ON RESPECT | JULIA WAKEFORD

by Julia Wakeford

Originally published in Natives in America


“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

We’ve all heard the phrase before, it's often used to teach our children not to insult others, to keep their negative thoughts on the inside. Political Correctness functions in a similar way. It simply puts a pretty face on bigotry and stereotypes. As a native woman attending a very liberal college sometimes this is a difficult pill for me to swallow. Political Correctness is a set of routines that act as a ‘how to’ guide to dealing with minority groups. It allows you to never have to challenge yourself, never have to learn; you get to keep all of your judgments on the inside. I’d like to clarify; I do not believe people should be allowed to say whatever is on their mind without social repercussion.  In fact, my problem with political correctness is that, in my opinion,  it does not go far enough. Simply put, political correctness doesn’t demand respect.  Just because you ‘properly’ refer to me as indigenous, it doesn’t mean you stop thinking my culture is primitive.

Native Americans are often an invisible minority. We are regularly put at the end of the list, if we’re even included at all. By the time my peers reach age twenty they’ve interacted with people of many different races and backgrounds. Its hard to grow up in the US never having met an African American, Asian American, or Hispanic American, but I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been the first Native someone has ever met. I am regularly confronted with ignorant comments and the fear of offending me, many times from people I consider my friends. But so long as they respect me and are open to recognizing the faults in their comments, I readily embrace educating them in the culture I love. Of course I recognize it is not my duty to educate them, nor is it any member of a minority’s duty to educate the majority about what they have long been ignoring. But the opportunities to educate yourself about people that are largely invisible in the media, in film, in textbooks, and in academic writings is quite difficult. What is out there to find is often written by the majority, often it is perverted into a romanticized notion of savagery and nobility; I would prefer to expel these notions myself or through first person narratives such as Natives In America. So I embrace the challenge, relishing the experience when people appreciate the culture I love so much, so long as they do so with respect.

In Oklahoma most people’s misinterpretations of Natives were obvious because they wore their ignorance on the outside. Since I went to college, it has become more difficult, and often more frustrating. These are educated people that think they know what is right and wrong to say. There have been many times when I am confronted with someone who’s surface looks alright, and yet they’ve whitesplained to me when I refer to myself as an Indian; I’ve been interrupted because someone “read about Natives in class ” so they know all about my tribe and what I believe; I’ve been questioned when people learn my grandparents love old westerns or hear that some Natives root for the R-skins. In each of these cases people watch their language, careful to not offend me or my people, but in an attempt to do so they forget we are a diverse community whose views may change person to person. Our culture is constantly growing, just like modern American culture. Older generations look different than younger ones; the Creek tribe might have a different set of values than the Osage tribe, and we have politically incorrect slang we use like any other group.  Political correctness asks for minorities to stay homogenous constant, that way we are easier for the majority to understand. It requires a specific rhetoric to be used; it functions as a simplified guide book to a vast and diverse people that regularly change, and Political Correctness allows the majority to never engage with that fact. So just as the dictionary will always seem outdated, the PC side of the conversation will often feel one step behind.

Respect on the other hand, demands people to listen and to understand. Respect means you accept that sometimes you are wrong, and maybe even offensive, but that you are ready to learn and to change. Respect means you see me as a person, not a historical object, and it means you apologize when you hurt my feelings, you don’t assume you know my feelings already. That assumption, that Political Correctness ‘how to’ guide doesn’t change the way you engage with me or my people. Discomfort is social situations isn’t something to hide from, its what changes society; its not something to avoid, its something to embrace. Respect requires humility, something the majority on both sides of the aisle often lack. I’d like to see more conversations prefaced with your lack of knowledge about my people, with a genuine interest in what I have to say. I would prefer to see people checking themselves, engaging with those difficult conversations, and to see a consistent give and take of ideas where we can learn from one another. Mostly, I would rather see people learn what is nice to say through trial and error, rather than to say nothing at all.