Living in the Space Between Cultures
My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that could not give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.
I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target. Programmed in Catholic boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was 4 and my brother was 1. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born and raised.
I remember that day clearly, although I was only 4-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing, with my brother in her arms, as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.
But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.
Rupert Ross (1992) observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian realities, p. xx). This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I have always found The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran so compelling.)
For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology and French and philosophy before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a donut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, Belchertown State School for the Mentally Retarded.
In my first few weeks there, my helper, Donald, was dealt with in an overly violent manner by one of the long-standing attendants, a large, angry man. Donald, then 21-years old, was referred to as “BoBo” by staff, a nickname that sounded demeaning so I didn’t use it. Donald was born with Down Syndrome. His parents, shamed by doctors into institutionalizing their son soon after his birth, rarely visited. Living in the infirmary was the only life Donald knew. He never went to school, did not have anyone who worked with him, and learned he would only get people’s attention if he had a tantrum. One day, his glasses were rubbing the back of his ears raw. The nurse on duty would not help him, so as I walked by, he grabbed the cart I was using to distribute juice to residents. He was screaming and pounding the floor. I just left the cart and carried things by hand, intending to help Donald when there was nothing left to spill. When I was done, I headed back, just in time to see the angry attendant grab Donald off the floor and knock him into the wall, twist his arm behind his back, and drag him down the hall and throw him roughly into the seclusion room. Donald remained there for hours, screaming and beating his fists bloody.
I spent a sleepless night, pondering what I should do. I knew I would suffer if I reported the incident, but I realized that I could not remain silent. After all, the attendant had violated the institutional rules he agreed to follow, not my self-righteous notions of how one should treat residents. Needless to say, things got a little dicey and remained that way for a while. My punishment came as a promotion to the job of attendant in the heavy-lifting ward. (I think I weighed about 100 pounds at the time.) I actually loved the residents, and it was interesting to see how quickly people who were classified as “total care” and “profoundly retarded” learned to help when I came to lift them. But I felt powerless to change the conditions of oppression that dictated every moment of their lives. I decided it was time to do what I could, little though it might be, to try to change the systems of oppression that continued to wound so many people from generation to generation because they were classified as different and disposable.
Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combing theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.
In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fannon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct.
We cannot change history, although it is often “white” washed in the texts we study. We can only change the future. It is my belief that we can only do so from the liminal space between nationalities and classes and cultures and genders and ages and abilities – and all of the socially constructed distinctions that divide us. I hope enough of us can remember what it is like to be a child who is able to see the beauty in others that they may not be able to see for themselves.
In closing, I wish to say chi miigwetch, Jeff. Thank you for encouraging dialogue and providing a place where diverse perspectives are welcomed.