In 2010 when I started Native Appropriations, the internet was a very different place. Twitter was still emerging, blogspot blogs were a robust thing and everyone had one, and I literally had no idea what I was talking about. When I started the blog I knew that cultural appropriation was a thing, I knew that stereotypes were bad, I knew that racism existed, and I knew that there were big challenges in Indian Country, but I had no idea how those things were connected, or if they even were. I knew that I saw stereotypical imagery and representations everywhere, and that they made me feel bad, and honestly that’s where I started.
The blog came out of a time of struggle for me–I was a first year doctoral student, I was 23, I was the youngest in my program by around 5 years, and was the only student in my cohort who hadn’t ever been in grad school before. Not to mention, I was the only Native student in all the cohorts of doctoral students in my program, and one of only two or three Native doc students at all 13 schools of the university. I had just moved to the East Coast from California, where I had been surrounded by a large, supportive, and diverse Native community. On my undergrad campus (where I continued to work after graduation) there were enough of us, and we had enough support from the university faculty and staff, that I never felt like I had to be the lone representative for all of Indian Country, I hardly ever was the only Native student in a class, and I somehow managed to take an entire major’s worth of Native studies classes from only Native faculty. I was hella spoiled.
Then I arrived at grad school, and suddenly not only was I very far away from my family and community in California, I was faced with an entire schedule of classes that not only had no Native faculty, but not even one reading about Native peoples or by a Native scholar on any of my syllabi. I also was faced with overwhelming ignorance on Native peoples like nothing I had ever experienced before. My classmates told me to my face they thought Indians didn’t exist anymore, especially on the East Coast, or that they had never met a Native person in their lives. They didn’t have any knowledge or understanding of the issues or communities I cared about, and didn’t care to learn.
One day in Urban Outfitters, surrounded by the worst culturally appropriative BS I’d ever seen, something clicked. I realized that the reason my classmates didn’t know contemporary Native peoples existed, or care about our modern struggles and triumphs was partially because the only images they ever saw were things like this crud in Urban Outfitters, or any of the other awful stereotypes we see on a daily basis. To them, Native Peoples were these decontextualized stereotypes without any relation to the reality of Indian Country, and that, I decided, was a problem. So I put up a Facebook note, back when people did that, and asked my friends to start sending me things for a “project.” I honestly never thought anyone was going to read the blog. I thought it would be a place for me to catalog, mostly. A repository of images and products and things that I found hurtful, and place for me to find the words to say why. But obviously I was wrong, in the best ways, and it’s grown into something I never could have dreamed.
A few years into my grad program I was hanging out at a gathering at a friend’s apartment in Cambridge, we were talking about colorblind racism (as you do) and he had just finished a dramatic reading from a passage of Bonilla-Silva Racism without Racists (again, as you do at any social gathering), and we got to talking about my blog and the ways I was learning to recognize and deal with colorblind racism, putting into practice the theory I was learning in my Critical Race Theory in Education course. My colleague Liz turned to me and said that what she appreciated about the blog was that she had always seen Native Approps as a process of “consenting to learn in public.”
That phrase has stuck with me, and I now use it often. It perfectly fits what my experience has been on the blog, and it’s something I’ve tried to embody and model with every interaction both online and in my classrooms since then.
Early posts were a lot of questions—what do we think about this? Is this ok? Why is this acceptable? I didn’t have the answers, and I didn’t have the vocabulary or language to effectively discuss these issues. So there was a lot of linking to and quoting other people who were saying it better than me. Because I wasn’t ever explicitly taught why these images are wrong. Though I do have friends with fierce activist mamas and aunties and dads who were. But many of our fellow community members or relatives maybe don’t even see anything wrong with these images. Then for some of us, we arrive on high school, college, and grad school campuses, in off reservation spaces, and in some cases are confronted with these issues for the first time. But the expectation is that we have perfectly formulated, well-reasoned, non-emotional responses to these misrepresentations and instances of racism. And I sure as heck didn’t. So I consented to learn publicly, on the blog. Which has meant a lot of growth, and a lot of mistakes. But I found my voice, and in the process learned how to apologize the right way, how to admit I was wrong, and how to move forward without feeling like a total failure. Which are life skills that go beyond blogging.
