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: