Open Letter to Aaron Huey: Regarding Interpersonal and Media Colonialism

To Aaron Huey:

It has come to my attention that some Indigenous women on Twitter have critiqued you about the fact that you took photographs of Lakota ceremonies for National Geographic. It has also come to my attention that you made unsolicited contact with those women in your own defense. Here, in case you deleted it from your memory too, is a record of what you tweeted:

hueytweetstwitter screencaps

(Huey’s tweets read from bottom to top; Lauren and Dawn’s tweets read top to bottom.)

I would like to express to you not only my agreement with their critiques, but the personal offense that I take at how aggressively you have imposed yourself on them regarding this matter. They have every right to critique you, and do not require your permission or approval to say what they like to each other about something you did that impacted their community– but this letter does not speak for them, only for me. I am asking you, personally, to immediately desist in flexing your perceived authority with them, as it is a function of your racial privilege over Indigenous people. You are flexing that privilege now with your refusal to “allow” critique of your work, just as you did when you published photographs of ceremony against the community’s expressed wishes.

Your projects on the Lakota Nation provoke many questions. For example, why is it that you felt depicting ceremony was so indispensable to your project? Ceremony is sacred and intimate, and at the same time, it is a focus of fetishization and commodification by non-Natives. It is not necessary to document ceremony and expose it to that fetishization in order to represent Pine Ridge positively. In spite of hardship and material poverty, the place is electric with life, laughter, endurance, growth, love, and power, not just in ceremony but in the unsung mundane moments of everyday life. Did you skip the gatherings that occur after ceremony, where people talk and joke and reminisce with their families and friends? They are much less exotic, and less marketable than the ceremony itself, but just as telling of the profound bonds, support, and tradition that exist in the community.

What about the poets, the artists and fashion designers creating breathtaking contemporary work from their traditional techniques and aesthetics, or the competitive dancers who bead their own regalia, or the rodeo riders and basketball players? Did you miss the Oglala Nation college where community members can get practical degrees, and educations based on their traditional ways?

Every aspect of Lakota life reveals the resurgence of their nation, and the coexistence of old and modern ways, yet you captured and shared the one thing you were explicitly told was not to be captured and shared. When you published those intimate moments and harnessed them to “redeem” the Lakota from the box your first project put them in, you took advantage of the generosity that was granted to you when you were permitted to even enter that sacred space. I submit that, whether you were conscious of it or not, this focus on ceremony is related to the marketability of Native peoples to non-Native audiences as an exotic commodity.

It is partly for this reason that your actions are suspect. The exoticism projected onto Native ceremony by the hegemonic non-Native gaze is presented by you, and vicariously lends the feelings evoked in the viewer to your work, and thus to you. “The Sun Dance has rarely been photographed” is an all but explicit homage to whatever qualities supposedly make you exceptional enough to be chosen as the one who will be, to use the widely-detested cliché, the “voice of the voiceless.” And while those exact words were not yours, you failed to guard against the inevitability that your work would be presented that way, and instead have played directly into it. This is not about the inherent flaws of journalism in communicating different perspectives, nor about what Pine Ridge is or is not. This is about how you have conducted and continue to conduct yourself. Regardless of your intent–which is irrelevant– analyzing the context of your visit and the work itself indicate that this project is no more than a badge for you to wear as an artist, masquerading as an attempt to “help” Native people while providing fodder for cultural voyeurs who hold their own curiosity in higher regard than community wishes. You may recognize this as a manifestation of the classically problematic white savior complex.

There is a strong sentiment among Native people that, in light of everything that has been lost and stolen, it is more important than ever that their sacred ways are to be protected. I have heard disgust expressed many times over the fact that settlers have taken over the land, tried to exterminate cultures, and now attempt to take ownership over the very ways they tried to wipe out. External assertion of ownership over a community and their stories is, in itself, another form of erasure. It allows that community to become co-opted and redefined, created anew through a distorted lens. It asserts that the broader world no longer has to look to the actual people to get to know them, they can simply look to the external project. This is exactly what you did when you published photographs of ceremony—not to mention the original myopic and harmful representations that those images responded to. You continue to assert your own project as the representation of Lakota people. You are on record in the New York Times saying “Now you can [see all of what they are],” when in fact all we can see is another externally crafted representation (and, in a sense, photographic evidence of socially-ingrained white entitlement).

