I’m racist sometimes. Not all the time. Not even most of the time. But once in a while, I have racist thoughts. My saving grace is that they always prove me wrong. The shame is real though, and I am far more uncomfortable with that than I am with my racist thoughts. These things happen to you too. You can deny the racism, or the shame, or even both if you want to, but they are real for every single one of us.
I have a great car that I bought right after my divorce. I had wanted one of these particular cars for quite some time and once I had the freedom to make my own decisions with my own money, I bought one. That was 11 years ago. People who travel a lot typically personify their vehicles. It may be out of boredom creativity, or maybe loneliness, but I am another cliche’ traveler like that. My car has a bold personality and represents nothing to me but freedom. I take care of it, it takes care of me. It keeps me safe, and I keep it in good working order. It’s a perfect relationship. In fact, I have been far more successful at this relationship than any romantic endeavor I have ever pursued. I have met some of the coolest people when my car needed work. This makes sense, right? You are vulnerable. You are giving people the chance to either do right by you, or treat you terribly wrong. I have had several instances in my life where people not only do right by me, but they also go above and beyond to make sure I am taken care of, that I make good decisions, that I am safe.
A couple of months ago the exhaust broke on my car. I was in Browning, MT on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. I found a garage so I could try to limp home, and figure out what to do once I got there. It’s an incredibly tough thing to admit, but I was having all kinds of racist thoughts. I didn’t trust the garage. Especially not with this car. I don’t really trust any garage until I do proper research, but this time I allowed darker suspicions take control. I was desperate. I was vulnerable. I was afraid they would hate me because I am white, that they would not fix my car right. I was afraid that they would cheat me, and be racist towards me because of their history with white people. I live next door to this culture and I don’t know much of anything about it. I regularly have to drive through the land they were forced to live on, to live on the land that was stolen from them. Why wouldn’t they hate me? Why wouldn’t they cheat me?
Our relationship with the Blackfeet tribe is veiled to me. It’s mysterious, and uncertain. I have a million questions, but employees here are never introduced to these people. There is no welcoming committee. If anything, there is an unspoken, underlying feeling that we should avoid the reservation. Without being told outright to stay away, we are told to visit establishments OUTSIDE the reservation when we need things. In short, we get the feeling we are supposed to avoid them, that it’s unsafe there. In fact, I feel completely ignorant about their culture, and frankly, I feel like I am trespassing on their land most of the time. I would love to know more about them, but I don’t know how to have these conversations. Do I ask the grocery store clerk about Native American Racism? Do I ask the gas station attendant for forgiveness? Not one entity in the area helps to facilitate a meeting for this purpose. My questions go unanswered, my guilt for the past remains, and my ignorance persists. At least until I am vulnerable and I need to get my car fixed.
So yeah, I had questions for these people. Not just about my car, but about our relationship. My questions were serious, and I wanted answers, but how do you ask them? Especially of someone you just met? It’s like asking someone on a first date if they are interested in marriage and having children. You only do that if you want someone to break out into an Olympic sprint in the other direction. These are difficult issues, awkward feelings. Here is one verse of the song of questions that plays in my head: “Do you hate us? Do you hate us for the things our ancestors did to your ancestors? Do you hold this generation responsible for what has happened in the past? For things that still happen? Do you want me to do anything I am not doing? What can I do? Is there anything? Or would you rather I just stay away? Would you rather we all stay away? Are there atrocities that still happen to you? What other ignorance am I guilty of? What is life really like for you? Can we coexist? Can we do anything at all? Can you help me understand? Can we help each other heal? Do you even need to heal, because I know I need to. I need to heal from the guilt of all the wrong that has been done to you. Am I disrespectful to you in any way? Am I allowed to love you? Will you allow yourself to love me? Can we be friends? Because I would really like to be friends. And I am not just saying that. I truly, with all my heart and soul, mean that. Can we be friends? Please?” These aren’t questions you ask somebody you just met.
