Smart Conversations: Demystifying Microagressions at Alaska Natives

By Cordelia Kellie

In the 1970’s, psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term, “microaggression,” to explain how sentence constructs revealed unintended discrimination or racism within an intercultural, interethnic exchange. Sometimes, with well-meaning individuals, unbeknownst to them, the way that questions are phrased, and the underlying subtext, can have a severely damaging affect to the recipient when repeatedly heard.

The person receiving the question can’t change their ethnicity, heritage, or cultural background, nor should they ever feel the need to try, but the person asking the questions can certainly take steps to ask smarter, not harder.

The source of these microaggressions were documented from a round of interviews of Alaska Natives living in an urban area from diverse backgrounds across the state, and are phrases that are commonly heard, in varying forms.

Such statements have the potential to cause lasting internal challenges and persistent identity conflict long after the throw-away questions or statements by the inquirer had passed.

Many people feel bound by politeness in the moment, and quietly accept the affront, but everyone has the capacity to rise to a smarter level of interaction, while at the same time, protecting colleagues, peers, and fellow community members from the very real damage that can be needlessly inflicted. Hence the seed concept for this post.

Here are common microaggressions taken from real-life conversations and scenarios documented in interviews captured from those living in Alaska’s Biggest Village:

Microagression Subcontext: What is really being said A Smarter Interaction: What Could Be Said….
“What is the Native perspective on _______” That Alaska is comprised of one culture, instead of the 11 distinct cultures present, with different languages, customs, social hierarchies, etc. “In which regions would you say ________ is an issue?” indicates that you understand that different parts of a land as vast as Alaska vary in culture, people groups, colonization, environment, economy, and history.
“But you’re (insert other ethnicity here).” You know that person’s identity and individual experience better than they do. “Where is your family from?” “Are you from _______ (insert community you are currently in)?” just as you would ask any other person.
“You don’t act/look/talk Native.” Saying any of the variations of these sentiments show that you are designating yourself not only as the authority of their personal experience, but declaring your own ideas of what it means to be Alaska Native, removed from truth. There’s not a better way to phrase this question. Just don’t say it.
“Well, you’re still white.” To those on the receiving end of that statement: You should not have to build a case for your identity to anyone, nor do you have to, whatever your background or heritage. End of story. Accept the person for all of who they are.
“Did you grow up in [rural community]?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

[Obvious disappointment]

That obvious disappointment invalidates that person’s entire experience and life. It also can say that person isn’t “Native enough” for your personal standards, and that your expectations are more important than that person’s actual human experience and value to their community. “Where did you grow up?” and accept that wherever that person is from, they have also something to contribute to their community, whatever that may look like.
“You grew up out of state. How are you indigenous?” Among many other things that have already been mentioned in this table, this flagrantly discounts the strength of family ties. If somebody has an indigenous background in Alaska, they are somebody’s daughter, or granddaughter, nephew or niece. Those family members would certainly have more to say about who that person is, than you do. Again, there’s not a better way to phrase this question. Just don’t say it.
“Why are you here?”

(In whatever urban community you may be in).

Implies that person has less of a right to travel to a place that many have traveled to for many common reasons: education, employment, family, health, leisure, etc., and are to live up to your expectations of what their existence should or shouldn’t be based on imagined or even fictional criteria. If you know that person isn’t from the location you are both currently in, you could say, “How did you come to _________?” just as that person could ask you.
“Did you grow up doing _______?” (And then sharing any idea or generalization learned from a secondhand source of guessing what their experience must have been like) Setting up the question with a goal in mind based on secondhand or external sources is indicating what it is the inquirer is really wanting to hear. If the recipient has an answer that diverges from the hoped-for answer, it could leave the recipient feeling as if their experience should have been more in line with what was hoped for, or that their experience was not “good enough” for the inquirer, when every person’s experience is unique and authentic in its own way. “I’ve learned previously about __________ being a practice with some in your region. Has that been part of your personal experience, or no?”

This provides the recipient an out and support if their experience diverges from concepts sought.

—Crosses paths in happenstance and inquires about a person’s whole life experience on the spot — This person could be living their daily life, and this behavior says that the inquirer’s curiosity

a.) trumps the recipient’s right to privacy

b.) is more important than the very real daily tasks that person may need to do

c.) and that the inquirer’s culture is the “normal” or “default’ culture, and the recipient is the one that’s different. Individuals are not museums open for business; what if someone stopped you in the store and asked why you are the way that you are?

“I’m really interested in learning more about the different ways of being, in Alaska. If you ever want to share more about your perspectives, I’d be happy to listen and learn from you.” If the person indicates they’d like to share in the moment, or to set up an appointment in the future to do so, great, but it at least provides the person the same rights and expectations due to all.

While identity is a complex notion that is both deeply personal and also deeply constructed and affected by external sources, the practicality of smart cultural interactions is simple: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Because no matter what our backgrounds, that’s all we are: people.

Not better, not worse. Just different.

If you have a microagression you’d like to see added to this list, or want to share your story, email Nalliq at nalliqalaska@gmail.com 

5 thoughts on “Smart Conversations: Demystifying Microagressions at Alaska Natives

  1. Do your own research as much a possible because we get these questions all the time, and it shows your interest if you already know a bit about the cultures. I have gotten annoyed and tired of it and have asked people to google the information. Other than that, if it’s sincere, I’m happy to oblige. Don’t ask obvious questions about things like Igloos, raw meat, etc.

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  2. Very interesting article! When I meet an Alaska Native or a person assume is Alaska Native, i usually identify myself and my relatives and those of my deceased wife. This usually is followed by a mentioned of where they are from! These comments usually elicit a similar reply. 1Most Yup’ik folks are uncomfortable with direct questions and can often be quite concerned about damaging the feelings of pole they meet. 1By learning this information you exchange a great deal of knowledge about each other. A lack of response might indicate the fact that the individual does not wish to know you. Good manners indicate that contact with this person is over or that this person simply has little knowledge of their own family and traditions. Good manners indicate it would be best to let well enough alone.

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