To document ceremony against explicit directives is an enactment of a ubiquitous settler privilege that says Native people’s ownership over their own identities, cultures, and traditions is less important than our right to learn from them, or our “burden” to save them whether they want it or not. Your glib remark about “needing enemies” also reflects that racial privilege, by demonstrating what you are capable of failing to see. The privilege to have the negative impacts of racism absent from your daily life makes it possible for you to make a statement like that. It rests on ignorance of the sheer number and magnitude of social and institutional obstacles working against Native people in America–a fact that means the last thing in the world they would need or seek is another enemy. Indeed, they did not seek you out, you came to their front door. So when you address these Indigenous women as if they were irrationally combative, you demean them and erase the truth, both of their reality and of your own behavior.

Even the responses you offered indicate your unawareness of how this privilege impacts your life and your career. The project that you used as a defense in that conversation appears to feature cherry-picked messages from Lakota people, curated by you, which support and validate both your position and your work. Since you remain charged by National Geographic with compiling this collection, it is crucial that you analyze and understand how your choices reveal your bias. What you erase is just as important as what you show, and that project and the interactions you have sought out on twitter indicate that you are highly invested in silencing criticism. You have a social responsibility to consider whether it is really of any use to provide a platform to Native people if community outsiders are curating that platform in a manner that suits their own agenda.

This makes it even more disgraceful that you would approach Native women unsolicited on twitter, who were trying to have a conversation about how what you did impacted their community, and aggressively intrude in defense of yourself. In truth, they are familiar with your perspective and motives. They have seen your behavior patterns more times than you can imagine. You, however, appear unfamiliar with theirs. If you are familiar, you are clearly dismissing their realities and prioritizing your own—but I hope not, as that would be ethnocentric. You have, however, defensively shoved your way into their conversation instead of listening with humility and trying to really form a dialogue by moving beyond your certainty that everything you do, when well-intended, must be correct.

This is not an attempt on my part to stand up for those women. They are more than capable of standing up to you for themselves if they choose, although you have not shown them the respect they deserve for that. The authority and power vested by this colonial nation in your respective social positions, as a white man and indigenous women, makes them Davids to your Goliath. How you have wronged them, though, is for them to tell you, if they want. I am addressing the wrong your actions do me, as another white person.

Continuing to assert your righteousness and press this issue as you have is effectively a fight to defend your privilege to prioritize with them your agenda in regard to their people. That is a function of racial privilege, and when you defend your own racial privilege, you defend mine as well. I find this not just a moral offense, but an obstacle to me, considering the importance to my own white identity of anti-racist work. Every time a project like yours dubiously asserts authority on “the Other” and is publicly validated in powerful platforms like National Geographic, it is a hundred steps back for every step forward I try to make for myself and the world.

I understand the discomfort inherent in privileged American identity when confronted with the existence of oppression. I understand the desire to do something helpful. It’s a way to reconcile the context of our existence. But that’s exactly why it’s so important to resist falling into traps like saviorism, traps that make us feel better but actually reinforce the obstacles faced by the people we are trying to support. It is our social and moral obligation to resist and deconstruct our racial privilege wherever and whenever we can, and because that privilege is reinforced so strongly in the world, that requires discipline. If you want to help, it takes work. Not like a project, but real work on yourself and how you perceive and engage with the world around you. It takes restraining your feelings and realizing when they are not the issue. It takes understanding when and with whom to de-prioritize your own agenda, however positive that agenda may seem. It takes respect and humility, and a certain amount of doing what you’re told whether it makes sense to you or not.

