Failed Activism

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Earlier this year I had my first brush with activism, and I failed.

It’s taken these months to write it because the result was so damn disappointing, but it deserves to be talked about – however briefly.

I petitioned a business proprietor to remove what in my view is a grotesque and offensive representation of Native culture from public view in the largest mall in New Zealand, and it hasn’t moved. It sucks. It’s been a spectre on my conscious for eight months. I wrote a politely worded email to the proprietor, and got no response. I wrote this emotive, (if I may say so), piece on change.org, which gathered over 1,400 hundred signatures in a few days, and nothing happened. I went to an awful meeting with the owner and shopping centre manager, and left almost believing I was as unreasonable and outlandish as their attitudes suggested. There was even a horrible online article –I could write an entirely new post on interaction with media, and the misrepresentation in this. There was, of course, a lot more to it, but these are the bare – bone facts.

I’d been well prepared with articulate, factual and research based arguments, as well as the support of many people far cleverer than myself, all to no effect. I was steam rolled.

A well respected elder, and former Chief, from my homeland in Oklahoma, gave me the advice to always give the other party room to save face. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it is the deep wisdom in this advice. The thing is, I spent a large amount of time equipping myself with sound arguments when I probably should have been seeking advice on maintaining poise, handling conflict, and artful negotiation. It was only after speaking face to face with the owner and centre manager that it became clear that self-perception and ego carried far more weight in this process than accurate histories or appeals to sound moral judgement. I was dealing with people. They were uncomfortable being questioned about the suitability of their choices, and affronted by any argument that tied their judgement to histories and institutions that have displaced and maligned indigenous peoples for centuries. The petition was interpreted as harassment, not a collective expression of voice, and my request as a personal attack. I hadn’t found adequate room for them to save face. That is not to say I believe I should have softened my position so they could save face. But if I could start again, I’d take a far more strategic approach to the interpersonal and behavioural aspects of the negotiations than I did (despite my good intentions and screeds of good advice that should have helped me avoid this).

If there are any coaches in negotiations and handling conflict situations – hit me up! I’d love to learn.

 

If you’re interested in some light reading on cultural appropriation, check out:

  • This helpful “how to” article by Taté Walker for everyday feminism
  • Everything on this blog by Dr Adrienne Keene
  • This surprisingly satisfying conclusion by the American Psychological Association

17 comments

  1. You didn’t fail at all. Just because you did not achieve your primary directive with the mall management doesn’t mean you didn’t make a difference. Think of all those who were moved enough by the elements comprising the initial situation that were compelled to act and add their voices. That’s a huge accomplishment. Think of all the people who stopped their routines to read and then seriously consider what you were saying that may have never done so before. One small step is far more significant than no steps at all. If the owner and mall manager and perhaps staff were moved to feel defensive, then that means you touched them in a significant way that they now have an opportunity to grow that may not have ever happened before. Change takes time and it’s seldom easy, convenient or tidy. With everything that is currently happening in our world, I feel it’s imperative that we trust and believe that people really do want to be the best they can be and eventually will take those scary first steps to being dynamic and loving beings. We just have to let them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Change takes time and it’s seldom easy, convenient or tidy. With everything that is currently happening in our world, I feel it’s imperative that we trust and believe that people really do want to be the best they can be and eventually will take those scary first steps to being dynamic and loving beings. We just have to let them.”

      Thank you for these words; what a beautiful way to reframe my thinking about this.

