Let me preface this by saying that my exposure to issues facing Aboriginal* people in Canada is as close to purely academic as you can get. I cannot and would not claim to speak for anyone from those communities.
But I would like to talk about the stereotypes they have to face.
Drunk. Lazy. Waiting around for the next welfare cheque. I’ve heard them all. You probably have, too.
Again, I’m not Aboriginal. So how do I know these stereotypes exist?
Because I’m a white male whose exposure to issues facing Aboriginal people in Canada is as close to purely academic as you can get. And even if people holding these prejudices will never express them to the faces of those they are stereotyping, they’ll say them to me. And they have. More often than one would like in an inclusive, tolerant society.
Sometimes, but not often enough, I will challenge those stereotypes. I come armed with a number of academic courses on the subject. I come armed with a list of historical injustices, many of which were incurred on people still living and walking among us today. But I’m always met with a supposed trump.
“You don’t see what I see.”
That comes to me from a variety of sources. Front-line providers dealing with crime, medical care, or education. Retail workers. People whose daily route takes them past a litany of pan-handlers. Aboriginal people are a minority. And so the rest of society bases their impressions of a diverse and far-reaching group of people on the few or even the many they encounter in their daily lives. And those they encounter apparently serve to reinforce the prejudices that already exist in their own mind.
I can’t pretend problems don’t exist. I will say that the fact they exist in such a high number within a particular racial group points to some systemic problem that needs to be addressed, but that’s another issue for another day for people more qualified than I. But what I would really like to say is this:
You don’t see what I see.
Because in my job, that of finding interesting people doing interesting things in northern BC, I have been privileged to learn about and speak with some amazing individuals. And among those amazing individuals are more than a handful of Aboriginal people.
They are using limited resources to do incredible things. Everything from re-learning and re-imagining traditional culture to creating iPhone apps that teach native languages to negotiating with multi-billion dollar companies over how best to distribute resources. Rappers, politicians, business-people, teachers, doctors, athletes. They are no better and no worse than anyone else, but they are doing it within a system that until recently was explicitly against them and still has more barriers to entry than you may believe. They are having to fight against prejudices and stereotypes. They are not alone in having the odds stacked against them, to be sure, but it has been my own experience that the rest of the country views Aboriginal people with more apprehension than they do any other ethnic group.
Chimamanda Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She is speaking of Africa, but here in Canada I feel like this statement applies equally well to society’s view of Aboriginal people.
What I’m trying to say is this: when you tell me that your characterization of the drunk, lazy native is defensible because of what you’ve seen with your own eyes, you’re asking me to form my opinion based on your experiences. And if you want me to do that, you’ll have to do the same for my ever-growing roster of Aboriginal people doing extraordinary things all over the place. And maybe then we’ll have a story that’s halfway complete.
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