, verse, literally, suggesting that universe meant one shared story. But that didn’t make sense after viewing the definitions of verse:

“writing that is arranged in a rhythmic pattern; poems: one of the parts into which a poem or song is divided: or one of the short parts into which the Bible is divided.” (Cambridge Dictionary)

Next, I explored the meaning of the word universe as a whole.

Universe – “All existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos. The universe is believed to be at least 10 billion light years in diameter and contains a vast number of galaxies; it has been expanding since its creation in the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago.” (Oxford Dictionary)

That didn’t satisfy my curiosity about the origins of meaning, and why we need to characterize of the cosmos as one. I explored the etymology or origins of the term universe and learned the following.

“Borrowed from Latin universum (“all things, as a whole, the universe”), neuter of universus (“all together, whole, entire, collective, general, literally turned or combined into one”), from uni-, combining form of unus (“one”) + versus (“turned”), perfect passive participle of verto (“I turn”).”  (Wiktionary)

Still, I wondered why “all that is everywhere through all of time” has been viewed as one. We certainly don’t act as if we view other beings who share this reality as really one with us. But we do expect others to see the world as we do. We expect others and nature to comply with our immediate and personal wants and preferences.

What would the world be like if we thought about the cosmos differently? If we saw the cosmos, or even our world, as collections of multi- (many) verses?

Would our imaginations be open to an infinite number of new possibilities? There have been times in my life when I read science fiction and fantasy novels, especially when facing problems I couldn’t solve without first breaking through limiting assumptions. The global appeal of other worlds presented by creative literature, art, music, and films has been enduring and well-documented. So many of us long for a better world, although we may define what better means in many different ways.

I found the concept of multiverses appealing today.

“The multiverse is a theoretical framework in modern cosmology (and high energy physics) which presents the idea that there exist a vast array of potential universes which are actually manifest in some way.” (Thoughtco)

It satisfies my need to continue to explore the question I ask myself each time I teach research.

“Is there one truth, or are there many truths?”

 

A Cosmic Couple

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Reflections about Learning Compassion

Carol A. Hand

A fervent wish –
May the bullies and narcissists
of the world
both the petty and the powerful
one day awaken
and realize
with piercing empathic pain
the harm they have done
to others and the earth
and with great sorrow
understand
they are teaching
their children
to do
the same

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Narcissus (1590s) by Caravaggio (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome), Public Domain, Wikipedia

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Reflections about Giving

Carol A. Hand

Ultimately we are all alone
in a universe that seems indifferent
to the suffering of so many
our hearts may sometimes feel the pain
yet we can do little to understand or change
the ongoing forces of destruction and oppression

The only response may be doing what we can
to at least ease distress in the moment
when someone knocks on our door
not asking for healing or sanctuary
but merely a temporary respite
from chaos and imminent threat

The forces of harm remain unabated
attracting those who feel they have no worth
like moths mesmerized by a candle flame
that will surely consume them
unless they wake up in time

Perhaps kindness from a stranger
who asks nothing in return
will be enough to lighten the burden of aloneness
for both the askers and the givers
temporarily revealing the importance of compassion

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A Candle in the Darkness

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Inspired by real life and two differing perspectives. The first is a reminder of the work of Albert Camus (1913-1060), who

“… introduced and developed the twin philosophical ideas—the concept of the Absurd and the notion of Revolt—that made him famous. These are the ideas that people immediately think of when they hear the name Albert Camus spoken today. The Absurd can be defined as a metaphysical tension or opposition that results from the presence of human consciousness—with its ever-pressing demand for order and meaning in life—in an essentially meaningless and indifferent universe. Camus considered the Absurd to be a fundamental and even defining characteristic of the modern human condition. The notion of Revolt refers to both a path of resolved action and a state of mind. It can take extreme forms such as terrorism or a reckless and unrestrained egoism (both of which are rejected by Camus), but basically, and in simple terms, it consists of an attitude of heroic defiance or resistance to whatever oppresses human beings. In awarding Camus its prize for literature in 1957, the Nobel Prize committee cited his persistent efforts to “illuminate the problem of the human conscience in our time.” He was honored by his own generation, and is still admired today, for being a writer of conscience and a champion of imaginative literature as a vehicle of philosophical insight and moral truth” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The other is from Kosmos Community News,

“When did the world break open for you and reveal its radiant light?

