Alternate Perceptions Magazine, March 2021
Gusdi Idadadvhni! [We Are All Related]
by: Tanya Touchstone
Something completely foreign happened to me the other day. Something I thought I knew a lot about, yet never actually experienced. Something I work hard to prevent, but had never personally been confronted with. It was at once shocking, humiliating, and infuriating. It left me speechless and I didn't see it coming. Then, it happened. The cold, damp, clammy hand of racism reached up and slapped me, a very white woman, hard across my face and took my breath away. In the span of sixty seconds, the young man I was talking with on the other end of the phone, who couldn't see my white skin, red hair, and hazel eyes, mistook me for another race, mocked me, was condescending to me, and verbally slapped me to the ground for daring to question his company's representation of an indigenous group of people in their advertising campaign.
With the exchange ended and the call completed, I sat very still and let myself really feel the sting across my face, and I thought about what had just taken place. At first I wondered if I was being overly sensitive, but I intuitively knew I was not. We should not treat each other that way. Period. Then I thought of the different cultures that have similar experiences and worse all day every day, and it raised me to a whole new level of understanding in that change begins with me, here, now. Allow me to explain. Being around racism is not new to me. I grew up in blue-collar Southeast Texas, and the Ku Klux Klan lived just down the road. I remember a time from my college years. I was bringing my roommate home for the weekend, and on our way we passed a flatbed truck traveling through her neighborhood. The back of the truck held about seven men in white, hooded robes, holding crosses, ready to burn at their rally. I was scared, and I wondered what kind of fear I would feel if I were a person of color or a person of the Jewish faith. I mistakenly thought I knew.
There was another time, my senior year of high school. My sister and I had invited a gang of friends over to our house. There were some new people there who we did not know very well. My mother was having a conversation with one of them, and he began bragging about being a member of the Klan. Upon further questioning, he presented a Klan membership card. My mother stood up, put her finger in his face, and ordered him from our home, telling him to never return. We had no father around, and questioned her as to whether he would cause us any trouble. She explained, and I will never forget this, that people like him have a deep-seated fear of anything or anyone different from them. That anything or anyone they didn't understand, they would try to control or kill. That if they were really sure of themselves and confident human beings, that they would never do what they did behind a mask. That cowardly people perform cowardly acts, and that if you confront someone, shine a light on them and let them know you see them for who and what they really are, they would not return to that kind of scrutiny or recognition. No, she said, he won't be back because fear controls him. My mother taught me through that single act that women have power if they claim it and that the most important power in life is knowledge.
Aside from the example set by my mother, great teachers I have studied and who have become my role models are Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mahatma Gandhi, and Chief Seattle. I respect them for the way in which they carried out their vision. I respect their thinking processes, and I especially respect the hard personal work each put forth in order to carry out their visions in a peaceful way. Being peaceful when you are being disrespected and discriminated against is not by any means easy. If you, the reader, are unfamiliar with one or all of these people, I encourage you to pick up one of the many books by or about them and prepare to be inspired.
All religions and philosophies are consistent in that we are all connected or related. Most people, in my experience, attribute this belief solely to the Native Americans. In fact, in the Native American Lakota language, Mitakuye Oyasin (Mee-tah-koo-yay O-yah-seen) means "We are all related." The Cherokee say we are all related this way: Gusdi Idadadvhni (Gus-tee Ee-da-da-duh-nee), or Ea Nigada Qusdi Idadadvhn (Ah-nee-gah-dee Use-tee Ee-da-da-duh-nee), meaning "All My Relations In Creation."** But, if you look further, you will find that it is commonly held by most, and I believe all, belief systems. The law of physics, broken down to its most fundamental principle, shows that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What affects one of us affects all of us. It is a chain reaction so to speak. Former Nobel Peace Prize nominee and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it this way:
"Suffering, unhappiness, violence, and war escalate when we are overcome with anger and try to punish and inflict suffering on the other side. We act this way because we believe that as a result we will suffer less, but of course this action only leads to the other side desiring revenge. This is the surest course of destruction."
[Creating True Peace, Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World, Thich Nhat Hanh, Free Press, © 2003.]
I traveled to Chicago last year to hear Thich Nhat Hanh speak about his ideas presented in this book, and what he said inspired me to consider again the importance of personal responsibility for the thought, action, and deed, and that what we do and how we do or say something will cause a like reaction.