And yes, that is an explicit reference to the fact that you photographed ceremony (individual permission or lack thereof aside) when you knew the pervasiveness of the conviction that ceremony is not to be photographed. That was an unethical thing to do, but it was three years ago and the damage has already been done. What I am asking you now is to see how you are perpetuating damage at this moment by imposing yourself on these Indigenous women, members of a community you have capitalized on, for expressing to each other legitimate critiques of your work and your actions. If they had wanted to engage you in conversation, they would have contacted you directly. Regardless of what the New York Times says about you, your behavior toward them has indicated that you are not, in fact, a good listener, which could go a long way toward explaining why they may not have been interested in a “dialogue” with you in the first place.

I am asking you to understand, from one privileged social location to another, that it is incumbent on us to be disciplined and respectful in our work on deconstructing racism. While it is true that racism is about history and institutional obstacles and active personal dislike, it is also how we as individuals treat each other and what we take for granted as excusable or standard behavior. It is about what we expect from the world and from ourselves, and what we feel is within our rights to do regarding other people. You clearly feel entitled to push your way into a conversation between two Indigenous women, and rather than show contrition for that or for your original wrongdoing, you have only fought back. That is not helpful, it’s damaging. I am asking you now to desist in imposing your agenda on Indigenous people, both publicly and privately. That is how you can start to be helpful.

With undying hope and best wishes,

Kelleigh Driscoll

(UPDATE 4/18: I would like to stress that there is reason to believe Rick may not have approved publication of any photos of ceremony, only the rest of the photos in the set. Regardless, permission is irrelevant and this letter is not about him. Also, “Lakota inipi ceremony” has been changed to “Lakota ceremonies” because ceremonies besides Inipi were also photographed. After multiple reader requests, I have added screencaps of Dawn and Lauren’s tweets. References to Tanka have been removed for reasons not relevant to this discussion.)

Romney’s “47%” Comments Parallel Discourse on American Indians

Mitt Romney’s comments about 47% of America being freeloaders who refuse to “take responsibility or care for their lives” have rightfully incensed many people over the last few days. But I can’t help noticing that there is an important parallel here which doesn’t seem to be receiving any discussion. The ideas Sir Mittington shared with us about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax are callous at best, but it’s something that non-Native society has considered acceptable to say about American Indians since the inception of our nation.

Native peoples are frequently called freeloaders because they accept services from the US government, even though those services were promised to them in a series of legally binding documents. The US committed to providing certain things in exchange for Native lands, explicitly including food, housing, healthcare, and education. Native peoples are also exempt from some types of taxes (federal income tax is not one of them.) It is also important to note that, in ceding their land bases in exchange for these services, many Native peoples lost their historic means of subsistence.

The American government, citizens and military also actively destroyed the ability of nations to feed and sustain themselves. This was an explicit, direct, military tactic to force their submission. Attempts to exterminate the buffalo, which were nearly successful, were a deliberate means to weaken peoples who depended on them for food and force their surrender. Because, you know. People do things when their children are starving. Additionally, much of the land that reservations occupy was and remains inhospitable to economic activities like agriculture, and are extremely remote from the nearest job centers. These economically problematic geographic locations can also be traced to decisions that were made by the federal government, meaning high unemployment and poverty on tribal lands are direct results of federal colonial policies.

This wasn’t an accident.

True sovereignty is what will ultimately lift Native nations out of poverty, but instead of supporting it through funding and hands-off legal policy, the US has systematically blocked it. Tribal attempts to develop the economic options they do have are frequently blocked by the federal government. Although tribes have sovereign status—meaning that that laws of the US are not supreme on their lands—in 2000 and subsequent years the federal government repeatedly destroyed industrial hemp crops on Lakota territory. In 2010 the US spent $10.5 million on hemp imports, so the crops were expected to be a massive economic boon to the area. However, the United States unjustly imposed their laws and stopped this attempt at a legitimate, lucrative economic enterprise. This is only one example of the many ways Native nations’ self-sufficiency is actively interfered with by the American government.

