I keep thinking I want to write this post, and then I keep telling myself that I shouldn't...and then I keep wanting to write it...and then I stop myself again...
So I'm going to write it, but I'm going to write it carefully because I don't want it to be misconstrued. If I say something that doesn't sit right with you, or something that doesn't seem like me...ask me in the comments and we'll talk. Chances are that it just didn't come out right, in spite of my being careful.
There is this one particular colleague that challenges me for several reasons, but mostly, I think, because we are just very (very) different people. She is not a bad person, and I don't want to come across as saying that she is. She has very different values than I do, sure, but she's not a bad person. I think her intentions are mostly good.
This person, who I'll call Emma, challenges me most of all on two topics: (1) completely unchecked privilege that she has no intention of recognizing and (2) complete lack of awareness on issues surrounding diversity.
Allow me to set the scene for the following conversation. Emma, another colleague I'll call K, and myself were sitting in our cubicles. I was writing progress notes, and Emma and K were talking.
Emma is a Caucasian, cisgender, Christian female in her early 30s, born and raised in a (self-described) wealthy, religious family in a Midwestern state.
K is an Indian, cisgender, Hindu female in her late 20s, born and raised in Delhi, India, in a (self-described) "well-off" family. She has been in the US for 5 years. It should be noted that K has a traditional Indian name.
K asked Emma for assistance with pronouncing an unusual name for a client she would be seeing later that day. Emma provided as much assistance as she could, and laughed at the name.
"You know," K said, "I always thought I wanted to give my children traditional Indian names because they have so much meaning, and I just have always thought they are beautiful. But after working with kids and knowing how much I mess up their names all the time, I don't know if I want to do that to my kid. I'll probably name him John or something," she laughed.
|Me, as I was pretending to write notes|
"No," said K. "I don't think so."
I continued typing my notes, but my fingers were turning into claws on my keyboard. This was not going to end well, I could tell.
"Well," said Emma, "the first child I had...a little boy...his name when I got him was [insert traditional Native American name here]. Well, let me tell you, I called the foster care agency and told them "there is no way I'm calling a child this name. We're going to have to give him a new name instead."
K laughed, sort of. "So wait, his name was [traditional Native American name]? And they changed it?"
"Oh yeah," said Emma. "There was no way I was going to call a child that. So we changed the name to [insert common, European sounding name here]. And then my SECOND foster child...I couldn't even figure out how to pronounce his name. His name was [insert traditional Native American name here]. And I just told them, "no, I'm calling him [insert similar sounding name that is a relatively uncommon, but clearly European, name]." She laughed. "I mean, come on. How was I going to call a child [traditional Native American name]?"
K laughed again, sort of. "So you just changed the children's names? You can do that?"
"Oh yeah," said Emma. "The foster care agency didn't have an issue with it. I think they probably understood."
There was an awkward moment while I weighed the anger that was coming out of my ears, the likelihood that I would be able to respond in a calm and rational manner, and the fact that I need to work with her for at least another 10 months. I couldn't stay quiet. I took a breath and turned around.
"Growing up in Midwestern state, there must have been a large Native American population," I said, hoping to give her a way to introduce this fact, or recant her prior judgment, or change her story, or offer a redeeming piece of information, or something. None of that happened.
|Also me, waiting for the smoke to start coming out of my ears.|
I'm pretty sure flames came out of my ears. I took another deep breath.
"Well, given that, and given the children's names, it sounds like they were probably from families with Native American heritage. Right?"
"Well, yes," she said.
"Hmmmm," I paused. Everything paused for a moment, as both Emma and K waited for what I was going to say next. "You know," I said, thoughtfully and calmly, "I don't know that I agree with you on this. Given, they weren't children that I was caring for, but it concerns me that children who are being taken not only away from their family, but also away from their culture, would also have their names that link them to that culture taken from them. From what I understand, names and the naming process are extremely important in some cultures...not to mention that there is an identity with that name, even with very young children. To take that away so that I could feel more comfortable, or so that the people around me could feel more comfortable, is not something I think I could condone."
"Oh, they were really young...I mean, the oldest was 3. And this is something that the foster care agency has to do all the time."
"Hmmm," I said, pausing again. "You know," I said, continuing to breathe and attempt to sound thoughtful and calm, "I think this also bothers me due to the fact that this fees like a perpetuation of what Caucasian people have done to Native Americans and their culture for generations. I just think that I would really hate for a child to lose their traditional name and their link to their heritage because someone isn't comfortable with calling them by their given name."
"Yeah..." Emma paused. "Well...it was really no big deal. The foster care agency was cool with it." She laughed and made a joke, and then her pager went off, calling her into session.
K and I turned back to our computers and started typing after she left. My heart was pounding because...dude, standing up is hard. There wasn't a reason to stand up to this particular issue, necessarily. It was all over and done. But I had to do it anyway. I just had to. I couldn't have let myself just sit there and listen to it. Why?
(1) Because I don't know how this conversation might have affected K, as a Indian woman living, at least for now, in the US. As an Indian woman expressing -- albeit tongue-in-cheek -- her hesitance to name her future children with names that are culturally important and significant to her.
(2) Because we work together in a helping profession with children from all walks of life, from every possible background and history, and because the sort of ignorance and judgment she was displaying is not okay with me if she is going to continue to work in this profession. I mean, if you change your own foster children's names, what might you say to a family or client with whom you are working? (Keep in mind, we have lots of prior history, too. I'm not basing this on a one-time interaction, even if it was a whopper).
(3) Because this just was not okay. Changing others' culture to make you more comfortable is not okay. Laughing about others' heritage to make you more comfortable is not okay.
(4) Because, it seems, that this had been told and retold as a "funny story" for years, and had always gone unchecked. I couldn't let it go unchecked.
It was hard. But I had to say something. I don't think it changes anything. I also don't think this will be the last conversation of this nature that we have.
|Also me. I'm the dude offering the drink.|
How would you have handled this situation? Would you have had a conversation? Or would you have let it be?