Harold Johnson is an Indigenous lawyer and writer. His most-recent book is Firewater: How alcohol is killing my people (and yours).
What we see is not entirely real. Most of us have two eyes. We should see two pictures. Each of those pictures should be clear near the centre and fuzzy around the edges because we have more cones and rods, those things that we use to see, closer to the centre of our eyes. Each of those pictures should have a black hole in the middle because we cannot see through the optic nerve that runs through the centre of our retina. Our brain takes those two pictures, merges them together and fills in the blank spot.
What does it fill the blank spot in with?
Things we made up.
Some of what our eyes and brains show us is socially constructed. We see what we expect to see.
Stories are very powerful. Everything we think we know is contained in the stories we tell ourselves. The paradigm we occupy, our reality, is merely the confluence of multiple stories.
One of those stories is the lazy, dirty, drunken Indian story. It has been around since first contact. We were told it during the colonial period. It was repeated to us during the residential-school era and is repeated today in the media. It's toned down some, but it's the same story. It tells us that Indians get everything for free; free education, free medicine and a free house, they don't work or pay tax and when they turn 18 they get thousands of dollars and a new truck.
The story doesn't just impact non-aboriginal people. It is heard and understood by aboriginal peoples as well. It affects how we see the world.
I was in a McDonald's restaurant waiting for my order of a quadruple espresso. It is not a common order and usually takes time to fill. An aboriginal woman came in; a little unsteady on her feet, trying to walk straight, trying to maintain dignity. She saw me and came over. My thought was; she sees that I am aboriginal because of my braids and is here because she is going to try to get some money from me. I was ready for her to tell me a story about her sick relative on the reserve and how she needed a few dollars to help get home.
I was polite, replied to her greeting with "Peyakwin, kitha maka," a Cree response that also asked how she was. Speaking Cree put her at ease and we settled into a conversation. She wasn't hitting me up for money. She needed someone to talk to. Her problem wasn't financial, it was loneliness. I took the time to look more closely at her. She was dressed neatly. Her clothing wasn't new, but it was in good repair and of reasonable quality. Her hair was brushed and neat. I paid attention to her breath, and could not detect any alcohol or anything to cover up the smell of alcohol. She was not as dirty and drunk as my eyes had told me when she began to walk toward me.
I realized that my eyes had lied to me. That I was a victim of all the stories that I had allowed myself to listen to. I have had this conversation with other aboriginal people and found that many have shared this experience of racism toward our own. Despite my being aboriginal, in that moment of first contact, I had judged not only a fellow aboriginal person, but also a fellow human being, according to racist and prejudicial stories.
I now make sure that when I see one of our people on the street, asking for spare change, or merely sitting on a park bench minding their own business, that I check to make sure my eyes are telling me the truth.
I have to do this every time, and I had a brown-skinned mother who loved me.
I have to challenge myself over and over again in order to see what is actually in front of my face. Anyone who claims not to be racist – who doesn't check their stories with every encounter – fails themselves as well as others. We owe it to ourselves to look twice.
It's a matter of respect.