Levi’s aha moment came on camera. Because it happened on camera, it is a teachable moment. It is hoped, through this article, that his aha moment is distributed far and wide for usage in healing what divides us.
In July 2015, when Obama’s presence in the White House churned the waves of American culture wars, MTV boldly broadcasted an controversial documentary entitled: White People. Or, it was considered by the producer and network to be controversial. Reviews revealed an expectation MTV be a standard-bearer. It wasn’t controversial enough!
The Paradox of the Racial Concept
The documentary breaks every taboo of race/racism that (so-called) White American culture demands strict adherence, in order to maintain the racial hegemony. Meaning, it asks White Americans to purposely speak about themselves as racialized; as having a racial identity, rather than being centered as the default definition of American.
The director, Jose Antonio Vargas, challenges race through a colonial lens. He is Filipino. He is a tall Filipino, which is a sign of mix blood, yet, visually when he claims he is of Filipino heritage, it is believable.
The actual fact that the language his name is dipped in does not reflect his cultural and biological heritage is not lost on the viewer. He makes it plain. I imagine this paradox is amplified on purpose. The entire documentary is the exploration of paradox.
Not 10 minutes into the documentary and it becomes painfully clear what People of Color whisper about is true: White people know they are White. I am using the capital White, because the capital “W”hite denotes the unique American identity of paradox Europeans joined, becoming a part of the ruling and managerial economic elite. Membership required giving up their ethnic identities to become White.
So they know they are White. And, yet, they do not know they are White, because everyone always treats them like they are White. Paradox.
Vargas enters the Pine Ridge Reservation beginning at 10:05 into the 42 minute documentary (remember the need to leave room for 18 minutes of MTV commercials!), and jokes about being able to find the 14 White persons listed among the 760 captivated Oglala Lakota/Sioux people in the particular area under study.
It’s the Hard Knock Life
Pine Ridge is one of the hell holes of North America. Seriously, if it wasn’t for Stephen King shaping my imagination for horror as a teenager, I don’t think I could read American history. The depressing issue is that current events aren’t much better.
The average income enjoyed by the persons who live in upwards of 17 person households is well below the national poverty line: $6,286 per year. Predictably, the cost of living is higher than any available jobs can cover. We know this because no jobs exist. The unemployment rate is 80%.
Conditions are so physically difficult, men live an average of 47 years on the reservation. Women squeak out an amazing five more years to 52 years upon the planet earth. The suicide rate is (at least) twice the national average.
The population inside the 2.8 million acre reservation is always in such flux, no one knows the exact population. It is anything as low as the 28,000 or as high as 40,000. Either way, it is well documented that no matter how Oglala exist, they are all swimming in beer cans and public-policy driven poverty.
Pine Ridge was a place of concentrated poverty in 1975 when Leonard Peltier had his run in with the FBI and it hasn’t improved much since.
The Crazy Horse School serves as a safety blanket for the young people within the community. It is the only fully funded institution, providing guidance from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
What does full funded mean? It means the building is always warm in the winter time, which is the primary reason for near 100% attendance when the temperature drops. Suicides from the cold are increasing. It means the breakfast, lunch and Title I-snack funding is providing a dependable flow of food into bellies.
Compassion or Repeat of Historical Trauma?
Any teacher who accepts the assignment of educating young minds under those conditions is idealistic. They are mission-oriented and driven. Vargas makes it a point to note that there is not one Oglala, or non-white person, teaching inside of the school. All of the teachers are White. Historical memories of boarding school, anyone?
At 23, it is hard not to accept Levi as how he presents: a compassionate American history teacher. He doesn’t seem taken aback or repulsed by Vargas’s suggestion to experiment with racial stereotypes in his student’s minds. Seven sheets of paper were put up. The sheet assigned to white people held only negative images and Lakota cultural expressions for White people.
Levi took that realization on the chin. It was then I felt compassion for him. Here he is finding himself in a monstrous system. He knows he wasn’t alive in 1975 when the injustice called the Leonard Peltier case happened. He wasn’t any of the individual law enforcement which swarmed the reservation. Nor, since then has he exploited anyone on the reservation. He is a young, gifted teacher, giving back.
However, in that moment, he was not an individual. He glimpsed how his students perceived him. He put on their glasses. He learned they viewed him, not through the lenses he uses, but through the lenses they use. One student expressed how she chooses to not use the Lakota term for White persons because it rings as a racial slur in her ears.
At dinner, the teachers discussed how being on the reservation was the first time in their lives they were forced to internalize the harm the presence of European settlers in America has wrought. Each of them came from stable white environments. None of them expressed any preparation for the experience of learning they were White.
I have heard this before, many times. And, I think it is this racialization cherry being popped that is the beginning of turning the corner. When a person is socialized in the dominant culture learns that his or her socialization is not the only way to be human, a small psychological death occurs. The person instinctively searches for something to replace the security they believe they just lost through the shattering of a lifetime identity concept.
Mentally, questions form around how it felt to be in that moment, with the cameras on. Did it feel like he was being oppressed for being a White man? Forced to bear the misplaced anger of their parents. Or the sheer grind of abject poverty on their own childhood.
Did he feel guilty because he had a job and no one else on the reservation did? Or that his apartment had heat, running water and lights.
Did he feel completely impotent, more impotent than normal, when he had his aha moment? Meaning, did he glimpse the feeling: the one where class analysis doesn’t feel the void of injustice 500 years of genocide, slavery and segregation. If so, I wonder how he rebuilt his self-image and self-esteem.
I think the lack of guidance after an aha moment happens is the number one reason more progress along the lines of the dominant White society accepting multiculturalism has not occurred. One has to be exposed to a different cultural norm to learn that said different cultural norm exists. Otherwise, common sense leads the individual, looking around at those in his or her immediate circle, to believe his or her experience is the only experience there is for being human.
In this series, let’s explore what some of those differences are.
Words by Kokayi Nosakhere