When did you realize that you are White? What matters is what attributes and characteristics associated with Whiteness did you learn about to get a glimpse of the impact of your Whiteness?
I was brought up in a white suburb of Montreal, Quebec. My social environment was monolithic. That is at home, at school, at church, in all extracurricular activities – my social relations were primarily with other Caucasians. I had few opportunities to gauge the impact of my race and fewer still to choose relations with anyone of another skin colour.
About twenty years ago I met and developed relationship with two Mohawks. These relationships were two that initiated a journey of identification with my Whiteness. There are others, these in my family, that I will talk about at some other time.
It’s through personal relationship and connection that we learn about the impact of our exterior selves. It’s relationship, emanating from the core of the heart, that implores us to become mindful of the impact of our presence.
The island of Montreal has a couple of Mohawk reserves nearby. But the cultural isolation I experienced as a young person in the suburbs of Montreal in the 60’s made it so that I had to wait until I was just about 40 and living in downtown Toronto to make friends with not one but two people of Mohawk ancestry. That means that throughout over 35 years of education, socialization, sports-playing, and all other activities, I was never introduced to anyone of native ancestry. The assumptions that were laid out in my childhood were that Natives only existed in history books (and what a shabby, lop-sided treatment that was) and that those few natives that were left were rebel-rousers who blocked the highways to be heard.
The creation of bias is a fascinating process.
One of the first shocks for me in my interactions with my new friends was learning about the origins of Canadian (and American) Thanksgiving through my exposure to my friend (Jimmy)’s recitation and later his explanations of the Thanksgiving Address on my 40th birthday. The Thanksgiving Address (the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen) is the central prayer and invocation for the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations — Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora). It reflects the relationship of giving thanks for life and the world around them. The Haudenosaunee open and close every social and religious meeting with the Thanksgiving Address. It is also said as a sunrise prayer, and is an ancient message of peace and appreciation of Mother Earth and her inhabitants.
If you are interested in reading translations of the Thanksgiving Address, see https://kanienkeha.net/blogs/ohenton-karihwatehkwen/
For my birthday celebration, I invited friends to a small gathering around a fire. The intention I had was to let go of energies, situations, or behaviours that had held me down. I wanted to start this new post-40 phase of life on a lighter note. I hadn’t discussed how Jimmy might participate. To start with, I was surprised when he asked my permission to “say a few words”. I was happy as well and could tell that he was nervous I learned later that this was the first time he had recited the Thanksgiving Address in front of a non-native audience.
When one recites the Thanksgiving Address the natural world is thanked, and in thanking each life-sustaining force, one becomes spiritually tied to each of the forces of the natural and spiritual world. The Thanksgiving Address teaches mutual respect, conservation, love, generosity, to name a few. I don’t profess to be an expert on the prayer or on the culture. What I do know is that hearing it on this day had a powerful effect on me, my friends, and Jimmy.
When he told me afterwards that this was his first time reciting the prayer in front of non-native people, my first reaction was omg – if he’s native then I’m white. This was a multiracial crowd and indeed he was the only native there. I‘m not sure exactly what was going through his mind but I do know that he was slightly rattled by the event. He didn’t want to eat with the rest of us afterwards and kept to himself while we were eating.
What I witnessed was that he took his role as the reciter of the Thanksgiving Address with respect and honour. He made himself available for questions about it as well as his culture. It was his presence that made me feel like an “other” on comparison. White, on that day for me, was associated with a felt-sense of disrespect towards Mother Nature and an over-bloated or arrogant view of self.
I’d love to hear your stories about when you first recognized you were white. Send them to:
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