COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph — March 28, 2014

Jessica Iron Joseph
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Jessica Iron Joseph

“Stop being a victim.” “Just get over it.” “Why do you have to call yourself Aboriginal/Cree/First Nations, etc.? Don’t label yourself. We’re really all just humans.”

These are some of the damaging and dismissive statements I hear when minorities, such as myself, attempt to confront injustices and incite change. Pointing out inequalities (when you are a minority) is often incorrectly perceived as admitting weakness or failure.

I’m personally very familiar with these attitudes because I was born a double minority in Canada; being Cree and female.


“Stop being a victim”

I don’t think raising sensitive issues makes me a victim. I’ve always had a strong backbone and I’ve always taken care of myself. I don’t ask for pity. However, I’m also keenly aware that the act of speaking up will inevitably bring its share of hostile scrutiny from hidebound critics.

And why shouldn’t those anachronistic attitudes continue to flourish in this century? No one wants change. Change is scary and uncomfortable. Change makes us question everything we know.

And it should.

I try to encourage change within myself, as difficult as it can be at times. For example, one thing that I’ve begun to challenge myself with, is use of the word ‘racist’. I’ve never had trouble using this term sparingly, in the right context. Sometimes it is befitting of the situation. However, I think the term loses its strength and validity when thrown around inappropriately and for every possible grievance. Sometimes a person is not being racist, they’re just being a jerk. And in some situations the person using the term is just being lazy, and not examining the situation properly.

But, like I said, I’ve begun to change my attitude about this term. I’m trying to take a more positive and forgiving approach to those I might otherwise consider ‘racist’. I have begun to shift my stance from viewing them as obstinate, love-challenged people toward something more compassionate. I now prefer to think of those exhibiting racist attitudes as ‘people who have yet to make a good friend from another culture/race’, or ‘someone who is still afraid to cross an invisible boundary and open their heart’.

My new definition, and subsequent term, are still undergoing development, but already I’ve noticed that I like people better in this new light. Altering the term leaves people room to grow, which is something I think we could all use more of. Plus, I like to be hopeful when it comes to people, as naïve as that may seem.

Systemic racism, on the other hand, is something I have to continue pondering. How racism affects policies and institutions is a whole different subject to combat.

Really, the crux of racism is a power struggle. It is the assertion of power over another race.

So, when a minority (or double minority) attempts to address this imbalance of power it is not uncommon that they are met with stricture intended to silence them.


“Just get over it.”

Using this term highlights how unengaged the listener (or non-listener) is in a conversation. It is an announcement that the non-listener is acutely uncomfortable with what is being expressed. They are actively turning off their compassion because if they were to care, they might change their attitude. Once again, change is scary. It’s much easier to be disrespectful and ignore someone than take the time to listen and potentially change a course of action.

“Why do you have to call yourself Aboriginal/Cree/First Nations, etc.? Don’t label yourself. We’re really all just humans.”

Ah, the lovely argument in favor of the homogenization of cultures.

Some people may prefer calling themselves Canadian, and that’s fine – it is a culture unto itself, but telling minorities what they should or should not call themselves is an abuse of power.

There is nothing wrong with having pride in your culture or race, so long as you don’t judge others for their pride. Problems will only occur when groups compare and compete, aggressively pursuing dominance, resulting in the subjugation of smaller groups.

I love that there are different races and cultures in the world. I learn so much from my friends of diverse backgrounds. I would never want them to pretend their roots or history didn’t matter, just as I would hope they respect mine.

 Yes, we ARE all humans, but we are so much more than that. We are intelligent beings who are capable of loving and embracing people of all backgrounds, and we can share power with them, like true equals. We can also EMPOWER one another which is a step above sharing power; it is giving and encouraging power in others. We can do this in part by honoring and acknowledging how marvellously different we all are.

Statements can be barriers. The ones listed above are just a few examples of how easy it is distance ourselves from others. If you have ever used any of the above terms, I challenge you to try thinking in a new way. And if you reach out and someone doesn’t respond the way you’d hope, just remember that theirs is a personal flaw. They do not represent their whole culture or race. They’re probably just not as advanced as you and require a bit more time to be open-minded and accepting. Try, try again! Someone might thank you for it someday.

Organizations: First Nations

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • B. Annock
    March 30, 2014 - 11:42

    Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult. A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing their opinion.

  • Anthony Johnston
    March 30, 2014 - 11:20

    Thank you for your good thoughts and words Jessica. I agree, we need a new dictionary.

  • Anthony Johnston
    March 30, 2014 - 11:18

    Thank you for your good thoughts and words Jessica. I agree, we need a new dictionary.

  • Anthony Johnston
    March 30, 2014 - 11:14

    Thank you for your good thoughts and words Jessica. I agree, we need a new dictionary.

  • Nancy
    March 28, 2014 - 21:23

    I can relate to your message...or at least what i understand about the word racism. It is difficult to balance the desire to see the positive in all peoples of all cultures as we are all the Creators children with the nastiness that some people carry. I struggle with this one too...who am I to judge another? That is not my job. But sometimes "racism" hurts me and the ones I love. When this happens i try not to "spit back" because again it is not my place to hand out consequences... What i do try to do is examine the situation- the cost vs benefit analysis... Is this worth my time and energy to find common ground with this person? Or this group? This organization? Sometimes it is yes and i try to build relationships. Sometimes it is no and i walk away. Some, perhaps fewer than we realize, are just not going to change no matter how hard you try. For those of us who believe in the goodness of human kind we will probably continue to carry the hope needed to build healthy relationships with those who continue to be "racist". Our goal should reflect unity and working together in peace and harmony. Hows that for "naive" ? You go girl!