Not really a post about Smoke Signals

I come from a long line of liberals. I grew up in a family that assumed we are here primarily to be of service to others and to fight injustice. I was also raised to have an interest in other cultures. I often went to church or temple with my friends, from Catholic Mass (where it was explained to me that I could not take communion) to sitting with the women behind the screen in an Orthodox Jewish temple. This laid the groundwork for my later studies in cultural mythology.

When the civil rights movement hit, I made an effort to listen to black people telling their stories. I read Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Malcolm X and Zora Neale Houston; I went to hear Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis. I also read books by Native Americans, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Custer Died for Your Sins. I read about  the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II in works like No No Boy.

In short, I did my best to understand what minorities experienced living within the dominant white culture in the United States. Through all this well-meaning effort, however, I remained an outsider, someone reading and listening to people talk about experiences foreign to me. I was reading what “they” went through, what “they” thought and felt. There was always a barrier, and I was outside it, a voyeur of sorts.

But another force was at work. Throughout these same years, people of color were beginning to get meaningful roles in television and movies. It began with Star Trek and I Spy, two shows I never missed. The more we saw non-whites in regular roles, the more normal it began to seem. And at some point it dawned on me that I wasn’t always aware of the color of an actor any more. If it wasn’t relevant to the story, it wasn’t relevant to me either.

After all those years of earnestly trying to understand the “other” I was relaxing and finally dropping my own barriers. Finally I could see past the differences to the similarities. Instead of a voyeur with her nose pressed to the window, I was starting to enter into a shared world.

A favorite movie of mine is Smoke Signals, based on a short story by Sherman Alexie. Everyone involved in the making of this film was Native American: cast, crew, director, and of course scriptwriter (Alexie wrote the screenplay too). It’s a marvelous movie, beautifully acted; I own a copy and have rewatched it several times. And yes, it provides a great window on life on a reservation and just how alienated native people feel from the surrounding white culture. It’s also very funny (in part thanks to  Elaine Miles, who was “Marilyn” in Northern Exposure). BUT: somewhere near the end of the movie I realized that I had stopped seeing any of that, stopped seeing the characters as red-skinned, because Smoke Signals is really a movie about fathers and sons. The central problem of the movie is a universal one and the setting was just—well, interesting for sure, educational for sure—but the story itself could have been set anywhere.

This is where we are going, I hope and believe: to where we can tell stories about our lives to each other in full confidence that others will get it. Because they will have learned how to see past differences that don’t really matter.

Have I myself become more “colorblind” in real life as well? I think so. I hope so.

This doesn’t just apply to race. A male friend (a lifelong bachelor, not surprisingly) recently said to me that he doesn’t read books by women because they don’t speak to him. He doesn’t relate. There’s a barrier that he feels no need to get past. I think this is a huge mistake on his part. If he only had the patience to try, he might find, in time, that the stories women have to tell might speak to him too, not as a man but as another member of the human race. Women know this just as, I suspect, minorities do: we’ve been forced, really, to learn how to find the gold in stories about men; unlike my friend, we’ve been conditioned to look past at least one layer of difference.

But this is a learned skill. Yes, it takes a little bit of courage when you start to try to see past your own barriers. It will be weird at first, but keep trying and see what happens. You too might find gold.

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