One time I was given a lesson on how to shake a hand by the managing partner of a major downtown law firm. My grip was too limp, he said. You have to keep it firm. I suppose my handshake was limp. I have always considered the classic grip handshake as a little bit too aggressive for my style.
Sometime later, at an Aboriginal event I was attending with my daughter, a young fellow shook my hand in exactly the same way as the lawyer had done, reminding me of the lawyer and making me think, “Why, he shakes hands just like a White man.”
I was amused to encounter the same young man at another Aboriginal event more than a decade later. He was showing the proper handshake to another Aboriginal man exactly as I’d been shown.
“Your grip is too limp. You have to keep it firm,” he said to the other.
I had a name for that young man in my head: “the Gladhander.”
It wasn’t a compliment.
Maybe the thing with the handshake is cultural, a fragment of cultural attitude. I’m not sure there is an Aboriginal handshake, per se. But that tight grip—stopping politely short of martial arts—certainly wouldn’t be it. Neither is the handshake as universal and understood a custom as most Euro-Canadian males seem to believe.
Is it a greeting? Is it a threat? Is it a gradable skill?
Recently I applied for a job teaching Aboriginal studies in the Downtown Eastside, and one of the reasons I was turned down for the job (at least, so I was informed) was that I don’t speak hippy-speak. Hippy-speak is another kind of Euro custom which European speakers seem to think is universal. Like the handshake.
Now there are a lot of fluent hippy-speakers on the Downtown Eastside. During my brief turn as anti-poverty advocate down there I met hippy-speakers of such skill they would make the original hippies of the 60s and 70s sick with envy. Teach me, o guru! But I also saw them speaking to rooms full of non-Aboriginal people. The Downtown Eastside is perceived as, among other things, an Aboriginal ghetto, and some of the down-and-outest of the down-and-outers are indeed Aboriginal. But the finest hippy-speaker on the planet couldn’t get Aboriginal people in the door if they don’t believe you are talking to them. Without a real attempt at connection, it just feels like so much glad-handing and the Aboriginal audience will stay away.
Now that was one of the problems with the job I was applying for. I wanted to teach Aboriginal people on the Downtown Eastside because I’ve spent a lot of time addressing matters important to their lives, and I wanted a chance to tell them about what I had learned. I’ve had a lot of success with Aboriginal students doing just that. However, even before I got a chance to apply, they watered down and de-emphasized what I had to offer by adding another unconnected job on top of it. They didn’t want just somebody with knowledge of Aboriginal curriculum. They wanted a community worker cum salesman as well, a completely different set of skills. They were having trouble getting Aboriginal people interested in their downtown literacy programme, so they thought they would hire a brown person to recruit.
Now that’s the sort of tokenism which whitestream liberals are often guilty of. Hire the brown doorman to lure in the brown customers. It never occurs to them that they might need to tailor their product to their customer. It never occurs to them to consult the brown doorman about how to do it.
What’s needed is an honest attempt to address the reality of Aboriginal history, of the reality of colonized peoples who more than anything stand in need of decolonization, including the decolonization of their education. Hippy-speak is condescending, and beside the point.
Education is not neutral. Education is not one-size-fits-all. You can’t hire someone to sell it like you sell shoes. It takes getting to know the customer. It takes addressing the specific needs of the customer. It takes thought, work, planning, homework and product development, even when offered to Aboriginal people in a skid road neighbourhood.
There are no short cuts. There is no special handshake.