The racism behind “Indigenous people just need to work harder”

Indigenous people already have to deal with the effects of generations of systemic racism. It’s cruel to make them deal with solving them, too.

Have you ever seen people claim that Indigenous people are lazy, that if they just worked harder and applied themselves, they could pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty?

This is a racist take on a complex issue.

You see, Indigenous people aren’t in generational poverty because of a lack of personal motivation. They don’t experience higher incarceration rates because they simply choose to commit more crimes. They don’t have lower graduation rates than non-Indigenous people because they just don’t want to study.

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And so on.

All of these issues are systemic. Indigenous people were systematically oppressed for centuries. They were exploited for their knowledge of the land and its resources. They were starved, infected, relocated, raped, and murdered, and then imprisoned on small tracts of land, having their languages, religious beliefs, and culture stolen from them. Their children were kidnapped and forced into state-sponsored religious schools, where they were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. Their children are still today kidnapped by the state and put into white homes. Indigenous people face police brutality. They face discrimination from store owners, landlords, employers, and so on.

None of that has to do with personal choice.

And the fact that the discrepancies are systemic is why these issues affect Indigenous people as a whole, and not just a handful of persons. If poverty rates, or incarceration rates, or graduation rates—or any area that has discrepancy between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people rates—come down to personal choice, then that means white people make better choices simply because they’re white and Indigenous people make poorer choices simply because they’re Indigenous.

But there is no laziness DNA, nor is there pull-up-your-socks DNA. To act as if there is is what makes this attitude racist.

Even if it did come down to personal choice—even if the only solution is for Indigenous people to just choose to go to school, get a good job, and buy a nice home—this attitude also removes culpability from the system.

If all that must be done to escape the effects of centuries-old genocide—which still happens today—is for Indigenous people to make better choices, then that means Indigenous people end up being responsible for solving the issues created by that genocide.

Except Indigenous people shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of the state. The state should be.

The state should be dealing with poverty among Indigenous people. The state should be dealing with police brutality. The state should be dealing with lower graduation rates. The state should be dealing with intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and the foster system. The state should be dealing with over-incarceration. And so on.

Indigenous people already have to deal with the effects of all those things. It’s cruel to make them deal with solving them, too.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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