Spine: Internalized Racism, Sitting up Straight, & Claiming Space

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“Sit up straight,” Mama perpetually told me when I was a young girl.

It’s the one thing my Mama told me more than, “one day you’re going to get married and I will plan your wedding”.

I am thirty-one with no prospects of marriage and no current boyfriend. Mama has long since abandoned wedding planning for me. Around five years ago she stopped buying bridal magazines from the magazine aisle of grocery stores. She used to show me prospective dresses and talk about how she would arrange the center pieces on this fateful day. Glossy pages boasting beautiful brides pulled on Mama’s heartstrings. She ached for the day her only daughter would get married.  The ache has subsided. There is a bridal dress shaped hole in my mama’s heart that she doesn’t speak about anymore.

I have stopped telling her about the men that I meet even though I have always told her everything. Except for during my heavily drug addicted and alcohol use phase that lasted over a decade because well, even Mom and Daughter bonds have their limits. Cocaine snorting and occasional crack smoking just happened to be out of bounds. Surprise.

I should have said that now that I am sober, I tell my Mama everything. But when I tell her about a potential man, she gets this crazy glossed over look in her eyes. I swear I expect to hear wedding bells streaming out of her mouth when she opens it to ask me to tell her more. It does not matter if I have just met the man and cannot answer all of her questions, or any questions for that matter, because I just met the guy. No Mama, I don’t know how many siblings he has. I don’t know what his favourite food is and if I know how to make it properly. No, I don’t know if he wants to have kids. She radiates this hopeful energy that would stir up commitment issues in anyone within a five-mile radius.

She starts saying creepishly hopeful and foreshadowing things randomly like, “Well farm boys are usually good men. Good husbands”.

“Winnipeg isn’t that far if you decided to get married”.

“We would have three lawyers in the family then,”

“What’s his last name?”

I suspect she is secretly sounding out my first name next to his.

“Mom, I literally just met him and we are only going for coffee.”

For these reasons, I have learned to exclude my sporadic dating life from our otherwise very open conversations. I have to protect Mama from her own dashed matrimonial hopes and dating dreams for me. Mama doesn’t push as much anymore, and I am given the space to be the radical single daughter. Now with the pressures of finding a husband out of my head I continually hear my Mama’s voice chime in, “sit up straight”.

I don’t know if Mama’s constant attention to my posture as a young girl was because she figured it would be harder to marry off a hunched back daughter or if she consciously knew how important body language is. I know that Mama knew from her own experiences just how difficult the world could be for mixed blood bodies like ours. She knew the weight of the world would be placed on my shoulders and I would soon have to carry it without caving. I would soon be a woman having my own experiences where I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough by the standards of my body, race, and gender and where those three things intersect.  I would have to navigate through shifting micropolitical racially charged environments and as an Indigenous woman. I damn sure need a strong spine.

I was recently at a friend’s place for morning coffee and we began to discuss our grandmother’s, both of whom are full blooded and very visibly Indigenous women. These women that we love so much had learned to carry themselves in a world that made it known that they were not loved. Her grandmother stayed away from public spaces and she could only recall her agreeing to the going to the movies once after much cajoling and persuading. My grandmother shuffled through grocery aisles with her shoulders slumped inward and her head faced towards the ground, only looking up to find what she needed from the shelves. My grandmother’s physical presence transformed when she entered public spaces.

Almost immediately after sharing these stories my friend and I looked at each other, both knowing the primary cause and said at the same time, “white people”.

It isn’t even so much white people out their currently today. I haven’t come across any white people in grocery stories specifically aiming to disempower older indigenous female elders. However, I do not doubt that this happens somewhere in Canada. Probably in the Midwest or prairie region because well, racism loves the flatlands. I imagine racism and prejudice wakes up in the morning ready for the day shift, because racism never sleeps so there’s definitely a nightshift running, and takes a big breath of prairie air and looks out at the wide expanse and unobstructed view from East to West and North to South says, “Yup. Today is a good day to mess shit up”. High fives.

Racism is by no means restricted to the prairies. I live in Northeastern BC and we have an abundance of prejudiced behavior and casual racism. Racism is never casual, but have you ever been in a place where racism was so common place like oh let’s say like the 1950s? A place and time that offhand prejudiced comments just seem casual because it isn’t out of the norm? Where micro-aggressive acts of racism clutter up the environment? Sometimes that is like where I grew up. I often refer to it as the land of cowboys and Indians although it would now be: the land of oil rig workers, pipeliners, and Indians.