“I’m guessing we all have had fleeting revelatory glimpses of the sublime, the numinous. Sometimes it takes a great loss or crisis to trigger the moment of grace….

“These diamond-sharp moments cut through our haze, yet inevitably fade. We may relegate them to a corner of mind as moments of madness or anomaly, but such non-ordinary experiences seem to be in the increase and may be showing us a world more real than the one we think we know” (Kosmos).

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Reflections about Following the Leader

Carol A. Hand

After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.

What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?

Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.

Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.

Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.

Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.

As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.

Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.

The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.

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June 25, 2018

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Work Cited:

Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.

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Some Days I Wonder …

Carol A. Hand

Raised Fist Image by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia. (Details below.)

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Mr. Trump is coming to town today
“power to the people”
Long lines of supporters wait to hear him
“power to the people”
Lined up for blocks above streets
in dark sweltering skywalks
no power to the people
As they wait for electricity to be restored
on this quiet lovely sunny day
in the part of the city where Mr. Trump will soon appear
*
How fervently I wish real heart and intellectual power
would be restored to the people
as children are once again
being torn from the arms of loving families

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A Pleasant Quiet Sunny Day – June 20, 2018

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Note:

The “Raised Fist Image” by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia, “… is a variant of the clenched fist motif which has been widely used by leftist, workers, and liberationist groups since the nineteenth century. The motif itself is not under copyright.”

Keith Tyler’s image was released into the public domain by its creator February 2007. “The wider motif itself is not protected by copyright.”

What Would You Choose?

Carol A. Hand

We teach the next generations
through our lived example
how to care for the earth
and all our relations
We’re ever creating the world
our children and grandchildren will inherit
across all of earth’s imaginary boundaries
and within diverse fictive nations

The question to consider
is what we want that world to be

Do we teach children to care,
cooperate, and conserve?
Or do we teach them to compete,
conquer, and consume?

The answers matter profoundly
but we need to remember
awareness can’t be imposed
through legislation
It can only be encouraged
through living examples
that offer another kind of education
opening up new possibilities
that demonstrate the value
of compassionate contemplation

A lesson from an “Inchworm”

Note

Sometimes it feels futile and foolish to work on creating healthy gardens on a city lot that has long been neglected. Factories just to the east churn out foul-smelling toxic fumes. My neighbor on one side has spent more than a decade burying garbage along the fence-line. Lately, the garbage has merely been left exposed, joined by plastic toys his children abandon when their interest wanes.

I have tried to engage in reasoned conversations and offered to help create a healthy landscaped transition. My words have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps suggestions from an Ojibwe grandmother (you know, a triple whammy – age, gender, and ancestry) even exacerbated his unwillingness to consider alternatives. The experience has taught me how profoundly cultures and life experiences affect our ability to discern how our everyday choices affect what our children learn and the health of the environments they will inherit.

I’ve been told it’s a matter of perspective. Some prefer landfills that will someday look like manicured lawns despite the toxic or dangerous things that are hidden from sight, while others prefer healthy gardens.

May 31, 2014

May 23, 2018

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I still wonder, though, how someone who claims to love children doesn’t seem to realize his actions are destroying a child’s garden.

July 3, 2015 – My granddaughter standing next to the garden she helped create.

May 23, 2018 – Damage control in process as the wooden divide grows ever higher to protect my granddaughter’s garden from the growing pile of refuse (including piles of dog feces).

