By Linsey McMurrin
One of the goals of our Truth and Reconciliation initiative is to build and strengthen relationships within and among our native and non-native communities. One way of doing this is to encourage our communities to look for commonalities and points of intersection in our daily lives and experiences that allow us to better understand and empathize with one another thereby providing an informal opportunity for conversation and shared understanding.
I shared a personal experience with my colleague, Leanne, when we were talking about “a point of intersection” and what that might look like. I was told by a well-intentioned individual whom I know fairly well that many are surprised I am involved in this work and are not aware of my heritage as a Leech Lake Ojibwe enrollee because I “don’t look Indian.”
This seemingly innocuous comment was not intended to harm; however, my personal experiences with being judged by my appearance, combined with the often complicated role of identity politics with which many American Indian people are all too familiar, triggered a strong emotional hurt within me. Rather than reacting out of the feelings of hurt and offense that it stirred up, I chose to respond to her thoughtfully. Being able to respond in a way that opened the door to further conversation and understanding is key to the overall goals we hope to accomplish with our Truth and Reconciliation work in the Bemidji area. As I was relating this experience to Leanne, we found a point of intersection between the two of us, too. Here is Leanne’s response, in her own words:
I realized that I know how it feels when people make assumptions about someone. I am a bald woman who chooses not to wear wigs or hats. Because of how I look, most people make the assumption that I am in treatment for cancer and that chemotherapy is the reason I don’t have hair. Their assumption becomes their reality about me, even though their assumption is incorrect. They treat me differently because of that assumption.
I wish for people to simply see me as a person. I might look different than you do, but I am a person, just like you are. Of course you are going to notice that I don’t have hair; how could you not? However, when you make a judgment or assumption about me and about who I am and what my story is, based only on how I look to you, then your perception of me can become clouded.
When Leanne and I shared our stories with each other, this point of intersection became an opportunity to better understand each others experiences, and to empathize in our shared humanity. In this case, being willing to be open and speak with honesty and thoughtfulness opened not one door, but two!