Keeping Others From Doing the Othering: Awareness Leads to Change
“It wasn’t the white skin that I hated, but it was their culture of deceit, greed, racism, and violence,” Barbara Cameron says in “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like An Indian From the Reservation” (46). One of the first Lakota words she learned was “wasicu which designates white people,” but it was “‘wasicu sica’ with emphasis on sica, [the] word for terrible or bad” that Cameron learned from her grandmother and which she vividly remembers (46). The view of whites in America, perhaps in all the world, is not as pleasant as we whites would like to think. According to Cameron it is whites’ separation from each other and our “loud, obnoxious, and vulgar” ways that offend native peoples (46). We are the “plastic faces,” perhaps because we hide our true thoughts and feelings behind political correctness and do not admit to our racist attitudes (46). This paper will show that the dominant culture in America (the white heterosexual male with white heterosexual female complicity) is not the only “right” culture; white culture’s racism continues to contribute to the fracturing of people and it won’t be until whites are aware and working towards coalition instead of dominance that the fracturing will begin to stop.
American society has always viewed itself as on the “side of right” with its patriotic symbols, belief in meritocracy, and its can-do spirit. Unfortunately, American society, though believing itself on the “side of right” is often an imperialistic power that uses fear to maintain control. What the dominant culture in America fails to realize is that there are differences between different cultures and within cultures and that those differences can and should be acceptable. Barbara Cameron’s Lakota are a “great and different nation” (47). Her definition of great may not be the same as American society’s definition, but we cannot ignore the fact that Native Americans belong to their own nations that entered into treaties with the United States (Miranda 205). The “realities of being an Indian in South Dakota” meant that Cameron was refused Halloween treats when she and her friends visited a home, and Cameron felt “very sad that [her] mother had to defend her child to someone who wasn’t worthy of her presence” (47). An adult refused a child candy simply because of the child’s race and did so in front of other children. “Because of experiencing racial violence, I sometimes panic when I’m the only non-white in a roomful of whites,” Cameron says, even if they are her closest friends (47). Cameron, though, recognizes that she is not without racism herself. There is a “complex set of ‘racisms’ within the Indian community,” and she has her “racism toward other people” (49). She continues, “We are all continually pumped with gross and inaccurate images of everyone else and we all pump it out” (49, author’s emphasis). In addition to being othered and fractured as a Lakota woman, Cameron is also a lesbian. At a gay conference, Cameron felt unwelcomed and demoralized, as though she were invisible, because of the “narrow definition held by some people that third world means black people only” (50). Echoing Chrystos’ statement in her poem “He Saw” that she doesn’t “want this man who cut off his hair / joined the government / to be safe” (18), Cameron “cannot idly sit by and allow [herself] to be co-opted by the dominant society” (50). There needs to be “co-responsibility from people of color and white people” to deal with the issues of racism and homophobia (51). “We are named by others,” Cameron says, but we are also “named by ourselves” (51, author’s emphasis). Speaking up and allowing others to hear what we name ourselves increases awareness, begins the process of reducing othering, and creates wholeness from the fractures.
Anita Valerio, in “It’s In My Blood, My Face – My Mother’s Voice, The Way I Sweat,” demonstrates how easily she has been inculcated into white culture. Valerio, a lesbian, half Indian and half Chicana, lightskinned woman, relates an instance where she refers to the spirit world with the word “weird” when speaking with her mother. “Only a non-Indian would say that,” she explains. “Someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been raised to see that life is a continuous whole from flesh to spirit, that we’re not as easily separated as some think. I knew that” (42). In addition, Valerio says that as a child she “didn’t even realize that’s what [she] was – an Indian – in fact [she] jumped up and down in protest ‘I’m not an Indian – I’m not an Indian’” because the “Indians were the bad guys on T.V.” (42). Like Cameron, Valerio addresses the genocide that Americans have perpetrated against Indians. During a sweat, Valerio had a “sense of the Marvelous” and a “sense of sacredness,” but she also felt “a collective wound” of her people and their “collective presence. . .before being colonized and culturally liquidated” (43). In World War II, we fought against the cultural genocide being perpetrated against the Jews, but we have perpetuated a cultural genocide of the native peoples living in America and of the black peoples brought here through slavery. We continue to ignore or discount the differences and require alienation and assimilation of those who are not white (Cameron 48). How does Valerio “reclaim [her] language the symbols and sacred gestures?” (41). It is “better to be a boy,” Valerio says because “if [she were] a boy it would be easier to be a super hero and to be president” (44). Unfortunately, the Lakota society to which Valerio belongs, like American society, is extremely conservative and limiting, even for men; men in native society have a limited role (44). Valerio questions the patriarchal in her native culture. Why is the holy woman holy? Is it because she has not been touched by but one man (41). It isn’t just that Valerio is a native woman in a culture dominated by white males; it is that her “lesbianism has become a barrier between [her]self and [her] people” (44). Not being “able to talk about [her] own [life] in the same [free] way. . . .causes a false and painful separateness,” Valerio says (44). She is other and fragmented as a result.
