There goes my hero, v.2

In a past life, I was a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club in Rapid City, South Dakota, working with a large group of like-minded organizations to garner support for what would have been America’s first national grassland wilderness in the southwest part of the state. I say “would have been” because, though we got as far as federal legislation being introduced, the project never progressed beyond that.  It’s very painful to look back on this time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the distressingly large number of deaths of people I had come to know, respect and love through this job:  my beloved mentor and supervisor, Kirk Koepsel; the Club’s Northern Plains Regional Director Larry Mehlhaff; my good friend and regional coworker, Mary Wiper; our steering committee director, Rich Gordon; long-time Sierra Club volunteer Don Higgins; radio/TV outdoor show personality Tony Dean; and Keith Jewett, the father of my dear friend and immediate coworker, Chas Jewett.

Chas is the daughter of a Lakota father and White mother, born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in northwest South Dakota. She joined our team in 2002 as an organizer, specifically focusing on tribal outreach. Though we supported each other extensively, my emphasis was more on partnering with “unlikely allies,” specifically hunter-angler groups. It would be a colossal understatement to say that we had many adventures during our five years as coworkers–unfortunately not all of them happy. It is significant to note that, while both of us were insulted, threatened, and even spit at during our time on this campaign, none of that disrespect was committed by her peeps (native Americans)–only mine (White people). 

That being said, few people in my life know (or will remember) that although Chas is the first native American person I can call a friend, she wasn’t my first native American Sierra Club coworker. That person was, in fact, a Lakota woman named Charmaine White Face, who for years had been organizing native American folks on national forest management issues in the Black Hills area. She joined the grassland wilderness campaign shortly after I did in winter 2001.

Though they are both Lakotas passionately committed to environmental and social justice causes, I don’t know that I could have dreamt up two more different women, personality-wise. Charmaine was as quiet and understated as Chas is talkative and exuberant. Unfortunately, I didn’t work with Charmaine long enough to get to know her very well: she left the Sierra Club abruptly after less than nine months in the position.

One day, on a Friday staff call with the two of us, our supervisor, Kirk, made a thoughtless comment having to do with powwow attendees enjoying themselves too much and being hungover on Monday morning after the event Charmaine would be attending on behalf of the wilderness campaign. Kirk, recognizing this the instant it was out of his mouth, apologized immediately, owning his cultural insensitivity. I could hear the embarrassment, mortification and pain in his voice. His comment was meant as a joke about people in general having a good time over the weekend and “paying the piper,” so to speak, on Monday morning, but in context it was highly inappropriate and hurtful. Kirk knew (as do I, as do many White folks in western South Dakota) that many native American families have been affected–even destroyed–by alcoholism, and that alcohol, in fact, isn’t even allowed at powwows. Charmaine, for her part, seemed to accept his apology and understand how badly he felt about what he said. 

Later the next week, Charmaine and I were in the office together, and I was on speakerphone with Kirk. To this day, I truly don’t know what set her off, but Charmaine suddenly flew into a rage the likes of which I had never seen. She screamed and cried and threw things; I was literally petrified with surprise and agonizing discomfort. I don’t remember what she called me, but I know it was something accusatory about conspiring against her. What I do remember is feeling completely and utterly at a loss about what to do with her boiling anger and the way she expressed it. I also remember feeling surprised, hurt and resentful that she would lump me together with Kirk and every other White person she was angry at: after all, I wasn’t the one who made the inappropriate joke. I wasn’t “in cahoots” with Kirk: I wasn’t a racist! 

As a clueless White woman in her late thirties, I had no tools with which to break this down. I had no idea how to process any of this. I had never experienced anything like it. I wish I’d had the skills and the emotional maturity to talk to Charmaine about what happened and make an effort to heal our relationship.

Today, though, I am better prepared to view this incident with the perspective of time, education, life experience and ongoing self-work. I can unpack and analyze most of what happened–and recognize it when it happens in a different context. I understand intent vs. impact. I acknowledge that we live within interlocking oppressive systems built by White people for the benefit of White people, at the expense of people of color. I recognize and own my Whiteness and my racism. I try.

I hadn’t thought about Charmaine and this incident in a very long time. But I had recruited Chas recently to present a program on the concept of culture vultures, and her words brought it to mind. I was able to talk to Chas about why Charmaine left the Sierra Club. Over the years, I was able to have conversations with Chas that I probably couldn’t have had with anyone else. And truthfully, the vast majority of the time I was learning from her–not the other way around.

Kirk, too, spoke honestly about what happened with Charmaine after Chas was hired. I think we made a great team for the short time we were blessed to work together. I don’t doubt that Chas carries a similar kind or amount of anger towards White people that Charmaine does, but she expresses it differently–and, like Charmaine, has always seemed to channel it into her decades-long work in environmental and social justice. It may be that she expressed it differently to me than others. Over the years we got pretty good at calling each other on our shit, in a way that we can both understand and absorb without hard feelings. I know I deserve to be called out more than she does, and I appreciate her friendship more than she knows. Like my brother, Chas is another one of my heroes.

White lady fairy dust

Remember February? When we could still go to work? When we could still go . . . anywhere at all? After less than a month, that feeling of personal freedom is already starting to fade–and I don’t like it one bit.

Like so many other challenges, though, the situation we’ve all found ourselves in is providing me with some Aha Moments. You know what those are: the lightbulb comes on, either spontaneously while you’re in the shower or as a result of something you’ve heard or read. Aha Moments can be super cool, but they can also be super uncomfortable. For me, lately, they’ve been the latter.

What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is this: my White privilege (or “White lady fairy dust,” as we jokingly call it in our department on campus) allows me to feel resentful about not being able to do what I want when I want, where I want to do it. But get this: Black and Brown folks have to think about this every day–not just sheltering in place during a global pandemic.

Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being pulled over by the cops on their way to or from the grocery store. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being shot in a Wal*Mart because they were holding a BB gun they took off the shelf. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about their Black and Brown kids being the target of bullying–or far worse. Every day, everywhere, Black and Brown folks know they’re being scrutinized more closely than White folks. Every day, Black and Brown folks wonder if they’ll be targeted for something.

Yeah. They do. And what you may not realize is that most Black and Brown folks adjust their behavior accordingly to mitigate the potential of something bad happening. And they tell their kids to do the same thing.

My White privilege protects me from this. If you’re White, it protects you too. I’m not saying White privilege doesn’t feel good–it does, because it allows me to not have to think or worry about things Black and Brown folks think and worry about. If you look up the word, you’ll see what I mean:

priv-i-lege
noun
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group

Yes, privilege feels mighty good indeed–but it feels icky too, because it comes at the expense of those who don’t get to enjoy it as well.

So, what can White folks do about it?

    1. Acknowledge it’s there. Know that you’re not a shitty person for admitting it. You didn’t actively request White privilege; if you’re White, it just happened. You know, because you’re White.
    2. Want to do something about it. Why would you want to change the status quo?  Because it’s unfair, and it’s been that way for a long, looonnnng time.
    3. Gently point out to other White people that White privilege is a thing. I say “gently” because we’re not very good at hearing this, much less accepting it as truth.
    4. Actively read, participate and learn.  Your local NAACP chapter is a great place to start.
    5. Journal your journey.  Or blog it, whatever works.

I’m not sure how we’re all going to come out the other end of this pandemic.  My optimism comes and goes.  I haven’t started day drinking yet, which I guess is a good thing.  And I’m trying to feel a lot more appreciation for what I do have (a home, Loving Husband, Happy Dog, One-Eyed Wonderpug and their feline step siblings) and less anger and resentment about being told not to go anywhere.

But it isn’t easy.