Our grandmothers’ historical experiences with racism and prejudice have molded how they interact with the world today. Both women are incredibly strong and have made through impossibly difficult times. Their spines are sturdy as fuck. They are matriarchal troopers whom have watched their worlds change drastically, have coexisted in two worlds, and have endured hardships that even I can’t fathom. And I’ve been through some shit.

One of my favourite stories from my grandmother comes from a time when she was a teenager on a visit to town. Grandma was walking down the street minding her own business trying to get to her destination as a strong young Dane Zaa woman when her peace was interrupted from somebody’s front lawn.

“Wagonburner!” she heard a young girl’s voice scream.

Grandma’s eyes scanned the lawns and houses to find where the voice came from. Her eyes stopped on a girl a few years younger than her with blond hair and blue eyes. The girl stood in the front yard of her home with a fence between her and my Grandma.

The girl’s lips curled up in that slow cruel fashion as she pointed her finger at Grandma.

“Wagonburner! Wagonburner! You’re nothing but a wagonburner!” the girl yelled in a chant like fashion as if it was a racist nursery rhyme.

Grandma stood in the street, her presence gathering in power like a fast forming storm. The wind played with her long black hair and whipped it upwards. A split second passed before Grandma made the decision to cross the fence of separation.

On some summer afternoon in the 1950’s my Grandma jumped a picket fence and slapped the shit out of some white girl in her own yard.

Helen, you said this was one of your favourite stories but it is so brutal. I think you have some issues”.


As a girl and young woman, I have only witnessed my grandmother change rapidly when faced with the world that she almost disappears within the public eye.  I love this story because I see my Grandma with her fire intact and spine unyielding. I do believe that love is a revolutionary act and that it is pointless to return hate for hate. But I cannot build a time machine to navigate the decades between here and then to protect my grandma from the world as it was. I cannot absorb the shocks for her or whisper in her ear that her skin is the most beautiful shade of brown. I am not able to protect one of the women that I love the most in this world from history. So, yes, I will do a small victory dance for my young grandma climbing a fence and smacking the shit out of a girl whose pointing finger tried to crucify her dignity.

That was only one story and the unfortunate part of it is that after so many repeated incidents like these there is a risk of internalizing it all. The slander and remarks become microscopic parasites that are all jumbling about in your insides until the landscape of your mind has changed. Pride Rock then transforms into the Monument of Shame. Scar and the Hyenas have emerged from the badlands and they rule your thought processes. You are Simba. You do not remember who you are.

It’s at this point that individuals become very conscious of the white gaze. We become aware that we are being sized up as an ‘indian’ when in a room of white people rather than on the basis of being a human being. We shrink or we try to prove that there is so much distance between ourselves and the stereotypical version of the ‘indian’. This is where we lose sight of who we are. We grimace at people who feed into the stereotypes of addiction and otherwise. Our own gaze shifts into that of the one we try to avoid. We see the world like the oppressors do. We refuse to take into account all of the individuals that do not feed into the stereotype. We only see the bad and align ourselves with the white gaze. We attempt to gain more distance between our bodies and the stereotypical Indian bodies through achievement, hard work, and even sometimes by participating in racist conversations. We are different. We have to be different. We crave our own humanization even when the oppressors are out of the room. Even when there is no one telling Indian jokes with welfare punchlines, we tell ourselves that we are no one’s punchline. We are not like them. Our own minds have become the oppressors.

Shrinking has the same internal chatter but instead of seeking validation you accept that you will never have it. We become small in spaces as to not attract attention. We forget our own intrinsic worth. We avoid places where we can feel the white gaze, imagined or real. We lose our voices when we have something to say. We don’t address racist comments or dismiss them as bullshit outright but instead we swallow them and let our cheeks burn like an allergic reaction.

I know a lot of people and family members that fall into the category of shrinking or distancing. I have been in both categories at some point in my life. I have pretended not to hear racist comments. I have closed my ears and averted my eyes. I have tried to dig trenches between myself and my body.

As a teenager I stopped saying hello to older people I knew from the communities in public because I was ashamed of belonging to a tribe. Saying hello would mark me as other. I can vividly remember walking into a busy grocery store where white people were entering and exiting. There was a Native woman outside of it that I knew since I was a little girl. I always gave her a hug when I saw her and she always asked me about my grandma. The woman was banged up from a previous altercation and stood leaning against the wall near the entrance. Her black eye bulged and her cut lip blazed. She was in rough shape. I saw the white people. I saw her. I saw the white people. I saw her. I turned my head as I walked past as if I hadn’t seen her. She seen me see her. She saw me look away from her. I didn’t want to be seen saying hello to her.

