KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – I was among a standing room only crowd at the Halifax Central Library this past Sunday afternoon to hear Kent Monkman speak about his work. If you aren’t yet familiar with Monkman, he is a Cree artist from Manitoba who redresses still commonly held European views of colonization. His work — painting, film, large installations, performance pieces — speaks to the history of Canada from the Indigenous perspective often via his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.
Monkman studied the old master artists, such as Italy’s Caravaggio, and “appropriated” their conventions. In doing so, he has created works so far outside of the box that it is a transformative experience to view them. His art is often humorous yet it is always executed with a critical eye to the government policies upon which Canada is based — namely those that tried to destroy the people indigenous to this land. His work can be brutal, shocking, sad, beautiful. It is enlightening and it is honest. But don’t take my word for it. His show, Shame and Prejudice, is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia until December 16. But that’s not really what I want to talk about.
After speaking for about an hour on Sunday, including screening some of his work about residential schools, the floor was opened for questions. It was probably only the 2nd or 3rd question in when a self-identified 90 year old white man (OWM) stood up. I was on the other side of the hall from him. Thus I may not have heard him precisely but the gist of his “commentary” (as opposed to a question to Mr. Monkman) was that he had taught in residential schools himself. He then went on to defend, in his words, his oblate colleagues who were “only doing what the federal government told them to do”.
This is a ridiculous argument at any time but it was particularly hard to hear following Monkman’s powerful talk and, frankly, it’s an old tired story that needs to be put to rest. OWM went on to say that it was time to move on and he guaranteed that we wouldn’t be talking about Indigenous issues in 10 years time.
I was poised to walk out rather than listen to any more of his racist pontificating when I noticed an exchange between the sign language interpreter (SLI) up front and the woman she was signing to (both black women). To me, it appeared they were having a conversation, irrespective of anything OWM was saying. Sure enough they both stopped, proceeded to walk over to OWM where the SLI told him his words were offensive and that he needed to pass the mic to someone else. I heard him say “of course I can pass it on”. I guess he did because the event continued.
I’m not sure too many of us at that point thought about the toll the exchange took on the black women who stood up, in front of everybody, to set OWM straight. Or about how the SLI was taking his insulting words into her mind and body so she could translate them into sign language. Or the care she showed for herself by stopping and saying ‘enough’. Did we wonder why the white people in the room, myself included, didn’t intervene and tell the man to sit down and shut up?
After the event, I was still in the library in the process of checking out books when I noticed the SLI talking to her white colleague who had been sharing the signing of the event with her. I stopped on my way out to acknowledge what it must have taken to confront OWM but she wasn’t having it. She lit into me about not needing my platitudes; she questioned why I hadn’t done something myself; why were white people content to just sit back in the face of, in her words, violence, and let two black women take care of business?
I’ll admit that my first thought was to defend myself but she wasn’t having that either. So I settled into my body and listened. It definitely wasn’t the most comfortable encounter for me but I knew she was right. Did she have my number? Not completely, no. Of course not. She doesn’t know me. But she knows white people. Sadly, she can’t afford not to. And as a white person, I used my privilege without even thinking I was using my privilege by opting to leave — though I didn’t because of the black women — rather than confront OWM. I didn’t even think about it. He didn’t seem worth it to me. And that’s not good enough. It troubles me that more of us don’t speak up in the public arena about racism in HRM when there’s often much discussion on the down low. What I do know is that I need to step up.
I need to pay attention to what my white skin could easily allow me to ignore. I was prepared to walk my ass out of the hall so I wouldn’t have to listen to OWM. Kent Monkman doesn’t walk away. I imagine he meets a lot of that “it’s time to move on” resistance in his travels with Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. Go see his paintings. Mic drop.
See also: Joanne Bealy: White silence
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