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Manning: The Price of Silence

Sarah Sunshine Manning, Shoshone-Paiute and Chippewa-Cree, says having the uncomfortable conversation about racism can stave its harmful effect.

We exist in a time and space where issues of race and identity are at a boiling point. In this very moment, conversations matter. We have work to do.

For those folks courageously facing the uncomfortable and transformative conversations, it can be exhausting. I get it. It is exhausting speaking about racism, tragedy, controversy, and our pains. It is exhausting explaining why Indian mascots or the Confederate flag are degrading and harmful to our children.

And it is even more exhausting enduring the pain in every day messages around us that attack our identity as people of color, and in my own experience, as a Native American. There are many exhausting experiences that Native people endure, be it biased history books, degrading Indian mascots, Halloween costumes of the Indian princess, poverty, societal ills, and debilitating stereotypes.

Our children and youth endure the painful messages even in toys on store shelves today.

This toy set was just plucked off the shelf by a young relative yesterday, and again, I am incensed. My young relative found the toy set and immediately noticed what was wrong:

Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning

The set consists of several pieces, all representing the American West at the peak of westward expansion, highlighting a glorified and white washed narrative, which has shaped a distorted consciousness about history and Native Americans today. I should not have to explain how wrong this is, but I will.

You would never find a toy on shelves today highlighting the slave trade, World War II anti-Semitic Germany, or a scenario leading up to the Mai Lai massacre of Vietnam. This is not OK, and it needs to stop. There are other ways to teach history without simultaneously glorifying land theft and genocide. And such painful events of our history definitely should not be made into toys.

In the event that you truly don’t understand the problem or even the gravity of the issue, whether it is Indian mascots, the Confederate flag, or derogatory toys still on the shelves, you need to do the work. The information is out there, complete with empirical evidence. Look closer, and do the work. But while you try to figure it out, do not minimize the genuine pain that the current race and identity issues cause others. If you do not feel the pain, fine, but that does not negate the pain of others. It does not negate the pain that issues of racism and oppression cause me, a Native American woman.

RELATED: Manning: It's Not Just a Coffee Mug! Ridding the Shelves of Racist and Stereotypical Imagery

It is time Americans stand up for all human beings, whether it is the missing and murdered indigenous woman, the unarmed black man murdered for simply being himself, or the Native American who is degraded still in the 21st century to feel as though your people are animals, savage, and cruel. All of these issues matter.

Native people, especially, need allies. Consider that Native Americans make up only 2-percent of the American population, outnumbered by White Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. We are the underdog. In many ways, our voice can be very small, and it is often unheard. It does not have to be this way. 

We need fellow human beings who care about the suffering of other human beings to step up – not by appropriating our ceremonies and culture, or by merely buying Native arts and crafts, but by having the difficult conversations that matter, and walking with us in solidarity.

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The difficult conversations will make you uncomfortable, but I implore you, consider the ongoing pain of those who suffer regularly. The conversations that matter are uncomfortable because we are hurting. There is no escaping this.

"Indians Wild and Cruel" by Dennis H. Stovall

Our young people are even braving the conversations, and so should we all.

A young student of mine shared with me one of her courageous conversations. She was very pained and dismayed after what turned out to be a confrontation from a teacher. She shared how a non-Native teacher told her in a heated debate about Indian mascots, “Well since you just got mad, I already won.” The young girl’s very real pain involving the issue of Indian mascots was disregarded and minimized.

This pervasive lie that she was told, that she did not have a right to her pain or anger, sends the message that Native people, or anyone for that matter, should not be incensed by issues of oppression. This lie sends the message that people of color are the ones who need to do all the work, to either give up and accept oppression, or express our feelings in ways more palatable to others, when really our hearts are broken at every sight of our identity being assaulted, and our oppression being celebrated in things like Wild West toys. Expecting Native people to mute our pain so that it is more comfortable for non-Natives epitomizes 21st century marginalization and oppression. This is not OK.

This is not just a Native problem. This is everyone’s problem, and we must fix it together.

Have the courage to stand witness to our pain. Do the work, as we have. Have the courage to have the conversations that matter. Endure a little discomfort, so that the damaging toys, mascots, and harmful stereotypes can be retired, just like black sambo. Have the conversation so the debilitating issues of race, identity, and oppression can be resolved and healed.

I’ll be honest, there are times when I put on my best “nice Indian” with my most poised tone, so that the non-Natives I conversed with might feel a little more comfortable. I realized that many members of the dominant and privileged society have rarely if ever experienced the discomfort of racial controversy, which I do regularly. So, having the empathy that I do, I find myself very often concerned about the comfort of others, while I grapple with discomfort concerning the issues on the regular. I put on my smile, and I speak calmly, citing all the evidence just for my privileged audience, when really I’m exhausted, pained, and hurt.

There is no way around it, fellow human beings, we need your help. We need your empathy. We need your courage. As the dominant society, your narrative and your systems rule our world. We need your action. We need you.

I want to believe that Americans and our fellow woman and man can endure a little discomfort to help lift the pain from others. Because while many Americans are avoiding the conversations that matter, human beings are suffering. Native people are suffering from the highest rates of virtually every societal ill out there- low life expectancy, suicide, addiction, sexual assault victimization, incarceration ... You name it, we more than likely top the charts. We could use some advocacy. In fact, we could use a ton.

I am not asking for sympathy. I am asking for empathy, for your understanding, and your courage, to stand up and protect our children, for my child, my nieces and nephews, my hopeful students, and all of those folks most marginalized. I am asking for you to stand up and help protect them from the harm of any action or narrative that says that our people are less than, that we are brutal savages, and thus, the trauma we endure to this day is somehow justified. We need your action.

Native people should not have to turn the other cheek to all of the messages around us that attack the very heart of who we are. We should not have to endure another assault on our identity or humanity again. But we will, until Americans and fellow human beings have the courage to step up, have the conversations, join our efforts, and act. We cannot do it alone.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.