I am very lucky in many ways. I am lucky in part because as a white person, the only adverse societal assignment I have ever had to overcome is being a woman. Not to diminish any accomplishments I may have achieved to this end, it is only honest to say that any struggle I have faced is minuscule compared to what non-white women and men have had to face, and still face, on a daily basis right here in the United States.
Knowing this, I never fail to appreciate my friends from other cultures who remind me of this fact all the time. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Iranians, Filipinos – the list goes on. I have one friend from Iran, Fani, who works in the parking garage across from the building where I work. Fani holds degrees in banking and business management and was a bank president in Iran for twenty years. Fani and his family fled their country to escape religious persecution. Despite the considerable change in his job title, Fani always has a smile on his face and often tells me, "There is no excuse not to be happy. When we are free and can believe as we wish, nothing else matters." I have great respect for Fani and learn from him daily. There was another moment, the first time I met Pat Cummins, a Cherokee Indian and the President of the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the summer of 2003, at a Pow Wow the group was sponsoring. Pat spoke to me in earnest about his many goals and ideas for this group and his wish for a large multi-cultural membership. Not only was I totally captivated by his passion for the cause, but something very important and subliminal got my attention in a much larger way.
As he spoke, a little spider was spinning its web and hanging from a delicate, silky string next to Pat's face. It was a beautiful summer day, and I couldn't help but notice the web glimmering in the afternoon sun. While continuing to speak and still looking me straight in the eye, without faltering, Pat gently cupped the little spider and its delicate web in the palm of his hand and placed it out of harm's way. As he continued speaking, I saw that it was obviously second nature for him to show the spider so much respect, and in that instant I knew I wanted to be connected with his group. You see, he helped the spider avoid unnecessary suffering by showing compassion and respect for his fellow creature. This showed me the character of the great leader standing before me and I knew I had a lot to learn from this man. Though it is debated by some now, Chief Seattle has been attributed with this statement, "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect." Whoever we attribute this quote to, I believe this statement to be one of the great truths.
When I tell others about my multi-cultural friends and share some of these stories, they say that I know interesting people; or how do I meet all these people?; or how does one get involved with these different groups? -- Where do I meet them? They are all around me. They are all around you. Everywhere. They are different and their differences enrich our lives, make us think, and remind us how lucky we are to have all these rich cultures around us who teach us to remember all the advantages we have that we so often take for granted.
People from other cultures are not to be feared. In many cases they are to be revered, for some of them are here through great acts of personal courage and sacrifice. Some of which involve leaving everything they know and coming to a new, strange place, not knowing the language or the culture. Acts performed in the pursuit of the dream of a better life. Maya Angelou once said, "Life loves the person who dares to live it."
Fear is an all-consuming and terrible thing. Ignoring or dismissing who or what we do not understand leads to ignorant consequences for everyone, and causes us to miss out on so much. If we plant seeds of fear and anger, that is what will grow. If, instead, we plant seeds of compassion and understanding, then that will grow, along with offshoots of tolerance and love. Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
What I learned through my conversation on the phone that day is to acknowledge that I have no way to truly understand the ongoing feeling of racism. You may decide to look back and reread the first few paragraphs of this article, as I did, and it may occur to you that it seems a little emotional. Good. I am here to tell you that it is an honest reaction to how racism feels when you are not accustomed to experiencing it. Each act of racism inspires an incremental loss of dignity. It is a devastating feeling. Now, when I see my friends look beaten down, I will have a better understanding. I experienced it once; they have experienced it over generations.
In looking to the future Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of, I write this article as a peaceful attempt to plant a seed, to prompt everyone to take a moment and think about their fellow human being, to think before they speak or act. Ask yourself if what you are doing will cause unnecessary hurt or loss of dignity. We are a long chain, and the chain reacts in full circle. Think, consider and, if necessary, make another choice, a thoughtful choice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that when we are in conflict with someone we should regard that person as our precious teacher, for there is a lesson to learn about ourselves from the one who causes our discontent. So, with respect to that teaching, I will thank the young man on the phone that day for being my precious teacher. He absolutely taught me something about our human connection and the importance of maintaining that connection.
There is really only one race, and that is the human race. I plant this seed with love and compassion, and I look forward to seeing what will grow.
Ea Nigada Qusdi Idadadvhn!
We are all related!
** Special thanks to Richard Teesatuskie of the Long Hair Clan, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Pat Cummins, Nashville, TN, for their help with Cherokee interpretation, spelling, and pronunciation.