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November 2, 2010

Today is election day and I am not voting.  Why?  Well, for one thing, I haven’t yet registered to vote in Montana.  Not that it is an excuse, but registering to vote in my situation is not a simple matter of driving downtown to the municipal building and presenting my documents.  I live on a reservation, where I am not eligible to vote, so in order to register I have to drive to the county seat in Forsyth, which is 50 miles away.  The municipal offices are open during regular working hours, which is when I am also working, so I’d need to take at least two hours off of work to travel there and back.

But if I go to all of this effort to register to vote, there is still the limiting fact that I cannot vote in local political elections.  I am a resident of Lame Deer, MT, where I don’t actually have the rights or benefits of being a resident since I am not a member of any federally recognized tribe.  So my opinion doesn’t count.

After I wrote my blog entry “To be or not to be,” where I shared my thoughts about choosing to be under tribal jurisdiction, my dad commented that my experiences here on the reservation should give me a little taste of what it must have been like to be a black person living under Jim Crow segregation:  I live here, I contribute here, yet I can’t enjoy the full benefits of being a resident here.  I receive stares and curious looks from people when I walk down Cheyenne Avenue or shop at the Trading Post, and I know I am not fully welcome in certain places among certain people.

I definitely do not experience nearly the hardship that blacks experienced during segregation–for one thing, I can step outside the reservation boundaries at any time and be back in a world where I am accepted in more places than any person of color; I have a choice whether to subject myself to the limitations of living as a white person on a reservation, whereas blacks had no choice but to be subjugated to white persons.

But my situation on the reservation is still an enlightening one.  I do experience racism, however subtle, and I feel somewhat awkward when I am alone in public, which enables me to empathize with the experiences of minorities living in majority white America, as well as with the struggle it is to feel comfortable and confident in one’s own skin when the color of the skins around you are different.  It also helps me to understand why Philadelphia is such a “city of neighborhoods,” which is really a euphemism for “city of enclaves.”  Each ethnic group in Philly seems to occupy its own nook of the city, with the Italians in South Philly, the Vietnamese just north of the Italians, the Mexicans just north of the Vietnamese, the Puerto Ricans in North Philly, the Brazilians and Russians in Northeast Philly, the Africans in West Philly, and so on.  It’s simply more comfortable to be around people who look, act, think, and speak like you.

But I am happy to be outside of my comfort zone for now.  It gives me new perspectives on life and on social interactions, and most certainly makes me a more effective sociology instructor

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