In addition to co-editing, Cherríe Moraga is a writer for This Bridge Called My Back. In “La Guëra,” Moraga tells how her Anglo father was a key to avoiding the difficulties her mother faced. Moraga says that her “head [was] propped up with the knowledge, from my mother, that my life would be easier than hers. I was educated; but more than this, I was ‘la guëra’: fair-skinned” (28). Moraga’s mother was a Chicano American, born in Santa Paula, California and was pulled out of school at least four times to work the fields (27). Moraga’s grandfather drank the family’s money away, and by age fourteen her mother was “the main support of the family” (27). Moraga’s mother’s “oppression – poor, uneducated, and Chicana” would not become Moraga’s own oppression (28). Moraga was “never taught much Spanish at home,” and there was a “huge disparity between what [she] was born into and what [she] was to grow up to become” (28). As a woman oppressed by the dominant culture, Moraga “feigned being the happy, upwardly mobile heterosexual” (28). In reality, though, Moraga is a lesbian (28). “In this country,” Moraga says, “lesbianism is a poverty” (29), and everything she has learned about “silence and oppression” (28) has come from her experiences with homophobia. We must start, Moraga insists, with struggling with “the ‘ism’ that’s sitting on top of our own heads,” but failure “to move out from there will only isolate us in our own oppression – will only insulate, rather than radicalize us” (29). We must keep in mind that there is “danger. . .in ranking the oppressions” (29). Oppression is oppression whether it is internalized or externalized, whether it is an oppression of people, a sexual identity, or a mental illness. When we rank the oppressions we otherize and fracture those who have experienced the silencing that the dominant culture inflicts upon those who are different. Those who have received privileges, such as me because of my whiteness, must remember what oppression feels like “because to remember may mean giving up whatever privileges we have managed to squeeze out of this society by virtue of our gender, race, class, or sexuality” (30). But becoming aware is what will reduce fear. Moraga, for instance, is “a woman with a foot in both [chicana and white] worlds; and [she] refuse[s] to split” (34). Unless we unleash “the real power, as you and I well know, [that] is collective,” we will not survive. “We can’t afford to be afraid of you, nor you of me,” she continues. “If it takes head-on collisions, let’s do it: this polite timidity is killing us” (34). Thus, Moraga advocates that we speak up to create awareness and begin the process of becoming whole again. Our speaking up will show the “internalized. . .racism and classism, where the object of oppression is not only someone outside of [our own] skin, but the someone inside [our] skin” (31). In this way Moraga will not deny “the voice of [her] brown mother – the brown in [her]. [She has] acclimated to the sound of a white language which, as [her] father represents it, does not speak to the emotions in [her] poems – emotions which stem from the love of [her] mother” (31). By speaking up, Moraga no longer “cradle[s] her [mother’s] silence” (“For the Color of My Mother” 12). She does not shrink from challenging the dominant culture (“La Guëra” 33). It is our individual “responsibility for changing our own lives” (33). By speaking up, Moraga shows us that it is “not really difference the oppressor fears so much as similarity. He fears he will discover in himself the same aches” (32). And so we have discovered both similarities and differences. We’ve discovered that in this “white dominated world” (33) that there are different cultures that exist (native, chicana, white) and that there are different sexual identifications (homosexual and heterosexual). Knowing “how it is that [we whites] oppress, is when [we]’ve come to know the meaning of [our] own oppression. And understand that the oppression of others hurts [us] personally” (33, author’s emphasis).