Long story short: historically, forcing dependence on Native peoples was a goal that the United States government actively worked toward to achieve their military submission. Today, US laws often step in the way of economic initiatives for Native nations, perpetuating their bad economic conditions instead of supporting self-defined attempts to fix them. And yet, the discourse of their laziness and dependence remains.

Come on, you weren’t even trying.

People like John Stossel, who know nothing of Native history or policies, are legitimized, even given an official platform on TV, for that same demeaning, oversimplified rhetoric.

  • Native people are poor because they are lazy and feel entitled to the government financing their every whim!
  • We shouldn’t keep throwing money at them because they just keep being poor, it’s a waste!
  • They obviously don’t deserve it, being so lazy and all! And who are they do think they are believing they do, just because of their race?

I see these kinds of comments on Facebook and Twitter all the time (Twitter account “Settler Perspectives” collects and skewers them,) and in the language of many representatives in US congress, and in everyday conversation.

This guy’s name is only hidden because I still believe in Santa.

But this demeaning, unrealistic line of reasoning ignores two important facts.

First, the definition of a transaction is relevant. Federal services to tribes are binding promises that were signed into law. America granted those things in exchange for much of what was most precious to the peoples. They agreed to a series of contracts to provide healthcare, housing, food, and education for these sovereign nations and their citizens. These services are not, as many claim, special racial privileges—they are political rights, legal agreements entered into between sovereign national/political entities. And while questioning whether those services are “deserved” seems to have become more popular as political attention has turned to the federal budget, I cannot stress enough that it is an absolutely inappropriate, irrelevant question. They are federal legal obligations, and wiggling out of them is not an option.

Just an example of fine calligraphy?

This discourse also erases the point that, aside from the economic interference, another huge factor in the continued poverty in Native nations is that the funding they receive from Congress is insufficient to meet the promised level of support, as well as community needs. Funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other Native service programs is frequently at the top of the list of things to be slashed in federal budget negotiations.

Tribal governments are also  seeking authorization from Congress to be granted jurisdiction over non-natives who commit crimes on tribal lands.  (They currently lack this, which strikes me as atrocious not just because it’s such a burden on the exercise of sovereignty, but also because it contributes so powerfully to a crime-with-impunity zone on tribal lands for non-Native people.) Without funding increases, however, even gaining the jurisdiction could be toothless, since many tribes would lack sufficient resources to finance increasing police on their lands and prosecuting cases.

American Indian communities also suffer from social conditions that do not affect the rest of America the same way–sexual violence is at epidemic rates for Native women (and Amnesty International documents that 86% of their attackers are non-Native.) Suicide, poverty, alcoholism, diabetes and poor nutrition occur at much higher rates in most Native nations than in the general population. This is not because people are lazy and “playing victims” like the discourse says, but because of the lack of institutional support that they face, which is more stark than in larger society. And yes, fixing those problems will involve financing social programs, which is part of America’s obligations.

So Native people have long been unfairly subjected to the same kind of ignorant, myopic, and demeaning discourse that Mitt Romney unleashed on 47% of the country on Monday. Many people work hard at minimum wage jobs–often more than one of them– but they remain poor because they have no influence over defining factors like the standard wages that are paid for the types of work they can get. And just like Romney is unable to imagine the lives and humanity of lower income people because he has been shielded from typical struggles, so does mainstream non-Native America fail to grasp the issues facing Native nations—many if not all of which can be directly traced to external forces of colonialism. Like “the 47%,” Native people are just normal people trying to do the best they can for themselves and their families with the hand they’ve been dealt. It just happens that for Native nations and people, that hand also includes the hard side of colonialism. There are a lot of factors that come with that—racism, erasure from politics and media, regulation of their religions, unjust limitations on sovereign power—and yes, acceptance of funding from deals with the American government is part of that. It’s a half-followed-through concession amidst a wealth of social and political denigrations and obstacles.

