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December 16, 2012

Forum: Racist acts are also teaching acts

As I recently boarded a flight home from Chicago O'Hare to Traverse City and before takeoff, I had the unfortunate experience of being confronted with racial and inflammatory comments regarding Native Americans from individuals seated behind me.

This group spoke quite openly and loudly about "the Indians." As the derogatory comments became more intolerable, I did eventually turn around to identify who was making these remarks. Quickly, I was greeted by nearby passengers telling me to "let it go" and not give the group my attention.

If I may, I would like to accurately identify "the Indians" that were being derogatorily spoken of. In our home area, we are the Anishinaabek: the Odawa, Ojibway and Bodewadomi (Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi).

We all realize that racial thoughts and comments are a part of our society, both nationally and even within our small part of the world, but when it does rear its ugly head it truly reflects how much work there is yet to do.

That work is about healing and making the most of a situation. What I again discovered is that there is no "right" or "wrong" way when encountering racial comments, but there can be moments for empowerment and appreciation.

Upon landing, I had several individuals approach me with concern and appreciation for how I handled this situation. Was that a learning moment for myself and for others in proximity? I believe so. In this day and age, we need to consider how we co-exist, and foster growth for the appreciation of the beauty we all possess.

During my campaigns for Congress and the Michigan House, did we encounter racism? Yes. We also encountered hundreds of individuals who looked beyond race. Not just in a candidate but in the bigger picture for society. In our area we need to continue advocacy and education to increase the awareness level of those with discriminatory thoughts, and for those that are subjected to racial statements. We also have to teach how we most productively deal with these situations when they occur.

In my recent experience I put fellow passengers in front of me, so that we could leave the Chicago airport and get home safely. I could have easily left my seat and confronted the individuals making racial and ignorant comments, in which I could have then been subjected to strict Federal Aviation Administration guidelines regarding passenger behavior. My thoughts went to my wife and family, of being with them and not wanting to risk being removed from the flight for only defending the pride of being an Odawa Anishinaabe.

My defining moments of reassurance came after we landed; while standing at the luggage claim area, fellow passengers approached me. They were able to share how they felt hearing what they heard, and thanked me for handling it the way I did.

Sometimes, in the most intense situations, we can still use those opportunities for times of learning. Did I do the right thing? I believe I did. Megwetch (thank you).

About the author: Derek Bailey is a former chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He campaigned for the U.S. House and the Michigan House in the 2012 election cycle.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by emailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.

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