      Like

  2. My kehua post was hinting at this (albeit on a much smaller scale). Being blown off in any respect is hard. But I agree with everything that Phillip has just posted. you stood up for what you believe in, and that in the first place takes courage, and likely took a lot of debate, impetus, and strength to get to that point. It may not have ended where you would have liked, but a path was paved. A path for others to gain the insight into the idiotic actions of the business; a path for others to gain strength to take a stand like you and others before them; and a path for you to move forward stronger and more determined. Your actions sparked something in all of us.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I got that! I loved this that you said “I have no prescriptive method of how to deal with dismissive people or undesirable kēhua, but for me, I find my solace and strength in that bubble I have intentionally created. I am surrounded by people who choose to listen to my ramblings, who choose to believe in me, and without whom I would cease to exist” . It got me thinking about how important that network of shared understanding is to living my daily life. It’s amazing that we can build that network and exchange online in forums like this despite dispersion and dislocation (for me from home).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. No matter that a small segment of an even smaller segment of retail world chose a shabby gimmick no fashionable mall in the US would choose and chose to ignore a well grounded premise their display was slander at best. Authenticity is the highest form of presentation especially in an exhibit that clearly depicts a theme originating in such a proud rich culture where imitation is bad comedy and resonates critically uninformed ignorance. My impression of the average person in that country was the average populace were offspring of distant white settlers that have the ad was erroneous. Clearly they have missed the mark of even mere good taste and choose to be the consummate oafs of stereotypical clowns that have no clue of fashion. If I were to give them any sound advice I would recommend reading a book or visit a museum to enhance their vision because there is a serious gap between the daft gaff they have displayed and genuine art available on Amazon to even the most challenged shopper for Native influence Pendleton, Ralph Lauren, INC. and other fashion designers would recoil at that atrocity they have on display. I just returned from Santa Fe where you cannot go a block in any direction without encountering beautiful Native art in architecture, clothing, sculpture, food presentations and the community members themselves all profoundly reflect the beauty of. the Native cultures. You have my sympathy Rachel to be victim of such an eyesore. Your sensitive nature and reticence to specifically point out someones fatal flaws must have been challenged to your absolute limits to object so strongly. Three cheers and rightly so that yIou made a statement. If your efforts come to nearly naught remember “you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” and consider the source. Well done Rachel and thank your supporters for their voices. I would take a picture and send it to what is the equivalent of the Dept of Tourism with your list of signatures and say respectfully pointing out this foolish depiction of Natives in America.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for posting this. No doubt your efforts weren’t a failure and you should feel proud of your stance and activism. Ultimately, every time the management there see the offending representation they will feel a twinge of discomfort, which over time may lead to change. Kia kaha.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, my goodness. This needed to be captured somewhere. I was in this meeting with Rachel with the owner and manager. The feeling was what stuck with me and in many ways, I will forget what was said because the words exchanged were so secondary and meaningless as thinly veiled attempts at diplomacy compared to the depth of hurt that actually manifest as a result of this horrifying display.

    What was expressed from one side of the enormous board room table was the owner’s refusal to acknowledge his embarrassment having to “face” the source of disturbance and disruption to his life – Rachel – and I think it’s a reminder that in every case of corporate social irresponsibility, businesses don’t make poor ethical decisions, people do. He took it personally and I will always wonder why a poor business decision reached so far into the foundations of his identity that he could not muster eye contact with us on the other side of the table. I can only imagine how it must be to live on such fragile foundations of privilege and how toxic that approach to humanity is.

    The overwhelming nature of the meeting was absolute immovability. There was no visible or audible change to the owner’s position from the time we walked into that room, to the time we walked out, except that he was possibly more frustrated that we presented an even better case for the display’s removal in person than online. I felt a great achievement knowing that we presented a powerful case for removal of the display from a rational business perspective – that they have a responsibility to all stakeholder communities and that we presented our long histories of strength and resilience and that most of all, the display has not gone unnoticed. This, above all makes the experience a success and he only solidified my conviction that you did the right thing Rachel, not because you needed to change him, but because what you know to be true had to be said. I think you changed him as well, but that’s his long journey ahead.

    Liked by 3 people

    • This should be its own post! I’d love to hear more from you about your perspective on how things unfolded.

      That deadpan and “absolutely immovable” feeling is what stuck. Trying to make sense of that feeling is what prompted me to write this post the way I did.

      You totally hit the nail on the head with your comments on the “thinly veiled attempts at diplomacy”. It was stifling. And it added to the overwhelming frustration that manifest in bizarre communication – both verbally and through body language. I am very much interested in developing the skill to have this conversation, and others like it, in a manner that is open, honest, and authentic despite tensions.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow Rachel – great debate over your article. It takes a lot of courage to stand up, speak out and make a difference. Congratulations on speaking up for integrity, respect for your people, and a better humanity for all. The only failed activism … is from those that say nothing. In doing so, the status quo and privilege are maintained. I believe you would have felt the flutter of terror and excitement that comes when making a stand. It was probably positive and scary all at once, yet you spoke out anyway. The gentleman from the store on the other hand, I think may have felt the same flutter of terror but instead of trying to see another perspective, his ego led him along a path of indignant resignation and righteousness. You are an Activist – Agent of Change because instead of saying and doing nothing, you broke out of the comfort zone to stand up for something you believe in, a cause true to your heart.

    Liked by 2 people

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