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I knew the grocery store clerk did not mean to hurt or offend us with her question.
But I saw my sister look down when the woman asked the question amid our idle hurry-and-ring-up-my-groceries chatter, and the big sister in me felt compelled to act.
“She’s your sister?” the woman asked, the surprise evident in her voice as she looked from me, to our baby sister, Dani, and then at Ernie, who stood next to me with her arm around my waist. “Is she adopted?”
I hated that question.
I hated it because I knew the person asking meant no offense. I hated it because it made me feel like my sister wasn’t mine because the same woman hadn’t given birth to both of us. And I hated it because I felt like it sent subtle messages to the little black-eyed beauty I called Ernestito that she wasn’t a real Donaldson.
I never asked Ernie about it, but she has always been so eager to please and easy-going, I'm afraid she would have shrugged and said it didn’t bother her, even if it did.
But I know being constantly reminded that you are an Inupiat Eskimo in a family of Irish and Scottish descendents wasn’t always comfortable.
“No,” I said as kindly as I could, while I pulled Ernie closer. “Our father had an affair with an Eskimo woman. She’s my sister.”
I will never forget Ernie’s face as we laughed about my impromptu decision to soil our father’s reputation. Her giggles washed away my anger, but it also helped me understand that sometimes an innocent question can cause real damage.
I have never felt the sting of racial prejudice. No one’s ever called me derogatory or ethically bigoted names. And no one has ever made me feel like the culture of my ancestors is so flawed, I should turn my back on every aspect of it.
But I have a sister — Ernestine Roxanne Kuutuu Kignak Donaldson — who has had all of these experiences.
And it is my love for my sister that moves me to voice my opinion on the Washington Redskins controversy. It is my understanding of how even the most subtle prejudices and insensitive racial stereotypes can chip away at a person’s self-image. It creates unintentional but dangerous cracks in the confidence of people who don’t understand why there is misunderstanding or misgivings about the color of their skin or the culture into which they were born.
When society embraces stereotypes and images that are hurtful or insulting, it can cause a person to question, reject and even hate that part of themselves, oftentimes without even being aware of it. Sometimes those of us embracing the stereotypes don’t even understand the ways in which we’re hurting other people.
Before I explain why and how my sister’s struggle growing up Eskimo in Alaska relates to the NFL’s Washington Redskins, I need to explain why I didn’t realize just how subtle these messages are sent until I took my sister to meet her biological half-sister in Idaho a few years ago.
Meeting Dora Lynn Kignak-McClain was a life-altering gift. Not only did I see the unconditional love she had for my sister, Ernie, but I also noticed something that’s made me think about racism much differently.
Dora grew up in Idaho and she is deaf. Ernie grew in Alaska and she can hear. This matters because growing up Eskimo in urban Alaska can be a demoralizing experience, especially as part of a white family. While there are issues for those who try to maintain their traditional culture in rural Alaska, those who live in urban areas seem to struggle with the stereotypes that persist. They include the idea that natives are lazy, that they are drunks, and that they are dumb. These ideas are expressed as jokes, sometimes in pictures, other times in the form of verbal barbs or offensive pictures. There is no escaping the fact that there are those who not only don’t see the value or beauty in native culture, but they see it as something of which to be ashamed. It has echoes of the old American Indian boarding school motto, “Kill the Indian, save the child.”
Ernie never embraced her Eskimo heritage as a child, even while my family did. I assumed it was simply the fact that she was growing up in a Caucasian house and so fried potatoes were more appealing than Muktuk (whale blubber).
But watching Dora, who expressed pride in her Eskimo culture in almost every way, interact with Ernie, I had another thought. Maybe Dora wasn’t ashamed of her cultural heritage because she couldn’t overhear the barrage of subtle insults to which Ernie had been subjected all of her life.