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Married to discrimination: Coping with racism in a cross-cultural marriage

Sanford and Marlana Williams.

We started out like any other couple. There was attraction, common interests and a mutual desire to spend our time together as companions. Eventually, we got married and sealed the deal to share our lives together.

But my marriage isn’t like most others. Yes, there are the usual ups and downs of marriage that just about every couple contends with. There are times when a senseless misunderstanding can turn into an argument, or when Mars and Venus just aren’t aligned.

In this regard, we have a typical marriage. The fact that I’m a white woman married to a full-blooded Indigenous man — who endured physical and sexual abuse at residential school, and who is often subjected to discrimination — is what sets my experience apart from most others.

I am not looking for pity, nor am I seeking approval. I just want to explain my situation so that others who see us will better understand that First Nations issues are not internal, solely affecting one group. They affect us all.

It was a beautiful August afternoon when I met Sanford. I fell in love with him at first sight. He was (and still is) a ruggedly handsome man who has an extraordinary talent as a master carver.

I took a day tour to the remote village of Yuquot, where he was living. In the West Coast Indigenous language of Nuu-chah-nulth, Yuquot means “where winds blow in all directions.” But on this day, it was warm and calm.

He was carving a mask when I walked into his ­beachfront shop. We introduced ourselves and exchanged some light conversation. Then he closed his shop to take me for a walk down a cool, dirt path — which is the starting point of the Nootka Trail. We talked. We flirted. We were falling in love.

We stayed in touch, and I made frequent visits to ­Vancouver Island. Six months later, I made the ­decision to leave Vancouver and make a move to Campbell River. I got hired at a local newspaper, which paid me half of what I was accustomed to, but Sanford was worth it.

We shared an apartment overlooking Discovery ­Passage. It should have been the start of a fresh, ­beautiful, new life. In many ways, it was.

But it didn’t take long to notice the discriminatory treatment from non-natives that Sanford had been used to. The first time it directly affected me was when I told a former friend that I had fallen in love with him.

“Does he have teeth?” she sneered.

The jab was uncalled for. It was meant to embarrass him as an Indigenous man, as if it was OK to do that between us non-natives.

Then I noticed the discrimination he faced when we went out together. In some stores, a non-native shop owner or employee might hassle him. I’ll then feel inclined to drift to his side, then listen to the employee’s excuse that they weren’t aware that we were together.

Sometimes Sanford’s ability to make a purchase is questioned. If he’s not being ignored, he’s often spoken to improperly.

“I’m treated better when I’m with you,” Sanford once told me.

These typical bouts of rudeness and accusatory behaviour were something he learned to live with, and shrug off.

I had seen many First Nations people do this and ­wondered how they tolerated being spoken to so curtly. Then I realized why. It tends to be a residential school symptom to say nothing, sparing any trouble.

But being a couple isn’t so obvious either. To this day, restaurant staff will almost always ask if we’re together, or if we’re even sharing a bill at the end of a meal. It seems that if we can establish ourselves as a party of two, we still can’t seem to be “together enough” to share a receipt.

These things irritate me. First and foremost, my husband is often disrespected before he even opens his mouth.

If he’s ignored by a salesperson, it means I, too, am ignored. If someone insults my husband, I am also insulted.

When someone feels better that I’m with him, they send a message that there’s some kind of code between non-natives that says our association with an Indigenous person indicates that they’ve passed some sort of test. That they’re OK to accept this person — since I have.

Once we arrive home, I don’t know what I’m going to get. Sanford has said the words: “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t an Indian.” I’ve seen him become angry as he watches Indigenous issues on the news.

Online, I often deal with trolls who dismiss First Nations matters as internal within their own ­communities, saying that they’re “sick of being ­responsible for what’s happened in the past.”

But my husband’s past does affect my life. He was sexually and physically abused up until the age of 10, just for being an Indigenous child. That should be enough to wake people up.

The ripple effects of residential-school abuse still continue from one generation to the next. Many ­survivors dealt with their pain by turning to alcohol and other substances for relief.

These dependencies led to many First Nations children being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Those children became adults with damaged ­relationship skills, who sometimes have a difficult time communicating, finding ways to cope, who may not understand social cues, who then go on to have children of their own where the cycle tends to repeat itself.

Residential school was the fault of the Canadian government and the church, who believed it was beneficial to remove the language, culture and style of First Nations children — who viewed them as disposable creatures.

They were treated as if they were feral animals, needing to be tamed. Perhaps the hysterical crying after the children were ripped away from their homes made them think this way, that it wasn’t proper in the colonizers’ stiff-upper-lip society.

For years, secretive, ugly behaviour toward innocent children continued. If a child survived, they were tossed into society as damaged beings, stuck somewhere between a lost culture and another they had no bearings in.

Eventually, residential schools introduced programs to soften the environment. They added field trips, sports days, recreational activities and parties. It wasn’t good enough, as the abuse certainly continued.

Sanford would have gladly traded in every ribbon won, every piece of cake and every winning goal scored if it could also take away the abuse he had endured.

Today, I live with the effects of that abuse as a sounding board, and as someone who has found herself the target of sudden outbursts of emotions from the man I love.

These issues are a part of my life, just as they are for any non-native who is a spouse, friend, co-worker or neighbour of anyone who is Indigenous.

In this day of reconciliation, monetary compensation and recognizing cultural appropriation is one thing, but it’s not everything. To me, it starts with changing our attitudes.

If anyone deserves a badge of honour for resilience, it’s Sanford, who is strong enough to take on a society that looks down on him daily.

Eight years ago, he took my hand, indicating that he was willing to move forward with me at his side. It makes my heart swell every day.

We should all take a page out of his book, understanding and dealing with the past, but moving forward together in the spirit of reconciliation.