Amy Donaldson: Sister's subtle racism experience provides convincing case for eschewing ethnic sports mascots

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 6:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, June 30 2014 6:35 a.m. MDT

The Donaldson siblings enjoying a day on a beach in Kenai, Alaska.

Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

I knew the grocery store clerk did not mean to hurt or offend us with her question.

But I saw my sister look down when the woman asked the question amid our idle hurry-and-ring-up-my-groceries chatter, and the big sister in me felt compelled to act.

“She’s your sister?” the woman asked, the surprise evident in her voice as she looked from me, to our baby sister, Dani, and then at Ernie, who stood next to me with her arm around my waist. “Is she adopted?”

I hated that question.

I hated it because I knew the person asking meant no offense. I hated it because it made me feel like my sister wasn’t mine because the same woman hadn’t given birth to both of us. And I hated it because I felt like it sent subtle messages to the little black-eyed beauty I called Ernestito that she wasn’t a real Donaldson.

I never asked Ernie about it, but she has always been so eager to please and easy-going, I'm afraid she would have shrugged and said it didn’t bother her, even if it did.

But I know being constantly reminded that you are an Inupiat Eskimo in a family of Irish and Scottish descendents wasn’t always comfortable.

“No,” I said as kindly as I could, while I pulled Ernie closer. “Our father had an affair with an Eskimo woman. She’s my sister.”

I will never forget Ernie’s face as we laughed about my impromptu decision to soil our father’s reputation. Her giggles washed away my anger, but it also helped me understand that sometimes an innocent question can cause real damage.

I have never felt the sting of racial prejudice. No one’s ever called me derogatory or ethically bigoted names. And no one has ever made me feel like the culture of my ancestors is so flawed, I should turn my back on every aspect of it.

But I have a sister — Ernestine Roxanne Kuutuu Kignak Donaldson — who has had all of these experiences.

And it is my love for my sister that moves me to voice my opinion on the Washington Redskins controversy. It is my understanding of how even the most subtle prejudices and insensitive racial stereotypes can chip away at a person’s self-image. It creates unintentional but dangerous cracks in the confidence of people who don’t understand why there is misunderstanding or misgivings about the color of their skin or the culture into which they were born.

When society embraces stereotypes and images that are hurtful or insulting, it can cause a person to question, reject and even hate that part of themselves, oftentimes without even being aware of it. Sometimes those of us embracing the stereotypes don’t even understand the ways in which we’re hurting other people.

Before I explain why and how my sister’s struggle growing up Eskimo in Alaska relates to the NFL’s Washington Redskins, I need to explain why I didn’t realize just how subtle these messages are sent until I took my sister to meet her biological half-sister in Idaho a few years ago.

Meeting Dora Lynn Kignak-McClain was a life-altering gift. Not only did I see the unconditional love she had for my sister, Ernie, but I also noticed something that’s made me think about racism much differently.

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