Mic check: Carol A. Hand

Living in the Space Between Cultures

by Carol A. Hand

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.

(Photo Credit: Rebellesociety.com)

(Photo Credit: Rebellesociety.com)

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.

(Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974)

(Photo Credit: Jnana Hand and Reese Baker, photographer Phil Dowling, 1974)

In closing, I wish to say chi miigwetch, Jeff. Thank you for encouraging dialogue and providing a place where diverse perspectives are welcomed.


Carol A. Hand can be found typing away furiously at her blog…intersistere. This work is part of the Mic check guest blogger series.

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52 Responses to Mic check: Carol A. Hand

  1. smilecalm says:

    moving authentic reflection!
    may we all
    find our balance
    between being unique
    and being one 🙂


    • Carol Hand says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Smilecalm. As you eloquently point out, the true challenge is to find the balance between separateness and unity.


  2. desilef says:

    Breathtaking. You have so much to say and you say it so powerfully, your book about our woeful child welfare system will be an important one. I wish you the best in writing it and hope it will not only be widely read but will help create change. And I wish instead of being a bridge to be walked on, you can be a bird, able to alight on any side of any boundary and then go back to watching from above as you fly.


    • Carol Hand says:

      Desilef, miigwetch for your thoughtful words and for the lovely poetic imagery of a bird. It reminds me of one of my favorite songs (on a CD by the Chenille Sisters), “Little Chickadee.” I shall remember your metaphor in the future.


  3. “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…”

    This revealing and superbly presented story makes the undeniable connection between our personal lives and the larger society which surrounds us. Neither exists in isolation. We are collectively what we choose to be individually. When our apathy, fear, and narcissism can be relied on to empower the worst of human motivations, we have condemned ourselves to a condition of perpetual misery; and, there will be no one left to save us.


  4. This is a tour-de-force. Thank you, Carol, for writing and thank you, Jeff, for publishing.


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  7. cthebean says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. I am so glad to have found you!

    And btw…Those early memories have to be real but not yet understood…..because I too have a few….


  8. Jessica says:

    Wow. A stunning post bringing the pain you have experienced — and the lessons learned — to life. There is so much about our lives that is not up to us — who are parents are, where we are born, etc. But what we can control is how we react to those things. I’m glad you have realized this and acted in so many ways in your personal career to bring that to light. Thank you.


  9. Jeff Nguyen says:

    A sincere and heartfelt thank you to Carol for her introspective and challenging essay. I worked with adults with developmental disabilities for ten years and the ones I worked with will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s a fine line to walk between cultures diametrically opposed to one another and can leave one exhausted and drained. I am grateful that you chose to oppose injustice and to be on your side, Carol, in the struggle. Your struggle is our struggle and my struggle is your struggle. These are deep waters Carol has led us into…happy wading everyone.


    • Carol Hand says:

      Miigwetch, Jeff. I would not have written this essay had you not reached out to ask me to contribute to the Mic Check Series. Honestly, it was both and an honor and a daunting prospect. For a long lifetime, I have been trained, or more aptly said, dressaged, to mask my voice in an academic remoteness that is not a natural form of communication for an Ojibwe storyteller. Without the encouragement, honesty, and editorial help of my blog partner, Susan, I would not remember that good stories come from the heart and begin “with one true sentence.” I thank you both for helping me find my voice, and I thank all of those who have commented for sharing their stories and perspectives in response.


  10. Jeff, as I said before so happy you found Carol. Carol, in this short time I’ve felt a strong bond to you – as a sister. I spent most of my life feeling alien – even though I was raised with four of my 7 brothers and sisters – I’m actually the only child of my mother and father. And even when I strove to be identified as a black American – to this day people always ask me “what are you?” Not until I took refuge as a Buddhist did I understand and accept the possibility that at some point in my countless travels through physical existence, everyone has been my mother. Carol, your experiences, your work, and your writing continue to make invaluable contributions to improving life for many. I lived and worked with the Navajo and Hopi nations and agree with you that they, as well as the poor black American, can no longer blame the “white man” or the “system” for all of their problems. However, that does not negate our need to recognize and address the inherent systemic problems in this country that keeps it from progressing to manifest the reality of a true democracy and true freedom. As for the white man, being married to one today – for 16 years – I’ve learned that the combination of love and strength of will and intention, persistence, and determination can overcome many interpersonal problems that all of us grow up with. Enough said, I’m grateful for the forum you’ve provided Jeff, in drawing together such wise minds and always thank you Carol for insightful and wonderfully written and inspiring essays and stories.


    • Carol Hand says:

      Skywalker Storyteller, I am honored to count you among my sisters. Thank you for sharing your stories and insights. I am always in awe of the depth, clarity, and beauty of your poetry and stories, and I am grateful that Jeff played a key role in helping us connect.


  11. tubularsock says:

    An excellent post Carol. We each have only our own unique contribution to make in this world and each action no matter how seemingly insignificant is a major accomplishment to the whole. The act of taking a stand and acting on that stand is all each of us can do.

    Without that we are lost!

    An ocean is made up of a multitude of droplets even if the droplet doesn’t realize its significance. The endless possibilities can only take form if the first choice is made to happen.

    Thank you for your inspiration.


  12. Eccoweaver says:

    Very moving. I was especially challenged by where you said, “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.”

    I am part Ojibwe as well, but my upbringing was such that I scarcely directly participated in anything distinctly pertaining to aboriginal culture which might have been influential to me along the way. I’m almost in my thirties now, and part of me feels paralyzed with what I’m told is known as ‘white guilt’. Not an easy complex to wrestle with, being descended from both the historically oppressed and oppressing sides of the effects of colonization. Your thoughts on the matter are very insightful, and, I believe, far more conducive towards constructive healing in the long run than blame and guilt could ever, ever accomplish.