Once I entered the mindset that writing the blog was an exercise of consenting to learn in public, I became braver. I realized as long as I was genuine, and I was honest, and I was authentic to my own experiences, readers would join the journey with me. They would learn along side me. I didn’t have to have all the answers. I had plenty of questions, and that was ok. On the blog I’ve also never masked who I am. I talk often about my appearance, about my upbringing in white suburbia, about my ongoing process of reconnecting to my own community, and that I do not and cannot speak for all of Indian Country. I can only speak to my experiences, but my experiences are valid as one Native perspective among millions. But by opening up and being vulnerable about these pieces of my identity, it allows readers to trust me. And through that trust comes a willingness to listen and learn. There will never be a big “reveal” that Adrienne K is a white-coding Cherokee from suburbia who never lived on a rez, because I’ve been open about that from the beginning.
In the early days of the blog and twitter folks approached me with so much love and generosity. I did and said some super problematic ish in the early days before I knew better. Some of those posts still live on the blog way way back in the archives, because I like that a record of my growth exists, and I want others to see that too. But when I would misstep, sometimes I would get angry messages, but most of the time my online community would simply say, “Hey, did you know that’s not the preferred term for that?” or “AK, you might want to be careful when making those comparisons, it’s harmful to other marginalized communities.” Activists who have been in this fight for a long time helped me along the way, gently nudged me back on the right path, sent me readings and resources, and didn’t let those missteps define me or my work. It meant I felt comfortable taking those risks and putting myself out there, because I could correct and readjust. It was really powerful.
The audience for my work was small then. It was a somewhat protected community where I knew the commenters and they knew me. I also know I’m idealizing it right now, because I also got hate mail then, and plenty of it, but it felt…different.
Things have changed. It’s gone from a few people reading each post to thousands. I’ve gone from being a lonely grad student to a tenure track professor, from giving guest lectures down the hall to speaking in front of thousands of people. I am so incredibly grateful for that journey, and so grateful that so many of you have come along with me for all these years. I’ve expanded my knowledge, but also realized how little I know in the grand scheme of things. This also still isn’t my academic work. It’s part of it now, but I still am an education researcher working on issues of Native higher education, so these ideas still remain outside my comfort zone in some ways. I’ve learned hard lessons, and learned how to talk and be more explicit about my own privileges. I work super hard behind the scenes to support fellow Native students and academics, work as a media connector so my voice isn’t seen as a sole authority on anything, share opportunities, and promote the work of others. I’m deeply and truly proud of the work we do together through our online networks and community and the progress we’ve made on issues of representations in the last decade.
But recently the tone of things online has changed. It often feels like there is a circle of folks who are anxiously and excitedly waiting for me to misstep so they can tear me down as publicly as possible (though if I’ve seriously effed up I don’t need you to hold my hand about it–not advocating tone policing here). There are many folks who accuse me of speaking with authority for Indian Country when I don’t or can’t represent them. There are folks that say that because of my experiences and my appearance I shouldn’t have a say on any of these issues. I sometimes search my name on twitter (ill advised, I know) and see folks talking about me in gossipy and hurtful ways. There are many, many people who think they know all of me and know all of my story simply because of what they’ve read on the internet. And that’s hard.
I realize that Native Appropriations is not and cannot just my personal reflection space anymore. I realize that, no matter how many times I say I only speak for myself, folks are going to take my voice as a de facto Native representative because there are so few other voices. I realize that there will always be folks who are looking to tear apart anything I write. But I also still realize I have an opportunity and responsibility to continue to consent to learn in public, because there will always be ways I can do better.
Because in the spirit of that last post, I have to be able to imagine an otherwise. None of us are perfect. All your faves are problematic, including me. Some people are awful humans who don’t deserve generosity or a gentle nudge in the right direction, and I’ll stand by that too. But if I want to live in an academic and online world where we can be public about our growth and learning, be open about our blindspots and knowledge gaps, be willing to change our opinion based on new knowledge, be willing to revisit and update old work, be willing to be vulnerable, be willing to acknowledge when we screwed up, and to talk with each other with generosity–I have an opportunity here to model that beautifully imperfect world.
So when I say that I’m consenting to learn in public on Native Appropriations, this is what I mean. It’s probably utopic, definitely not easy, and it hurts my feelings a lot of the time, because I think and care deeply about what I do on here, but I believe fighting for representations matters, and I’ll fight until the end. I’m fighting for an intellectual and cultural space where we can all be represented in our true and flawed and multitudinous ways, where one Native voice isn’t made to stand in for millions, and where we are all allowed to learn, together.
ETA: I removed a paragraph from the post that was extremely poorly worded and sounded flippant and insensitive to recent, valid critiques I received. I tried to edit it to save it, but thought it better to just take it out completely. I apologize for being hurtful, and thank those who pointed it out.
Additional ETA: Here is my full apology for my behavior and words.