By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — A Native American author challenged white students to look at the company they keep at the breakfast table this morning.
“You don’t get reminded about your whiteness,” Sherman Alexie said in a lecture in Alumni Fieldhouse at the State University College at Oneonta on Tuesday night. White folks don’t — and don’t want — to admit that they are “just as tribal” as Indians, he said, and they don’t reflect on their pigmentation, for instance, that they are “so white that snow is jealous.”
Alexie presented “Without Reservations: An Urban Indian’s Comic, Poetic & Highly Irreverent Look at the World” in the college’s Mills Distinguished Lecture series. His novel, “Flight,” was chosen for a common-read project at the college to encourage students to examine and discuss topics such as equity, inclusion and personal history.
For about an hour, Alexie spun tales about growing up poor on a reservation, weaving in barbs aimed at stereotypes and myths about Indians that the “white man” has learned from Hollywood.
But he also urged students and listeners to consider their individual heritage, saying that “we all started in Africa” and that the United States is a nation of immigrants.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than enforced stereotypes,” Alexie said. Reactions to his jabs about stereotypes, sometimes in obscene language, ranged from laughter and applause to silence.
Alexie said his family had no running water or electricity until he was 7, he said, and his parents were stopped for DWI — driving while indigenous.
Alexie said police stopped him in Oneonta on Monday night to question him in an unsolved burglary case from 1992, a reference to the local Black List investigation, when area authorities questioned people of color in the community.
The audience was silent.
“It got a little uncomfortable,” Alexie responded. Communities would like to think racial profiling happened 20, 40 or 60 years ago when the reality is that “it still occurs all the time,” he said.
After speaking for an hour, Alexie entertained questions from the audience, including one from a young white woman who asked his advice for white students.
“Don’t drink so much,” Alexie said, prompting more applause from listeners. He also advised reading assigned books and starting papers several weeks ahead of their due dates.
Josh Padula, 18, a freshman English major from Ballston Spa, said Alexie was funny and genuine.
“He didn’t seem to hold back at all — in his subject matter, in his language,” Padula said.