Orange is the New Red and White
It’s the early hours of what promises to be a blistering hot Canada Day. I’m sitting at my laptop, drinking my morning coffee, wearing an orange t-shirt. As you likely know, at least if you live in Canada, the orange t-shirt has come to become a symbol of solidarity with our indigenous neighbours, specifically those who endured residential schools. The idea for the orange t-shirt emerges out of the experience of a young indigenous girl who was given an orange shirt by her grandmother to wear on her first day at a Residential School in British Columbia. The shirt was confiscated, and she never saw it again.
I am not typically prone to embracing visible markers like this. I don’t tend to wave flags or hold up signs or use social media as a megaphone for my political opinions. I suppose I am a bit of a fossil in that I prefer to engage at the level of ideas and one on one conversation than slogans and flags that can so easily (and often) be misinterpreted and/or casually dismissed. I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog, but I really, really dislike being misinterpreted. I would prefer to be able to explain precisely what I mean, however long it takes. It probably goes without saying at this point, but our cultural moment is not exactly one that is conducive to nuance or patient conversation. The reactive hot take, the sensational (and at times obfuscatory) headline, the rigid moral certainty, the punitive take down, the self-congratulatory banner raised to the sky—these are far more entertaining. And, of course, far more profitable for big media.
I am wearing the orange t-shirt today for a simple reason. My young adult daughter, who is Ojibway, gave it to me. She had posted something online about wearing orange on Canada Day. I said, “I will if you will.” And so, she went out and found an orange t-shirt for me at a thrift store. We had a good talk about it yesterday before she headed off for a few weeks on another summer adventure. Like everyone with a pulse and a soul, her heart is broken by the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada in recent weeks. She is angered and grieved by the attempt of the Canadian government, with the aid of the church, to eradicate the language, culture, and identity of her people. The orange shirt serves as a symbol for this grief and rage about a truly shameful chapter in the history of Canada.
But our conversation also veered in a direction I didn’t expect. She talked about her discomfort with being in certain spaces and feeling a pressure—sometimes subtle, sometimes quite overt—to be the mouthpiece for a certain set of grievances that she doesn’t necessarily share, or at least doesn’t feel with quite the same urgency. “I hate it when they just look at me as one of the few brown people in the room and expect me to be angry,” she said. She resists the perceived need to function as little more than an avatar for a set of identity grievances. She knows (and is proud of) the fact that her story is a bit more complicated than that. She knows that she is a beautiful, unique person, with a number of different tributaries feeding the river that is her life. She has told me many times that she is a human being and a child of God first, and any other identity marker second.
She resists, in other words, the identity determinism that much of our cultural discourse demands and rewards. So often these days, it seems that identity trumps ideas. If you are a person of colour or if you inhabit a certain sexual or gender identity, you are expected to dutifully recite your lines. We know where you fit, what you’re supposed to say, how we’re supposed to respond. If you’d just kindly stay in your lane, we can all get on with things. If you happen to have an idea that blurs the boundaries or, worse, contradicts the accepted orthodoxies of the moment in any way, we’d really rather not hear from you. Your identity—or, more accurately, our conception of your identity—is what we’re interested in, not your ideas.
This bothers me. I think we are more glorious creatures than whatever aggregate of identity markers we inhabit or create (I know, what else would you expect from someone with my boring constellation of identities?). I was rather pleased to discover that it bothered my daughter, too. And so, we’re wearing our orange t-shirts today as an expression of the sadness and anger that is appropriate to the legacy of residential schools and all the toxic misery they have spawned. I think we’re also wearing them as an expression of our longing for a more hopeful future for our nation and for us as individuals—a future that is less a warring of inflexible identity markers and more of a shared vision for all.