Identity, Heritage, and Allyship

Thinking about Pope Francis' apology on Thursday for the Catholic Church's offenses against indigenous peoples, contrasted with the expectation that the pontiff will canonize Junipero Serra when he visits the US this September. The other big story in the news today is of course that South Carolina is removing the Confederate flag from its State House, but not before a long, heated debate in which defenders of the flag appealed to history and heritage. Gov Jindal of Louisiana supposedly even weighed in, claiming the Confederate flag as part of his own heritage (but it turns out the story is not true).

Many on the Left, including some friends, jeered Jindal for those supposed remarks. Likely they saw it as another example of him trying to erase his color and pass as white. Given other things he's done and said, I can understand why folks felt that way (and why so many of us believed the story), but I also thought I understood the sentiment.  While my parents are from China, I grew up in California and identify as a Californian - Californian heritage is part of my heritage.  So while Jindal's parents are from India, I could see him feeling that Southern heritage is part of his heritage.  Just because Jindal is of South Asian descent doesn't mean that he can't identify as a Southerner – to argue otherwise is to argue that Asians cannot truly be “American” even if we grew up here; it's to suggest that we are perpetually “foreign.” I invite my left-leaning friends who ridiculed the supposed remark to think about that.

Why am I talking about this in connection with the Pope and what the Catholic Church has done to indigenous peoples? Because as a Californian, I grew up being taught to revere Junipero Serra, the founder of the 21 Spanish missions that run up the length of our coast. We learned about him in history class. There is a prominent roadway named after him that my family frequently uses. He remains one of two Californians honored in the US Capitol Building. For better and for worse, the state that I love is in large part the result of his actions. So the first time I heard indigenous activists protest the beatification of Junipero Serra, I was deeply torn. Two parts of my identity were in conflict with each other. It isn't that I supported the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans under Serra - it's that I perceived him to be part of the heritage of my state, and thus part of my identity.

The knee-jerk reaction would have been to defend “Father Serra” (as I'd grown up hearing him called), to make excuses for him. Thankfully, I did not go with the knee-jerk reaction, and instead bit my tongue and sat with the internal conflict.  Faithful ally to Native Americans versus proud Californian.  I wanted to be both.

Of course, the world does not revolve around what I want.  While Gov Jindal may not have actually claimed the Confederate flag as part of his heritage, many people have done so this week. They wanted to maintain a symbol of their identity despite the pain that it causes others. And to them, SC Rep Jenny Hornes had this response:

"I’m sorry. I have heard enough about heritage. I have a heritage. I am a lifelong South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, okay? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the statehouse grounds."

Being an ally means recognizing that it's not just about you and what you want. 

When confronted with the horrors of history – whether that of state, region, or country - one approach adopted by many progressives is to try to completely disavow themselves of the history/heritage. To say, “That's not my history.  I had nothing to do with that.” This is particularly easy for those of us who are not white to do, especially if our families came to America more recently. But it strikes me as overly simplistic and not entirely honest.  Unless all your ancestors are indigenous to this land, you are here because of that history. (I recognize that many ancestors were forced to come to this land.) My ancestors did not participate in the enslavement and genocide that built this country, but they could not have immigrated here without it. If Junipero Serra had not done what he did, it is highly unlikely that my family would own a home in San Francisco right now. Highly unlikely. I don't think being a good ally to Native Americans means pretending that we don't have the privileges that we clearly do have.  So... I can't control what others do, but to me it feels disingenuous to simply say that California history is not my history. It is.

And of course, one doesn't have to actually choose between being a good ally for racial justice and being a Californian (or USAmerican).  I bet that at least some of the Native Americans protesting Serra's canonization also identify as Californians.  What was required was that I rethink the story inherited from school and our state culture. I didn't have to accept the story that I inherited – painting Junipero Serra in rosy, fatherly light - in order to be a Californian. There are other, more multi-faceted ways to tell our state story. Ways that honor all our voices and experiences. We can recognize that Junipero Serra was integral to the history of what is California and at the same time recognize that he is not who we want to lift up as an example for others to follow.  He is not the best of who we can be.  And after all, isn't that what a saint is supposed to be?

When I read this morning that Pope Francis apologized for things the Catholic Church had done against indigenous peoples, my first reaction was to think, “If he's sincere, then he won't canonize Junipero Serra.”  And I am still a proud Californian.

 

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