I can remember the feeling of shame of my own internalized racism following me for the entire day like a dark shadow. I was embarrassed of myself. What would my Grandma say if she saw me act this way? Why did I look the other way? I was not raised this way by my family.

I was trying to build distance between our bodies. I was performing for a white audience that was most likely not even paying attention. The actors are set but is the stage imagined or is it real? It was real at some point. It is still real at other points. It is imagined in between because it was once real. The imaginary keeps us locked in this never-ending play where the role of the oppressed are scripted for us. My inner oppressor fed me my lines and dictated my moves. There are no guards. I policed myself.


My brothers and I exist on a pigment spectrum and outward physical expression of our heritage. One brother sits on the far end and has dark brown skin and the Bigfoot sharp nose, while I am in the middle with high cheekbones, Cree lips, and a medium toned skin, the other brothers are lighter skinned and one can self-admittedly be “white-passing”. My brother who can be white-passing has probably encountered more indirect racism than any of us have experienced directly.  He has told countless stories of white people not thinking he is Native and thinking it is a safe space to spill out all of their views on ‘Indians’. Both brothers have had experiences of having to prove themselves in the workforce to be the “hardworking type” of Indians. They have had to build distance between themselves and who the people in their work world think they are. The burden of proof of humanity and decency is always the task of the Indian. This is a problem.

I cannot imagine having to work within a labour force like oil and gas that fully embraces and almost promotes ‘casual racism’. I only know what it’s like to be a woman doing the work that I do. Now that I primarily carry myself in spheres of the academy and social justice I don’t come across racism at the same magnitude as the men in my life. The most that happens to me now is the public comments when I am featured in some type of article discussing Indigenous issues.

Pro tip: Don’t read the comment section and keep your sanity.

I have examined how individuals in my life metamorphose under the white gaze and white expectations. I have watched myself change under these circumstances. I have felt my self contract and grow smaller when I become the “other”. I have silently watched myself attempt to speak more eloquently and vocalize some minor accomplishments as if to make me “equal”. I can write with a sharp edge and utilize a well stocked arsenal of words but when I talk in person, I am the type that likes to say things like “that had me fucked up,” instead of  “I was struggling with the magnitude of my emotions”.  I fall in and out of the space where I am rooted within my own power. It happens less and less and I remind myself to be gentle with myself when it does. I am still evicting colonial frameworks and taking back the bones.

I went to Toronto on my first writer related trip in the winter of 2019. There was a string of events that were to take place over the course of a few days. Each event came with its own dress code. I was intimidated by a dress code. I mean, a girl can dress up and dress down but I am a social worker and writer who rocks denim and funky colours with big earrings. Everything is made better with big earrings. I didn’t see big earrings on the dress code. I managed my way through the informal sessions and fancier events.

I stood in a ballroom style room with a gorgeous crystal chandelier hanging over head in a fancy hotel with a few other writers. There was a crowd of people waiting to come in for a brunch event just outside of the room. I heard a man, one of the organizers, say in a thunderous voice, “open the doors!”

People flooded in until the room swelled with chatter and bodies. I counted one other Indigenous person and one black person. I don’t take stock of rooms consciously but rather it is an automatic inventory. There was close to two hundred people filling the seats. I felt myself contract and want to make myself smaller in this sea of pale faces. The stage is imagined. Then the internal me, the real me, said to me in my head “hold the fuck up here. You take a look around and realize that you are one of two Indigenous people here. You realize you are here in this space representing your people. Your ancestors walked right into this room with you. You have worked hard to create a platform for voice. Nah babe, you don’t shrink in this space. Honey, you TAKE UP space.”

Mama’s voice chimed in after my own, “Sit up straight”.

And so I did. Unapologetically.


As a child I remember going to white homes and feeling like an interloper. I had formed this belief that I didn’t know I had until I was much older. The belief was that our people didn’t have nice things. I felt like that for a long time. I do remember one Native family in Prince George that had a beautiful brand new multi-level home that had nice new furniture inside of it.  I dated the son for a brief period and when I first came over to visit, I remember thinking, “Man, these Indians are white”.  I felt out of my depth.

You hear that a lot when people start evolving either financially, educationally, or in almost any form. “They act like their white.”

When an individual is not engaged in distancing themselves from who they are but are growing as an individual, this comment is a heavy dose of lateral violence. Hell, these comments at any time are full of internalized racism. It’s an affirmation that Indigenous bodies are not meant to be educated, meant to be successful, or meant to have nice things. It is a comment that keeps us where we are on the imaginary stage saying the same old lines.