    • Carol Hand says:

      Eccoweaver, thank you for sharing your story with such honesty. It saddens me to hear your struggles. It is true that generations of loss and trauma have resulted in many troubling situations for indigenous peoples worldwide. But those who are alive now didn’t cause it and we can’t undo the past. That guilt is not ours to bear. We can only do our best now to heal historical brutality, injustice, and trauma and prevent future harm. To do so will take all of us regardless of ancestry. I welcome you as my relative and I am grateful that we will have an opportunity to share stories with each other in the future.


      • Eccoweaver says:

        I should clarify: all things being equal, -I- have never experienced a real hardship for even one day in my life. ‘Struggle’ isn’t a fair word to attribute to me, not compared to what others (such as your mother, as you shared) have gone through. I was lucky, almost privileged growing up, and that buffer really isolated me, kept me out of touch. Indigenous affairs such as these are a more recent concern to me, one that I’m grappling and trying to discover my alignment with. But little by little (with the help of people like you), I am opening up more and more, and I think that’s what’s important 🙂


  13. mjh333 says:

    Amazing and moving story. An real encouragement to us all to stand up for what we believe. I really understand where you come from about Donald, working in care homes I have seen this sort of behaviour and have stood up but have not made a difference. I am moving into a career as an Occupational therapist, i the hope I can change some attitudes. Hearing your story makes me realise this is possible and I am on the right track.

    Thank you, your an inspiration


  14. Nicola Kirk says:

    I can relate to your experiences on many levels without sharing a cultural connection because they’re universal. But never before have I read it so articulately expressed. Well done.


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  16. lumar1298 says:

    Very moving story, Jeff… Thanks for sharing your story…


  17. MF says:

    Hello, Carol. Thanks for this text.
    I would like to suggest we translated it into Spanish and published it bilingual at mujerpalabra.net (with link here and wherever you want, of course), though just now I’m totally overwhelmed with work. But I think the more we spread it, the better! Perhaps we can keep in touch… 🙂
    I teach English in Spain, so I’d also like to link here so that my advanced students can read your piece! On talkingpeople.net we have a little section where I’ve been trying to spread info about the existence of American Indias, because for most, the last news about their existence were the brutal cowboy movies from the past.
    Anyway, thanks a lot! Keep writing!
    Big hug


    • Carol Hand says:

      Thank you so much for you affirming comments, Michelle. The work you are doing is so important — you certainly have my permission to translate the essay into Spanish. I wish I could help, but unfortunately, I only studied French and that was decades ago.

      It is interesting to hear about the lack of information about American Indians in Spain, but in some ways it is more understandable than the lack of awareness in the U.S.

      I do hope we can stay in touch and explore ways to share information. I will check the links you mentioned. You can also reach me at intersistere.wordpress.com, or via email: carolahand@gmail.com.


      • MF says:

        Oh, great!! Thanks so much! I’ll send you a hello email so we can have our addresses on the hell-of-the-machine! 😀 Salud!


  18. I’m not good. I still let fear and inertia keep me from doing far too much. With my endless failings, I almost understand cowardice. But I am always astonished by the immense courage, strength and compassion people somehow find within themselves as they face life’s hardships. I never understand how anyone does that — and I don’t know where you’ve found your strength and sanity. Even sharing such a deeply personal experience is never easy. You give a vivid and eloquent account of pain and growth. I do wonder if we can only grow through pain and adversity. This is most moving and inspiring — thank you for your words and for your work. – Linda


  19. Carol Hand says:

    Thank you for your honesty, Linda. I’m not sure we’re all that different. I don’t see myself as “good” either. Not am I fearless. I have just learned that there are some types of abuse I am unwilling to take or stand idly by to witness. I once read that the gentlest and most gifted among us are less likely to survive: those of us who are the strongest physically and emotionally do survive. So I don’t think adversity works the same way for everyone. As a child, I believed I could survive abuse but my mother might not. I still believe that. When I have been forced to speak truth to power knowing it would probably cost me a job, I knew I could find a way to survive. The people I was trying to buffer from abuse and bullying might not. In the long run, my life was often simplified and more peaceful as a result. That being said, I try to avoid conflict as much as possible, but that doesn’t always work:).


  20. Carol Hand says:

    Reblogged this on intersistere.


  21. MF says:

    Dear Carol!
    I’m writing from a laptop where I don’t have access to my email!
    I just finished my draft translation of this piece of yours! I’ll let it be and hopefully next week proofread it and send you whichever translations questions arise!
    Then we would create a webita for you on Conoce a… at Mujer Palabra (http://www.mujerpalabra.net) in Spanish, but including everything you want us to include (anything: presentation, pics, links, whatever you want readers of Spanish to find when they “meet” you)
    BUT — apart from that…
    Some teachers and I are going to publish our first ebook, called “Stories from My Teachers. On the English Language, Lifelong Learning and Our R-EVOLution” We are going to share it for free, for our idea is to try and spread the ideas and life experiences we include. I wonder if you would like to take part, with this story, and others you might have. Of course, I’d send you the ebook right away, so that you check if you want to be there! 😀 We surely would love to be with you there! ❤
    gotta go now! Big hug!!


    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you, Michelle. I look forward to hearing more and reading what you share. I also welcome the chance to work with you on your ebook! Big hug to you, too.


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  30. Thanks so much for sharing, Carol… Ffor not allowing your chaotic childhood to rob you of your humanity, for inviting us all to get to know each other across so many pointless divides, and for adding “liminal” to my vocabulary! : ) Peace.


    • Thank you for taking the time to read this post, Frank, and for your kind and thoughtful reply. Bridging differences is both necessary and enriching, opening up so many new ways of looking at the world and life. But living in the liminal space between different worlds is not easy, is it? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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