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Posts tagged ‘belonging’

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Image via the English at Katikati College blog.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Year of Publication: 2007

Genre Keywords: belonging, cartoons, First Nations, high school, popularity, poverty, teen, tragi-comedy, young adult.

Summary: Arnold Spirit – known on his Spokane reservation home as ‘Junior’ – is a smart guy. He knows he’s not quite strong enough to fit in with the other kids on the reservation, and he knows he’s never going to survive, much less succeed, unless he gets away. So he takes the first step: he asks to transfer to the nearby “rich white kid” school, Rearden High. He does a lot better there, making friends and even finding a girlfriend, and he’s a lot more likely to get a worthwhile education that might one day mean he can live his dreams of being a cartoonist. But the more he fits in at Rearden, the more unpopular he is back home, with people who think he’s sold out big-time. Is Junior strong enough to survive the judgment and rejection of his own people – and even if he does, will it give him a shot at rising above the crushing tragedy of Native American life?

Who’ll Love It: If you’re fed up with syrupy inspirational stories about ordinary people battling great odds, you may find this book refreshingly realistic. While most such stories focus entirely on whoever’s beating the odds, they tend to ignore the systemic problems that made the odds so darn bad in the first place, and they barely even glance at everybody else left below. But this is as much a story about other people’s failures as it is about Junior’s struggle to succeed, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting the hard knocks of reservation life: violence, poverty, alcoholism, and child abuse are just a few of the problems Alexie takes on through Junior’s eyes. I particularly loved the spin he puts on the familar “sports grudge match” sequence we know from the movies: does it really count as winning when you come from the team who has every advantage and your opponents probably couldn’t afford to eat breakfast?

The Real Story: The heartbreaking poverty in this story is a real and persistent problem for actual families and individuals living on reservations in North America. Spotlight on Poverty offers up an article on the topic, and the Property and Environment Research Center looks at some government-related problems that keep the problem alive. If you’re American, you can find the reservation nearest where you live on this interactive map. (Nothing nearly that nifty for Canadians, but at least we’ve got a list of bands available.) It’s strange to think that this level of poverty, comparable to what you find in Third-World nations, exists within a couple hours’ drive of where you’re sitting in front of your computer screen.

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Born to Discriminate?

My best friend and his wife had a baby girl last year. She’s a love, and I’m deeply honoured to be considered part of her family circle. Because we live in Canada, we all talk about “where we’re from” in terms of our ancestry; Baby Berryface (as I call her in the web world) is Portuguese on her father’s side and Italian on her mother’s. But her parents are teaching her to call me “Ciocia” – the Polish word for “aunt”. I’m her only ciocia.

Actually this is a baby with a diverse family of people who love her: two Filipino titas, a handful of zios and zias (Italian), a couple of tios and tias (Portuguese) – even a Portuguese padrinho (godfather). She’s also got a few straightforward English aunties and uncles, and a G-Momma who doesn’t think God would like being associated with her if the baby called her Godmother.

All this early-childhood diversity makes sense on a broad level: we are afraid of what’s unfamiliar to us. If you want to raise a kid who’s as unprejudiced as possible, exposing them to plenty of different types of people is a big help. Biologically, we’re wired to accept people who are like us. A recent look at the morality of babies tells us how deeply-rooted our prejudices can be:

There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language.

Two babies from different races.

Image via the National Geographic Channel's "Science of Babies" series.

But if you’re about to argue that nature is telling us not to mingle with the Other, forget it: I’m not buying. In the evolutionary past, it made sense to fear people who didn’t look like you, since they were probably your tribe or group’s competition for scarce resources. We’re past that today. And we’re living in a multicultural society, where a person who looks nothing like you is as likely to be your next-door neighbour, your project partner, or your kid’s teacher as your competitor. Put simply, everybody has to be able to get along and see past the surface differences that are no longer a reliable indicator of team-membership.

And we’re also wired to do that, incidentally. From the same article:

Studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

Put a black child and a white child together and place the emphasis on race, and they’ll see each other as . . . well, Other. But put them both in yellow shirts and emphasize shirt colour, and suddenly they become The Same. Race disappears in the face of team membership. Relationship takes priority.

What can we do to encourage more tolerant behaviour, less racialized judgment, and better co-operation between racialized groups? For one thing, quit racializing them. Take a close look at the paragraph above – for race to be what matters, we the adults have to place emphasis on it. Place emphasis on T-shirt colour and that’ll be what matters instead. I’m in favour of teaching children about their ancestral heritage – and at the same time exposing them to other people’s racial heritage too, and making it every bit as interesting as your own. Let kids be aware of the differences we all have, because that builds familiarity and tolerance and comfort. That’s the underpinning of Baby Berryface’s multicultural extended family – everybody around her is different, but they’re not foreign to her because she knows them well.

But don’t make racial and cultural difference your overt agenda: difference isn’t what matters. What matters is how we’re all on the same team, searching for the same things – wearing the same T-shirts, if you will. Who was it who said, “We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now”?

Little girl with books.

Image via Rolling Prairie Library System.

Here are some ways you can take advantage of your local library to encourage cross-cultural understanding in your kids at any age – it’s never too early or too late.

  • First, the obvious. Find books about children from various cultures or racial groups. Their race doesn’t have to be the focus of the story; in fact, it’s best if it’s not something the story revolves around, but  just an ancillary fact. But any story about a different culture, race, or religion can build an understanding of different sorts of people.
  • Check yourself. What are your attitudes about different cultures? If you’ve got nasty beliefs about another culture or race, your attitudes are likely to transfer down to your children. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to educate yourself about the virtues of a culture you find unsettlingly unfamiliar.
  • Meet your librarian. Librarians are generally very friendly people. Interact with us. We like it. Most of us are pretty racially open-minded too. (Well, at least my generation – I’m not really experienced enough with the previous generation of librarians to make any sort of pronouncement on their racial tolerance.) If you don’t have any opportunities to introduce your children to real-world people who look different from them, a librarian can be a good (and very understanding) starting place. We can also help you find good books about . . . well, anything, come to think of it.
  • Join in! Libraries have loads of children’s programming, from storytimes to crafting sessions to summer reading clubs. Even if the content has nothing to do with race, religion, or culture, joining in with other children who may not look or live like your own can boost tolerance and make the unfamiliar more familiar.
  • Embrace community. Check out your community events listings at the library. Often libraries will get involved in events that celebrate different cultures. My childhood community center often hosted a pavilion in Carabram to introduce the food, dance, dress, and customs of another culture. Often they’ll also host events to showcase a particular cultural event – say, a Diwali celebration or a Black History Month exhibition or some such. Even if an event is aimed at an adult crowd, if it interests you, take it in. You can always transmit the experience to your child(ren) via dinner table conversation.

Children are generally pretty good at learning whatever their exposure teaches them. If they’re exposed to racist attitudes or they see other groups treated with fear and distrust, they’ll learn to be fearful and distrustful. But given the opportunity to become familiar with different kinds of people, they generally learn to be open-minded and open-hearted.

We might well be born to discriminate. But fortunately, we’re also born to evolve above it.

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