I was finishing up a post on the Red Rock Ride, and this post/rant injected itself.
My travels in the American Southwest have introduced me to people of different faiths, ethnicities, races, and cultures who have a story to tell, and are willing to tell it, if you talk to them. The beauty in these encounters, for me, has been the raw truth of their experience. It becomes clear when you talk to people who have not forgotten, that history isn’t written by the vanquished, but by the victors. Sadly, relevant native voices were absent from my Red Rock Ride tour, but I did hear, ever so briefly, the familiar reference of the aggressive Indian who could not receive change. I would have like to have heard the Paiute perspective on westward expansion by the pioneers, and their own experiences in the canyons that we visited. Utah, named for the Ute Indians roughly means in several native languages people of the mountain or people who live up high. Ironically, the victors backhandedly revere their “brute” neighbors by naming cities, towns and even whole states after them. Funny that.
I recently read an article by Binyavanga Wainaina called, “How to Write About Africa.” This piece should serve as a benchmark for how we speak and write about other racial and ethnic groups, such as the American Indian, African-Americans, and even whole countries. You may have noticed that there is a definite institutionalized racism when reading about the American Indian. I have written before how certain Indian tribal names invoke fear and distrust, even today. Luckily, education on and off the reservation has helped produce, among others, historians, writers and artists who are using their talents to create a tapestry of a new history that is palatable to the victors, and regarded by their peers.
What I find amazing is that the way we think of, speak and write about people who are different from ourselves in the media, in literature and in everyday conversation hasn’t changed much in 200 years. Throwing off outmoded terms to describe people is not political correctness, but a measure of enlightenment, intelligence, and respect. Recently, I heard someone refer to an East Asian person as “Oriental.” I was flummoxed because this person is probably 40 years old, and lives in a major metropolitan area! When I suggested that the term oriental more appropriately refers to objects that relate to or come from the Orient, and to call a person Oriental is offensive, I was met with the political correctness argument, and/or, that his intent was not to offend. Sigh. It costs nothing to open your eyes and see the world around you. Read. Turn the channel away from those conservative pundits, and talk to people outside of your community. Watch a foreign film. (I know you don’t like the sub-titles). But, most importantly, travel! Learn about different cultures. Travel doesn’t require taking a second mortgage on your home, or crossing oceans. These cultures exist in your own country, sometimes just across town. Join an international Meetup group if you cannot afford to travel. Talk to people, no matter who they are.
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and the countless other senseless killings of young African-American males in past months, to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, to the unrest in the Middle East and around the world we should all reflect: through what prism do we view these conflicts? How well-informed are we? Are we just grabbing sound bites that reinforce our own prejudices and notions? Where do we seek information? Hear another perspective. Start a helpful dialogue.
I have been fortunate to meet so many people from all walks of life, out in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. I think it is a little easier because I am open to it, being on vacation and all, but I have witnessed others on vacation with no interest in interacting with the native peoples selling their wares on the Pueblo, or even with the locals in the area. Maybe it is because I desire and seek a certain level of truth that you cannot always read about, but must experience through interaction and a reasonable exchange of ideas. I am not special in this regard. For me, travel is more about meeting the locals, than it is about seeing a city’s monuments. In this space, I have tried to share some of my encounters, but they are often difficult to reduce to words. Upasatti (whom we met in Silver City Vibe) said it well, "There is no how . . . you just be."
I find it uncomfortable sometimes to speak to others who believe that being respectful, thoughtful, and enlightened exacts too large of a price for them, so instead they reduce these virtues to platitudes, rather than goals to strive for. From time to time, we all harbor prejudices and jump to conclusions because we are ill-informed, but a sentient person recognizes her weakness and moves closer to truth, rather than away from it.