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The American Dream, Canadian "Diversity", and the Blanket Exercise

I had never taken the time to reflect and ask myself, “I wonder how living in North America feels from the Indigenous perspective.” I was familiar with the history and many of the injustices. This is a bit embarrassing to admit, given that I’ve worked in full-time ministry in multi-ethnic contexts for nearly a decade and even teach and facilitate regularly on issues of race, ethnicity, identity, and culture. But I had never truly considered the history of North America from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and genuinely tried to empathize.

I recently went through the Blanket Exercise with First CRC of Vancouver where I am interning while studying at Regent College. The Blanket Exercise tells a history of North American settlement to participants who experience it from the perspective of First Nations. Many Christian Reformed churches throughout North America are participating in preparation for discussions on the Doctrine of Discovery at Synod this summer. At First CRC Vancouver we went through the Canadian version (there is also an American one). I am grateful for the experience and what I learned through the process.

Prior to the Experience

As a Taiwanese American experiencing the Canadian version of the Blanket Exercise, I realized that I had three options:

  • I could choose to disengage and absolve myself because I am a non-white second generation immigrant. After all, neither my ancestors nor people who look like me participated in any of the acts of oppression described in the exercise.
  • I could choose to engage, empathize, and internally translate the experience of the exercise to my American and Taiwanese backgrounds.
  • I could dig a bit deeper and try to consider how I might be a participant in the system here even as someone of Asian descent despite only residing in Canada for 8 months.

As someone who has worked in multi-ethnic ministry contexts, I also knew I had to actively resist temptations of a been there, done that attitude because I already had some sense of the historic injustice. I also had to resist urges to seem knowledgeable on these issues (I’m not. But hey who doesn’t enjoy sounding smart?) or to speak in self-righteous indignation either from disengagement or from pain I’ve experienced as a minority and as an Asian working in multi-ethnic ministry.

I could choose to disengage and absolve myself because I am a non-white second generation immigrant.

Finally, I knew that I needed to actively avoid oversimplification or knee-jerk, defensive reactions on the history of settlement in the Americas. Recognizing injustice and atrocities does not mean I cannot also recognize historical contributions of the United States and Canada and their majority cultures.

During the Exercise

Once the exercise began, I still had to actively fight against my instinct to disengage and choose to translate the experience to my American and Taiwanese backgrounds and also see how it might apply to me right now in Canada. It would have obviously been easiest to disengage as those of us who are not of Indigenous heritage inadvertently do anyway. Well it’s not my fault! Or even Hey I’m a victim, too! But it also would have been a cop out and a complete failure to acknowledge sin. I also briefly tried to rationalize that some cultural dominance and assimilation is inevitable, but during the exercise it became abundantly clear that dehumanization and cultural genocide were inherently part of the treatment of First Nations. 

I reflected on how race and racial privilege nearly everywhere has always had very strongly socio-economic connotations.

During the exercise, I was struck by how much the physical experience of actually standing on the blankets and looking outward helped us try to enter into the experience and perspective of Indigenous North Americans.  I felt my land being taken from me and my space growing smaller. It was viewing settlement and immigration from this perspective – including immigration from Asia – that helped me see how even I am part of this system in the United States and even in Canada.

One of the readers mentioned enfranchisement, the process through which some First Nations professionals were given the status of white citizens, and I reflected on how race and racial privilege nearly everywhere has always had very strongly socio-economic connotations.

Processing and Applying

After the Exercise, I thought about experience as an American. I participated in a very memorable spring break service trip to Pine Ridge Reservation as an undergraduate while attending a university that, at the time, had a Native American mascot. However, aside from this experience and knowing some organizers of the Would Jesus Eat Fry Bread conference, I rarely think about justice issues for indigenous North Americans. Among racial justice issues in the United States, they are generally overshadowed by the legacies of slavery and segregation and, lately, racial disparity in law enforcement, university campus racial climate, and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Furthermore, Native Americans are often invisible: they have constituted around 1% or less of the population in states where I’ve lived. But the more I thought about it, the American Dream is essentially built on land grabbing and dehumanization of Indigenous people groups. Any participant in the Dream, including my family’s immigration story, is essentially perpetuating this if we try to see things from the Native perspective.

I thought about my family roots in Taiwan as someone of Han Chinese descent. Aboriginal people in Taiwan constitute about 2% of the population and also had their territory forcibly taken from them by Han Chinese settlers over several centuries. Official census data literally counted them as “barbarians” well into the twentieth century. The legacy of this oppression is also part of who I am.

"We welcome these people groups to our country. Look at how successfully they are integrated and accepted! We’re so tolerant and diverse!"

I thought about how I fit into the narrative of the exercise as someone of American nationality and Taiwanese descent living temporarily in Canada. Racially in everyday life, I am indistinguishable from a Chinese Canadian. Perhaps moreso than the United States (especially lately), Canadians take a great deal of pride in their country’s welcoming and integration of immigrant people groups, especially those of non-European descent. And the more I’ve thought about this during and since the Blanket Exercise, the more I’ve realized this narrative further perpetuates oppression against First Nations. We welcome these people groups to our country. Look at how successfully they are integrated and accepted! We’re so tolerant and diverse!

Finally, I thought about all of this as a Christian. Recognizing the histories of injustice against First Nations does not mean I hate Canada or the United States nor does it mean I cannot recognize ways many – including me – have benefited from the structures and policies of their governments. However, it does mean I am called to grieve and lament. Many of these injustices were committed in the name of Christianity and enabled by the Doctrine of Discovery. The name of Jesus has been and is being profaned. Those of us who have benefited or contributed – even obliquely – are called to repent and listen. Hopefully the CRCNA’s work toward this repentance and listening to our Indigenous brothers and sisters can help us toward restoring honor and shalom. That as in Isaiah 58 we might “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke” that our worship may be pleasing to God.

A step for unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery: If you haven't yet participated in the Blanket Exercise, contact a facilitator in your area by visiting crcna.org/blanketexercise. If you've already participated, consider becoming a facilitator to pass on the learning. You don't have to be an expert. To inquire about facilitator trainings, contact Shannon Perez (sperez@crcna.org) or Viviana Cornejo (vcornejo@crcna.org). 

Editor's note: This is the last post in our series "In 1492, Indigenous peoples discovered Columbus". To see other posts in the series, visit this page. Thanks for working to unlearn the Doctrine of Discovery with us!

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