A few years ago I came across a random article in which an Indigenous man discussed how people were surprised he took his children travelling all over the world. He said something like, “just because my children are Indian, doesn’t mean they have to live lives of struggle”.

Indian is not synonymous with struggle.

Indian is not synonymous with shitty things.

Indian is not synonymous with ongoing trauma.

It blew my adult mind. I still had so many unchecked beliefs surrounding what it meant to be Indigenous. My body and bloodline is only synonymous with one word. LOVE.

My body is not synonymous with anything else and doesn’t have to be anything to achieve that love. It just IS. That love comes from Creation, from Spirit, from God, from Buddha, from where ever else exists beyond this very mortal and limiting dimension. I don’t have to be ‘some type of way’ to walk into a room with that kind of light with that kind of shoulders up, spine straight posture. I only have to be connected to the truth.

Speaking of truth, some things have changed for my grandmother since I was young and now in her old age, she has definitely assumed more liberties and threw away (or forgotten) so many of her fucks that she barely has any more to give. But it took Grandma 78 years to get to a space where she allows herself more freedom to be herself in different spaces.

I have discussed this so far with a sprinkling of cuss words that I would never use in front of Asu. Maybe you even detect a hint of nonchalance within these lines. Like, “oh, a little racism converted into internalized oppression over a lifetime? No biggie”.

But to put things in perspective, I have literally wept alongside her as she told me stories of when she was young. I wanted nothing more but to be able to place myself between her and her experiences. My heart has fractured for her just as hers has broken for me at various points throughout my life.

My grandmother’s daughters, particularly my mom, have evolved over time as well. While growing up my mom was incredibly shy and although her body didn’t transform in public spaces, her voice often disappeared. Her choice in a husband, my dad, was a stark contrast to her own demeanor. Dad is unapologetically and embarrassingly loud. His voice invades and takes over spaces even when it is frowned upon. His deep bellowing laughter reaching the far corners of the room. He is truly himself to a fault. I inherited my mom’s painful shyness and slowly evolved into my dad’s extroverted daughter.

Currently Mom is no longer absent of voice. There was an evolutionary point for her after her bout with alcoholism and reclamation of sobriety where she refused to care about others opinion of her any longer. Mama will put in her two cents in any conversation and be unafraid of any judgement. Mama became herself, settled into her own skin, and sat up straight in the presence of any kind of company. If she spoke her words and they weren’t the hearing type then it didn’t matter because they weren’t her type. I watch her and wonder if she knows how perpetually brave she is.

I come from a simple kind of people, but I come from a proud people. I come from fried potatoes in a cast iron pan, to a pan gripped tightly in a lover’s hand.  From jokes being made about women hitting men with pans. I come from stained shirts and sweat of the brow kind of folk. I come from faded up jail tattoos and a recipe for home brew that came from there too.

There was a point when I shrunk back from these beginnings and roots. There was a place in time where I wanted to be something other than what I was and to belong to no one. But damn, if I haven’t come to a place of deep love and respect for the people that I belong to. Plus, we don’t need no fancy words to tell a hell of a story.

Before I started writing this book I told my Dad, “I want to write this book the way that I want to write. I’m going to cuss and throw my oddball references in and lace it with my dark humour”.

To which he replied, “I think once you have several books published you can do what you want. I don’t think you can do that right now.”

I stared at him. Tossing around the weight of his words like a pinball in my mind. Perhaps he was a voice of reason. Perhaps he was trying to be the cage and I was simply the bird ready to sing. The pin ball sunk into a black abyss before it could score anymore points.

“Watch me,” I said.

I have the trademark Bigfoot woman stubbornness from my maternal side, but my refusal is more than that. Pops taught me how to be unapologetically myself. He of all people should have saw this coming. Besides, how on earth can I write a book like this without writing like myself?

I am myself. Unapologetically Indigenous. Dark humoured. Loud. Introverted. Dane Zaa. Cree. White. Mixed Blood. Sometimes Shy. Beautiful. Daring. Reserved. Undefined & Unrefined.

Mama’s voice whispers across the decades when I am in crowded spaces, “Sit up straight.”

When I walk into a room, I do not walk into it alone. My ancestors walk with me. Mama’s voice accompanies me. Grandma’s hands are praying for me. My spine is fortified by the women and men who came before me.

The time for shrinking and distancing is over. Internalized racism had its time even when it had no business monopolizing minds and bodies in the first place. Today love lives here. Shoulders back. Head up. Spine straight. There is work to be done.


Post Script:

My Mama passed on November 4th of this year. I wrote this last year and it is a chapter in the second book that I am writing. Mama’s voice and words will continue to guide me.

In Spirit,

Helen K

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