My mother is the strongest person I know. She has been able to live a life fraught with pain, abuse and mental health issues, all while maintaining a sweet smile on her face. She is also the most compassionate and understanding human I have ever met. And the way she has dealt with the racism in Spokane is a credit to both her strength of character and the compassion she so freely shares.
For as long as I can remember, my beautiful Inupiaq mother was invisible to the world, sometimes despised, many times pitied. People would run over her with their grocery carts, cashiers would throw money on the counter so they didn't have to touch her, and other times I would hear people tell her that she was a stupid Indian. Of course, my mother was never that, and through quiet dignity she kept right on smiling and reaching her hand out in friendship to those who are rich, those who are non-native, those who look completely different than her and even those who despised her. But as her daughter, those harsh words and actions have become a part of my makeup as a human being. I learned we are to be ignored, hushed, unseen. I also learned that we Inupiaqs are strong and unaffected by the fear and hate, because my mother was able to maintain her composure and sweet nature.
I experienced my own racism for the first time in third grade, in a school where I had just started because I moved to another foster home. There was a girl who was a bully to many people, but especially to me. She called me a stupid Indian, dirty Indian and greasy Eskimo, and she called my mom a "loser." She told me that I couldn't do cursive, and that I was never going to be good at math, and that I was never going to go home again. This defined me and helped me to deeply understand hate based on race.
I learned to walk this earth with a fierce determination to be proud of my mother and our heritage. Deeply understanding who I was helped me figure out the chaos and uncertainty of my childhood. It helped me to be adaptive and resilient. I learned to be true to me, at the same time helping me appreciate how other people walk this earth. I love people's differences, the quirks, the cultural norms that are drastically different than mine. I honor the differences in worldviews and perspectives, the similarity of spiritual connectivity, the parallel of our paths, and that can lead to a deeper and stronger connection with each other.
Celebrating and embracing diversity of others means we celebrate our authentic selves. I'm not saying we have to be "Kumbaya" and hold each other's hands, or that we have to always agree with each other, but I am saying that we must start to deeply understand our own unique cultural experience to appreciate the cultural experiences of others.
Sounds so easy, doesn't it? It requires work and honesty. It requires research and an open mind. If we spent time understanding each other's differences, respecting them, embracing them, we will spend a lot less time fighting over things that don't matter as much as we thought. And just maybe, we could be like my mom, with the strength and compassion to offer true friendship to anyone who crosses her path, from whatever direction they come. ♦
Tara Dowd, an enrolled Inupiaq Eskimo, was born into poverty and is a survivor of the child welfare system. She now owns a diversity consulting business and is an advocate for systemic equity and a believer in justice as a force that makes communities better.