In my last post, I shared some of the small town charms that exist in living in a very rural area. People waving, everyone knowing your name—many times, people going out of their way to assist you. It's something that I know from experience does not nearly as frequently exist in more urban locales in the country. Northern Montana also has a rare beauty that I haven't experienced yet in the United States—I love how the rolling plains are seemingly endless—when one is driving on the road, the horizon seems as though it could extend for infinity. It's absolutely beautiful.
In the scope of my work here, I am the only known non-native person of color I have seen here in rural Montana for the last several weeks. I've never been in this type of situation in the States before. Perhaps due to my perceived racial ambiguity (I am half Asian and half white) and respective privileges as such, I can somewhat navigate the reservation and non-reservation worlds with relative ease.
However, despite this unique vantage point, I don’t feel like I “fit in” either. I often feel the oppressive anomaly of being the only non-native person of color I've seen so far here—and being the only young female attorney here. I went into tribal court last week and was introduced to a male attorney with the preface of "she is assisting the other attorney in Cut Bank." He proceeded to say to me, in front of several other people: "Well, you better that get broom out and make sure you mop up real good." And everyone laughed.
Apparently, this attorney gave zero fucks about the fact that I was an attorney colleague of his and that I could be working with him in court. I'm not sure which was worse (both were equally terrible): this guy's disgusting misogyny or that those people (including a couple of women) laughed. Patriarchy was certainly the victor in that awkward as hell interaction.
And this is one of the most homogeneous places I have ever lived in. The two main ethnic populations here are white and Native American—and race is discussed constantly in this area. And it's frequently hostile and contains "micro"-aggressions. As I mentioned above, I suspect my racial ambiguity allows me enough passing status. I have been asked some of the same, tiresome old stuff, e.g. "Where are you from?" and an interesting question to add to the categorization inquiries: "What is your full name?" (Many tribal last names are distinct from more Anglo-sounding last names.)
Recently, someone asked me directly what my nationality was. I told him I was half Thai and half Irish. He then told me: "Oh, so the ancestors in your family invented those chopsticks, huh?" Oh boy. Let me be clear: on one hand, I am totally aware that this area doesn't generally see a lot of non-native people of color and that racial justice and equity isn't a concept that is prevalent or discussed very much around here. But does that give someone the license to say whatever they want to me? And—because I am half Asian, does that somehow make me the spokesperson for the entire Asian continent?
On and off the reservation, I have blatantly and routinely witnessed the gamut of oppressive systems and its various intersectionalities: white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, internalized oppression, and rural poverty. I hear people flippantly refer to Native Americans being on "Indian time" and other stereotypes of Indians being lazy, etc.—I could go on and on. It is very hard to listen to not only because it is incessant—but so far, there is no other perspective I'm hearing from anyone else to counteract it. Ignorant and racist comments are at worst met with laughter or commiseration or at "best", acquiescence.
One time, I tried to push back against someone who had challenged me. I was expressing my sadness over the loss of Native American culture (among other things) post-colonization. And because I didn't have any immediate allies around, it is a small town, and I need to not burn any bridges—I didn't take my pushback very far. I need to highly self-manage so that I don't get too overwhelmed with sadness or frustration—thanks to you all (as always) who reach out.
In this sparsely populated, highly conservative area, I also haven’t been able to easily locate any like-minded social justice advocates. And even though it has been difficult, the true silver lining is this: I still want to be here. It is one thing to pedagogically talk about social justice concepts (and I am very thankful for the environments where I have been able to safely do this). And it is another thing to go somewhere where this pedagogy and framework has been scarcely explored or navigated in an organizing or lawyering sense. What does social justice look like in places that are in need of it the most, but have seemingly explored it the least?
So—the idyllic values of small town communities and America absolutely coexist with the systemic structural problems above. When those aforementioned marginalizing comments were made to me, it created a confusing atmosphere—like someone telling you to eff off but in a sweet, sing-songy type of voice.
It is perhaps a good exercise in semi-emotional detachment. I remember being a middle school teacher in South Los Angeles and feeling like the job had really sucked the life out of me, so to speak. At the end of the work day, I would go home or hang out with my friends and try to compartmentalize as much as possible so that the weight of teaching in South Los Angeles didn't eat away at me. But one must always stay sufficiently emotionally attached in order to feel in alignment with this work. It's just a bummer that I have to look at it as a compartmentalization strategy, but that is unfortunately the reality of these tougher, more isolating situations.
Thanks for reading this—I acknowledge that it has a heavier tone than usual—but that's the reality of this journey sometimes. Sometimes it's a little on the heavy—and that is part of the experience. It's experiences like these that will continue to propel me further down the road as a social justice lawyer. And the support of my community and each and every one of you reading this, absolutely and fundamentally contributes to that propulsion ahead. Thank you—and take good care until next time.