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Reflections Inspired by Being Unplugged

Carol A. Hand

The past week has been strange. My computer power pack fried on class-prep day, Thursday, leaving me without access to the internet. Thankfully, the colleague I co-teach with was able to shoulder the work of reading student assignments and preparing our class power point. Getting my little laptop functional presented too many challenges to address in a day – antivirus protection, internet connection, and too little space to even download Windows 10 updates. Amazingly, each challenge has been overcome with my sense of humor intact.

I must admit it was a relief to be free from the continuing bombardment of distressing news. Yet each time I entered the living room my eyes automatically focused on the computer screen. It was dark, making me realize how much time I spend online. Without my computer, I had time to think, read, and do tasks that I could never find time to do when I was dealing with my blog. I liked having all of that time to reflect.

Having so much extra time also meant I could sort through the piles of papers everywhere and get rid of unnecessary things. It was a healing time in some crucial ways, though. I realized how weary I have become. The state of the world weighs heavy on my heart.

Countering the hopelessness and sorrow that sometimes makes it hard for me to create takes a tremendous amount of energy. And it takes much more now than in years past. I don’t feel as physically resilient as I once believed myself to be. My 70th year felt like a turning point signaling inevitable decline. Illnesses, back injuries, and the uncertainty of recurring debilitating back pain were constant reminders of my limitations and growing frailty. The combination of hopelessness and feelings of increasing physical frailty made it very tempting to simply withdraw and live in a reclusive fantasy world.

Then, my computer power pack fried. Suddenly life quieted and simplified. I had a chance to reflect and fall in love with life again. I had a chance to remember what matters most in my life.

October 5, 2015

I realized that the one true love of my life has been my daughter through good times and bad. I certainly haven’t been a perfect mother but she has always remained the most significant love in my life, now joined by my two grandchildren. Partners and friends have come and gone, yet giving birth created a special connection. The words that come to mind when I think of her, “In my life – I love you more,” come from a song by the Beatles.

Time for family comes first. Just as I finished typing these words, I was called in to live them, putting all plans aside to help provide support in a challenging situation. Although unsure how to help, I was grateful for the chance to be present, standing on tiptoes to hug my beloved grandson.

I also had time to begin spring cleaning by purging file cabinets that I try to avoid opening with the excuse that I just don’t have time. Sifting through them this week helped me remember how many places I’ve lived. I had forgotten the courage it took for an introvert to begin such a wide variety of new jobs in new places. I realized, too, how much I have enjoyed working in partnership with elders, tribes, and communities to develop innovative programs that addressed their needs and visions.

Old files reminded me how much I have loved teaching. Reading through teaching evaluations made me realize that many of my students appreciated what and how I taught in return. I say that with deep humility and gratitude because it’s something I worked very hard to do in often repressive unsupportive institutions. Challenging the status quo through love-inspired creativity makes one a target, but for some of us, it’s just what we have to do to be true to who we are.

UW Madison – 1989

Revisiting the past made me realize how grateful I am for the opportunities I still have to teach and contribute what I can to help open up possibilities for others to awaken to their beauty and talents. It brings me joy to encourage others to care about the earth and people by example in the true spirit of liberatory praxis – action guided by knowledge and inclusive compassion. Making time for teaching keeps me engaged with life doing something I love to do.

The one ache that became clear, though, when I looked at the looming blank computer screen this past week, was my failure to make time to finish editing and revising my manuscript about Ojibwe child welfare. It’s not something I can do until my computer is repaired.

Thankfully, my computer can be fixed although it will take time. Until then, I will remain grateful for the ability to connect with the internet even though it means squinting to read tiny type on a tiny laptop. It’s hard on my eyes so I can’t spend much time reading or writing. If you don’t hear from me often these days, that’s why.

I am not sure when I will be able to post again or how often I will be able to visit your blogs and comment. That depends on forces outside of my control. But I can still send my best wishes to all and I do so now with gratitude.

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.

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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

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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)

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