Take a moment of reflection before you speak

News Unsettled Opinions
News Unsettled Native Students Union column
Graphic provided by the Native Students Union.

I have been in the Indigenous Studies (IS) program at UVic for over three and a half years. It is almost perfect. The faculty is amazing, the content is informative and powerful, but the other students often make it feel unsafe and painful to be in.

I have been in an Indigenous Studies class almost every day of the week since September 2018. In that time, very little has changed when it comes to non-Indigenous students speaking over and for Indigenous students. While it is true that there are typically more non-Indigenous students in these classes than Indigenous students, it is still unfortunate when non-Indigenous students take all the class’ airtime.

Often, white students treat IS courses like a therapy session at the expense of their own learning and of Indigenous students’ labour. White people in the class will talk for long, uninterrupted periods about how they used to hold horrible views about Indigenous people, often going into heavy detail on what those thoughts were. 

If you are one of those people, know this: you are bringing Indigenous students feelings of great discomfort and awkwardness when you do this. It is also very triggering to hear these harmful stereotypes thrown around as if you ever believing them was as harmless as a spelling mistake.

If you have ever had negative thoughts about another group of people, do not tell your entire class. Do not tell your Indigenous classmates or friends. Tell your therapist.

Another situation I often witness is the habit of white students cutting off Indigenous people to speak about Indigenous issues or topics. I was in a class recently when three white men spoke uninterrupted for over 15 minutes, all citing how important Indigenous women are to organizing, speaking, etcetera. All the while, they did not allow one Indigenous woman to speak, even though several attempted to.

In a different class, a white man spoke at length about the problems of queer and two-spirit inclusion in Indigenous communities and what Indigenous peoples perception of queer and two-spirit people is. I am neither queer nor two-spirit, so I cannot really speak to exactly what needs to be done to improve the re-inclusion of these identities back into our communities. What I can speak to is the question of whether it is the right of a white, straight man to tell Indigenous communities what they believe and what they need to do to include these identities. It is a very simple answer: it is not.

Non-Indigenous people can learn about Indigenous issues, and they can support efforts to resolve them, but they should not speak about them as if they have any experience or authority.

If you are not Indigenous and you are discussing Indigenous issues in a class, take a moment of reflection before you speak and think. Here are some questions to consider: Is there anyone else in the class better equipped to answer this question? How much have I spoken in this class? Do I have the lived experience necessary to answer this question adequately? Did the article I read truly give me enough context and information to answer?

By taking a moment to ask yourself these questions and answering them honestly, IS classes can feel a lot safer and welcoming for Indigenous students.