Lessons Learned from Clifford an IREL20 Reflection

As a white male, growing up I was never aware of my privilege. I grew up in a largely white community and attended predominantly white schools. Aside from a few people all my friends were white and now I live again in a largely all white community and aside from the amazing BIPOC folx I have met through the miracle of technology I am again faced with very few opportunities to have a lot of in person friendships outside of that white community. It is not for lack of trying but very little opportunity.

In my growing up community generally most folx were white, the next largest demographic were First Nations or Metis and there were a few families that I knew of that where Chinese, Pakistani, Iranian and another family from El Salvador but in my elementary those students made up about 10 of the whole student body and that is probably generous. I remember one girl who invited me to her birthday, she was Chinese and I couldn’t go because it was a pool party on a Sunday and we do church only on Sundays.

I think in 4th grade I made my first, invite over to hang out, outside of school friend who was not white. He was First Nations. At that point (10 years old I think) my opinion of First Nations people was pretty low. All of my memorable encounters with First Nations people were negative, they were the “bad” kids in school, getting in trouble, picking fights. I heard the older kids say they stole bikes. So as a kid I took all these stories and applied it to the group rather than the individuals.

As I moved into Junior and Senior High I developed some great friendships with BIPOC classmates but because of my deeply held racist ideas I always considered my First Nations friends exceptions to the “rules” that I thought to be true (sidenote as I wrote this today and now as I type it out I just cant believe I was like this but also know there are so many kids like this).

This racist thinking did not leave me as I left High School, it was never challenged. These negative ideas and thinking continued into college as tales of “free school for natives” were shared and my resentment increased as I was taking out student loans and working full time while “they” just got “free money”.

If I was going to pinpoint a moment that I really realized how racist I was and how much my whiteness provided me with unending privilege it was conversations with a man named Clifford and his friends.

Clifford was a “famous” local homeless man. At the time of meeting him I was working for my town as a park employee and Clifford and his friends lived in the park much of the time. Everyone knew Clifford but as I got to know him and his friends I really came to enjoy the moments were visited. Clifford really was a reflection of all the stereotypes of First Nations people I grew up believing.

However one day as part of a staff awareness activity we were presented with a series of beautiful pictures of our city and parks, then candid photos of our towns homeless communities showed up, shots of their self made camps, it was explained that these beautiful photos were a part of an awareness campaign for our homeless community taken by them with disposable cameras in a “from their eyes” perspective. As I think about it today I don’t know of a better example of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s Mirrors Windows and Sliding Glass Doors. These living windows really opened my eyes. As the weeks and months went on we started to visit with Clifford and his crew, bringing donuts to share, buying the occasional lunch. We might be working in a flower bed and they would share parts of their stories with us. These lived stories served as Windows and Sliding Glass doors proving this happens in more than just books. These were stories of lives impacted by generational trauma, addiction and other systemic hurdles that just stacked the deck against them. This is the moment that I can really pinpoint that I became aware of the privileges white people hold, and the system that is in place to uphold them.

Now in my tenth year of teaching I am working to help my students build a sense of compassion and understanding. A desire to push back on a system that helps to build these racist narratives that take hold in our youth. I see the same thoughts I had as a youth creeping into my own students. The difference is they have a teacher that is willing to dig in and discuss how a system rooted in white supremacy has worked against First Nations folx and it was designed to do that. I wish I had teachers who did that for me but I guess I did.

I will be forever grateful for Clifford and his friends as they provided that window for me to see my privilege and how my racist views were not only holding me back but were harming me. As I continue this work with my students, learning and growing along side them, my hope is that they will understand that the narratives they so often are told or see in the news are not someones whole story and that through compassion and understanding and pushing back on the oppressive systems that have played a role in creating these narratives they can make a difference.

Two days into IREL20 and I am beyond grateful for the push in my thinking and reflection.

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