White Skin

Just back from the store across the street from campus, and was checked out by Annie, my favorite cashier.

“You’ve changed your hair, haven’t you? Where are you guys getting back from? Your whole team is still here? My son is in town right now, 18 and I still get to tell him what to do. Don’t be a stranger, Annie. I’ll see you around!”

She was the first person I met in Sacramento outside of the program. I remember I was with Alyssa and Carinne, and she wrote her number on our receipt. “Call me if you need a ride anywhere! We can go out on the weekend sometime!”

I never took her up on that ride, but I always take her up on that smile.

I think I’m going to take some time, and read over my blog posts from the past month. And then we’re going to a meeting with campus in an hour to help them understand it all. We had to write up statements, and I ended my statement saying that if a team is going into a highly populated Native area again, it should be a Native person leading the project, as it would be more appropriate, ease tensions and probably lend to more community support and trust in the area.

I want to write about the white people in Barrow, now that I am out of there. We worked exclusively with white people, which was baffling, considering almost everyone I passed on the streets looked different from me. In Barrow, I was a minority for one of the first times in my life. Which was a humbling, new and much needed experience. It didn’t help that I walked around with an American flag plastered to my body– I could feel the distrust from the Native people with every glance. Once I started talking to them, things warmed and interaction felt like talking with Annie the cashier at the grocery store. But those people I never talked to, they probably didn’t have very good thoughts about me. Which is completely understandable. And, most of the time, I wasn’t having good thoughts about myself and what I was doing there. And I was supporting them in their distrust of me, though I also desperately wanted them to know that I cared about them, and wasn’t actively trying to change their home or fuck it up.

Our sponsor, L, never once introduced us to a Native person, though she introduced us to many, many people. From the fifty or so people we came into contact with through her, they were all white. And middle class. And so disconnected from the Native community. They were making “their own” community up there. White Alaska. White Americans who wanted to say they were “roughing it.” Or white Americans who were too unpleasant and antisocial to be accepted in the lower 48.

All of the other white people in Barrow were there completely for the money. The money is ridiculous up there, and I never really did understand it. Minimum wage really is generally around $15, and anyone with a profession needed up there, like medical workers, make absurd money. These money seeking white people were super clingy, and just wanted to talk your ear off and keep you in their pocket. And there were a lot of creepy middle aged white dudes who felt like they were trying to do something more. It was wholly distasteful.

“Did you go to Nalukataq?”

“No.. Been here five years but never seen that. I’m not about that ‘native’ thing. —I mean, I don’t have anything against it, don’t get me wrong. But I’m just not about it. Holds zero interest to me.”

Thank you for saying you have zero interest in 60% of the people who live in this community. Whose community you are barging into to make a shit ton of money out of.

Leaving the airport in Barrow, one more old privileged white dude talks to me as we’re sitting waiting for the plane.

“What have you learned most from being here?” he asks me.

I say, I don’t even know. I’ve been writing a lot, so I’m going to read through all my writings when I get back and discover the answer to this question. What have you learned most from being here?

He thinks about it, and then he tells me, with a shake of his head and a mocking tone.

“How people take advantage of the system. How lazy they get when they are getting money handed to them.”

I know he’s talking about the Native Alaskans, and the oil checks they receive monthly from the North Slope Borough Corporation. But I’m flying out of here, man. And I don’t want to even get into this. I get in line for the plane, and tell him to have a good flight.

On the plane, however, I think about how much I have judged these entitled, unaware white people for a full five weeks. And I thought– am I really any better than them? The plane shakes, and I see myself for who I really am.

Putting myself on a pedestal and acting like I have race and cultural relations figured out is pretty pompous of me. And I’m no better than those culturally careless white people lacking perspective in Barrow at that point. I do care a lot about social justice and equality, but that should never mean that I am perfect. And once I start playing that game, when I start thinking I know best, is when I stop listening. And listening is what heals the world. Speaking up when someone is being a shithead, but trying to understand their perspective first before writing them off. Finding a way to talk about it all. And finding a way to be honest with myself, and grow as well. Leave room for myself to be wrong.

The plane shakes again, and I start making promises with the universe. And I promised myself, that if I made it off this plane alive, I was going to make an active daily effort to not be that unaware privileged white person. I still am a privileged white person, but I don’t have to be as ignorant or fearful as the ones I experienced in Barrow. Or the one I see in myself at times, as well. I will not keep myself tucked into that segregated white community. I will not act on the basis that “everyone stays in their circles.” I will act on the assumption that we are all brothers and sisters, and we need to reach out and let one another know that. That when we reach out, we will be surprised to find that we don’t fall flat on our face. We generally find another human being sticking their arm out to catch us. Politics, religion, race, geography aside. Not focusing on anything but bridging that human bond. A lot of white people have come to Northern Alaska with well meaning agendas. Some have come with ill intentions. But very few have come just to make friends.

And I think what we need in the world are more friends.

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