Wednesday, February 22, 2017

you're nice.

This afternoon the kids had an argument over their rooms- Lily's bedroom is much smaller than her brother's, so the deal is that when he goes to college, she'll move into the bigger room (and re-paint it! she declares.) To which Daniel answered, "Then I'm NOT going to college!" Because: logic. Also: siblings.

So we ended up having a long discussion about how living at your college is really fun and cool and you get to practice being a grown-up, yadda, yadda, yadda. (I didn't mention the drinking.) We don't have him convinced, yet. But we do have at least 8 years.

The truth is that going away to college is a big goal of ours for our children. We don't wish for them to be academic super stars or attend the BEST colleges. We want them to explore the world. We want for them the amazing privilege we received by studying away, and studying abroad.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a little bit about my experience studying in South Africa.  I spent 4 months living and studying in Durban, then I flew home, watched 18 solid hours of X-FILES on VHS tapes (thanks for recording every Sunday sis!) and then boarded a plane for South Dakota.

Cultural whiplash much? Yup. And Mulder and Scully didn't help. I was kind of a mess when I arrived in the tiny town of S_____, South Dakota.  Pop. 1000.

It's only been recently that I've realized the extraordinary privilege I had to spend the summer in South Dakota. It was a challenging summer for me because it was SO BORING for a 21 year old fresh off an African adventure. But, as the art teacher in the town Boys and Girls club, I did get to work and live and hang out with Lakota people for 2 months.

Most Americans have had limited contact with Indians/Native Americans/First Peoples. Our collective cultural knowledge is as deep as the Disney movies and "crying Indian" Facebook memes. I am certainly no expert and I am very aware of my ignorance. One summer mixing paint and playing pool with 15 Lakota kids makes me an expert in pretty much nothing re: Indian Country. But I do know that it is another world, those reservation/nations. A beautiful, hard, and isolated one which sadly, not enough Americans ever see.

Here was the weird thing about this little town (maybe it's changed since then?). There were 1000 people living in a town with ONE streetlight and there was TWO of everything. Two small town newspapers, two bakeries, two bars, two groceries, two churches, two general stores, two local radio stations. Why? Because half the town was Lakota, and the other half was white. The tiny town was segregated, right down the middle. My 21-year-old self could not fathom this. WHY!? I mean, Indians are the good guys who remind us not to litter! duh!? Isn't racism, like, for African-Americans and Latinos? 

21 year olds are sooooo dumb, and they think they are soooo smart.

I worked at the Boys and Girls Club, which was managed by the Lakota community. All the kids were Lakota.  We spent our days eating donated Christmas themed peanut butter cups and commodity food, doing art projects, playing pool and just hanging out.

One afternoon I took a group of kids to the local playground. The younger ones ran around while the older ones sat on a picnic table with me and chatted. After a while another camp van pulled up and a group of blond strapping kids piled out. They were obviously from the white Vacation Bible Camp. All the little Lakota kids came running over to my picnic table and said, let's go! The older kids started to stand up and walk towards our van. I laughed and said, "Where are you going? We don't have to leave!" One of the older girls said, "but the wasicu  (Lakota slang for white people) are here!".

"So what!" I laughed. Then I saw their faces, how scared they were.

"Guys, it's okay. We can still play here."

Rolled eyes. More movement towards the van.

"You guys?! Don't you know I'm wasicu too right?!"

"No you're not!" They all said in unison. "You're nice!"

I don't think I spoke a word after that. I just got up and opened up the van, and drove us all back to the cozy safety of the Club. My white privilege, previously invisible to me, had just been dumped like cold water all over my head.

you're nice.

20 years later, and I wonder what that little town is like. I wonder if it's still segregated. I wonder if  brown and blond kids play together in the park. I wonder if any of the little boys and girls I played pool with that summer, who are now young men and women, spent part of this year at Standing Rock.

Today the Standing Rock Water Protectors were removed from the protest site they had held for months. The construction crews will move in, and the oil pipeline with be laid down across their land.

you're nice.

There is so much news in the world. In our hyper-connected, 24 hours news cycle world we hear about everything, but are deeply connected to so little. It is like sipping from a firehouse. There is water aplenty, but you cannot quench your thirst. It is rare that a news story from far away, that is happening to a people you don't know and will never meet, can pierce through that and still you. Which leads to our newsfeeds filling with ever more fervent headlines and frantic "SHARE THIS" "WATCH THIS!" THIS THIS THIS!.

How can we feel anything in this din? How can we connect to the world?

I wish for my children, and all children, to travel the world, study with people different from themselves, and see just how beautiful and how diverse we humans are. As Ethiopian adoptees, they've already had their world turned upside down. They know deeply how fragile and terrible the world can be. What I wish for them is to see the strength of the people around the globe. The strength of Africans, who survived and thrived in their forced diaspora around the world. The strength of my European immigrant ancestors, who braved hardships and deprivation to build a new life in America.  The strength of Native peoples, which was finally visible to millions of people because of the brave warriors at Standing Rock.

I was very, very lucky to travel and study abroad as a young woman.  If only more Americans, especially white Americans, could have the experience of having their world turned upside down and their identity shaken, because then, THEN, we might be better citizens of the planet. We white folks could certainly use a dousing of cold water to wake us from the stupor of our invisible privilege.

Then we might know that being nice is not enough.

My world was turned upside down 20 years ago and it's still turning back around. For which, today, I am especially grateful.

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