After some time in the waiting room, full of angst and fear, a very nice native fellow came into the waiting area to let me know that the exhaust mount on my car had broken off and that he put a temporary fix on it, but I should come back to have it welded together properly. They charged me $20 for services rendered and gave me a very reasonable estimate to make the repair. That was it. No comments, no hatred…nothing but honesty and courtesy. You know that moment when you realize you are wrong – like REALLY wrong – and you feel completely stupid and remorseful? Yeah, this was one of those moments for me. I realized all at once what an ignorant jerk I was to distrust these people at all. I noticed a sign on the wall that they were AAA certified. I realized that there were two police cars out in front of the building discussing repairs to their cruisers. I realized, with an intense humiliation, that this was a reputable establishment and that I had no reason to believe otherwise. I had been afraid of something that didn’t exist. I was discriminating based on fallacies. I made assumptions based on rumor and things I conjured up in my own head. I was doing to THEM the very thing I was afraid they would do to ME. And that was when the shame crawled in, and smothered me like an icy cold blanket.
I returned a few days later and had the car repaired. I was again met with nothing but friendliness, professionalism, and reasonable prices. A few weeks later my tire had a slow leak. I went to my now trusted garage in Browning. As the repair was taking place the woman behind the counter chatted with me. She was very nice, and I wanted to ask her more questions but I held back. She was white. How did she get here? Do you like living here? Can we be friends? And again, after some time, her husband came to let me know that the tire was fixed and to thank me for the business. He is a native Blackfeet, born and raised there and they own the business together. He asked me how I liked the reservation. And do you know what happened then? I answered him. I answered him honestly and openly, and we talked. The All three of us really talked.
For probably an hour we proceeded to have real, genuine, and deep conversation. We talked about how our relationship with one another needs to be expressed and clarified. We talked about life on the reservation and what it’s like, and life in the park and what that’s like. He told me that his community actually tries to cater to visitors and how they shouldn’t feel afraid and I told him how I wish we could have some kind of orientation upon our arrival about his people so as to dispel any of the questions that others might have about the tribe and our relationship to it. They both tell me a little of their life story and how they came to know one another and how they have struggled with building their business because of discrimination. They showed me pictures of their son and his rodeo achievements and I told them that I have Cherokee ancestry and how I wished I knew more about that part of my lineage. We discussed education and how important it is and the fact that many Native Americans are educated but that there are very few jobs on the reservation so much of that education goes underutilized. I admit to them that I have been cautious about coming to the reservation in times past and how every time I visit I am greeted by people eager to be helpful and friendly. Both of them answer questions – questions I didn’t even know I had. I ask if we can be friends and if we can hang out sometime. And it feels good. All of it feels really, really good. There were a million more questions I wanted to ask, but they are running a business, and I had taken enough of their time, so I gave them the $17 they charged for fixing my tire, and made an appointment to get my brakes fixed the following week. I thanked them for their services, for their time, for the conversation, and then I left.
Travel continually makes me vulnerable. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that, and that’s OK. Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to the world. I am glad that my car broke down at this particular time in this particular place. One couple can’t answer all my questions, but I feel good about having new friends. I feel good about having the courage to allow myself to grow and to allow new and different people to come into my life while I kick old and crappy assumptions out the door.
I once got an estimate to fix the body of my car after a slight collision. I spoke with the garage owner about how much I love my car. The guy behind the counter was obviously very practical and great at dad jokes. He looked at me and said, “Penny, you love your parents. You don’t love your car.” I didn’t get the body fixed, he was right about that. But I do love my car, he was very wrong about that. My car is tired these days. It has a lot of miles, and it makes a lot of noises. It’s covered in dings and dents that I won’t repair, and soon I will have to get a new one. Yes, this car has outlasted several boyfriends and taken me across the country and back several times. This car has taken care of me in ways I never dreamed a car could. I can admit that I am racist sometimes, but I can say even more confidently that I am willing to learn. My precious car helped me do that.
Today I am grateful for my affinity for my old car, 170,000 miles of adventure with more to come, the silly act of making up a personality for an inanimate object, the open road, chance meetings, plugged tires, reputable businesses, the unforeseen paths life takes us down, the courage to admit that I was wrong, real conversations, honest people, strangers who become friends, for people who go to the deeper places with me, and for the desire to overcome my own ignorance and continue down this road of life long exploration, learning, and understanding.