In “. . .And Even Fidel Can’t Change That!,” Aurora Levins Morales tells us that she was “born deep in the countryside of Puerto Rico” (53). Like the other women of mixed descent I’ve discussed, Morales’s Jewish father was her “middle class passport” (55). “There is nothing but circumstance and good English, nothing but my mother marrying into the middle class, between me and that life” of oppression (55) that her mother lived with her grandmother keeping her dark-skinned husband and children hidden and lying “to get an apartment in Puertoricanless neighborhoods” because “she could pass for Italian” (54). The biggest fragmentation Morales seems to face is the difference between Puerto Rican and Anglo sensibilities regarding sex. She says that “while the chilliest Anglo-Saxon repression of sex pretends it simply doesn’t exist, Latin repression says it’s a filthy fact of life, use it for what it’s worth. . .shake it in his face, wear it as a decoy. It’s all over the floor and it’s cold and savage. It’s the hatred of the powerless, turned crooked (56). There is a coquettishness to Puerto Rican women’s discussion of sex (53). The women “hate. . .sex and gloat…over the hidden filthiness,” but then they “Look…[the author] over, in a hurry to find [her] a boyfriend, and in the same breath [say]: ‘you can’t travel alone. You don’t know what men are like. . . .they only want one thing. . .’” (53). This double standard demonstrates the oppression of women since women even use the author “to bitch to [about men] and then go. . .running to men for approval” (54). Thus, “It’s not the men who exile me,” says Morales. “. . .it’s the women. I don’t trust the women” (54). The oppressed has become the oppressor; the one being fragmented has fragmented others. Morales sees hope, though. The women’s “cattiness is mixed with the information, tips [for dealing with men and sex]. The misery is communal” (54). It is a coalition of the oppressed, struggling for survival, and “anything is better than being alone” (56, author’s emphasis). If we “heal that wound [between mother and daughter, between the oppressed becoming an oppressor]. . .[then] we change the world” (56). It would mean that “in the third generation the daughters are free” of the oppression that we women place on each other, passed down from mother to daughter (56, author’s emphasis).
Until this course I was complicit in white culture’s racism towards other cultures. I recognized social injustices and racist comments, but I did not speak up. What this Literature by Women of Color class has done for me is to make me aware of the racism and colonialism within my own culture. I had never thought of whiteness as a colonialistic set of values that seeks to gain power at the expense of others. I thought that ended with westward expansion and the world wars, desegregation and the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, racism, homophobia, and classism still exist. It is just a matter of whether or not I see it. Now that I am aware, I can work towards improving the situation. I can pay attention to what I say and do. For example, instead of trying to make a joke with those who are disabled in order to ease my own uneasiness, I can smile and be welcoming. This othering was just pointed out to me by one of my own students who has been in a wheelchair for three years because of a car accident. He told me that I made him feel uncomfortable when I said, “Watch out for my feet.” Instead of it being a joke against my own clumsiness, it was a reminder of his difference. He told me in writing that he just laughs along when in reality he is hurt by that comment. As a woman, I have been othered, and I definitely should know better. Even with the best of intentions, those who have been oppressed oppress others. Instead of trying to make myself feel comfortable, I need to stop trying to be the dominant one and recognize that there are other ways of dealing with situations, ways other than making myself feel comfortable, ways that involve making other people feel comfortable. What impresses me so much is that this high school sophomore had the courage to tell me what I had done. He broke his silence, and in speaking up he created a “theory in the flesh” “by telling [his story] in [his] own words” (Moraga, “Entering the Lives of Others: Theory in the Flesh” 23).
Cameron, Barbara. “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like An Indian From the Reservation.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 46-52.
Chrystos. “He Saw.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 18-19.
Miranda, Deborah A. “’What’s Wrong with a Little Fantasy?’ Storytelling from the (Still) Ivory Tower.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.192-202.
Moraga, Cherríe. “Entering the Lives of Others: Theory in the Flesh.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 23.
---“For the Color of My Mother.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 12-13.
---. “La Guëra.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 27-34.
Morales, Aurora Levins. “. . .And Even Fidel Can’t Change That!” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 53-56.
Valerio, Anita. “It’s In My Blood, My Face – My Mother’s Voice, The Way I Sweat.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 41-45.
Yamada, Mitsuye. “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman.” This Bridge Called My Back. 2nd ed. Eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983. Print. 35-40.