By ignoring these points and framing Federal programs that serve Native peoples as some sort of race-based special privilege, funding for basic human needs comes to be seen as some sort of racist and pretentious sense of entitlement, rather than a facilitator of meeting legal obligations and basic human needs. People are being told that they are not taking “personal responsibility” for their situations—although they do they best that they can and their situations often have sources outside of their control. This is much like the working poor and lower income people that Mitt Romney disparaged with his remarks. Those comments reveal a segment of people who believe those in hard situations are demanding that the government manage their lives, when they are really only asking for the removal of social and institutional obstacles to success in managing their own lives.

Silly Natives! Thinking we owe you something just because we promised it!

So if this is news to you, please think about Mitt Romney’s 47% comments the next time you hear someone say that Native Americans are all about free handouts. What he said was so badly received in the  public partly because it ignores real-life circumstances and frames regular, working people as slothful, gluttonous tax-hogs. But these are the same  things people say, just as falsely, about American Indians every day. The insult is similar, but the public social outrage is mysteriously absent.

White Girl Time-Out: Stop Wearing Violent Halloween Costumes

(Trigger warning for violence)

White women of America, we need to talk. It’s about Halloween, and it’s really, really important.

I love Halloween, I always have. I love having a night where we can play dress-up as whatever we want. But every year when I am choosing my own costume, I am reminded that someone out there, most likely a white middle-class woman like me, is obliviously selecting a truly disturbing outfit, and inadvertently dressing up in a way that represents and reinforces sexual violence.

I’m talking about the Indian Princess, frequently known by the ham-fisted pun pseudonym “Poca-Hottie.” Every year I go out and I see them, doing the same things I am, drinking, laughing, goofing around, and my heart starts crushing and cracking even as it beats harder and faster because I’m not just sad, I’m boiling, electrically angry. And these girls have no idea that in a huge way, they have ruined my night just by being there dressed like that.

If you are surprised or confused by my feelings, then you don’t see what I see in a “Poca-Hottie” costume. But the Indian Princess costume is wrong because of what it does to real, live, actual Native women. Americans who are not Native often think of Indians as a part of themselves, an icon that belongs to everyone, a marker of our proud national history. Our culture treats Native Americans more like an idea than like people. But (and I will always be surprised how often it’s necessary to assert this) they are people, who according to the 2010 US Census number about 5 million among us.

Although generally sexualized women’s Halloween costumes are common, the Indian Princess is different. “Native American” or “Indian” is not an idea or a fictional character, or an occupation like a cop, or a historical drag like a flapper. It is an identity. It is a distinct cultural, community, and family location, one that has a long American history of being misrepresented at best and targeted for extermination at worst. It is to dress as somebody who could be your classmate, your colleague, your neighbor, your friend—and the particular racialized, sexualized form that costume takes sends a dangerous message about her.

We choose costumes based on what their imagery means to us, and what it means to people who will see it. In her article The Persistence of Stereotyping, Debra Merskin discusses advertising as one of the ways that racialized images—stereotypes— are cemented in people’s brains. “To every ad they see or hear, people bring a shared set of beliefs that serve as frames of reference for understanding the world around them… advertising images are about making meaning.” But, in order to mean something in people’s minds, there must be something they can connect it to that they already know about. Like ads, costumes tap into and reinforce those frames of reference, and the things America “knows” about Native women are older than the nation itself.

The roots of American understandings of Native women can be traced all the way back to Columbus and Vespucci. In her book Conquest, Andrea Smith tells how they described Indigenous women as unclothed, sinful, and most of all promiscuous beings. The Native woman was the sexually immoral woman, available to anybody. Smith’s analysis also offers us the fact that this characterization, coupled with the desire of conquerors to enforce their own ways of being, meant they saw rape as a legitimate tool of moral correction for “sinful” Native women, and used it to impose their culture on “savage” Indigenous nations. Raping Native women is not just violence, it’s a mechanism of racism and colonialism.

The racist misrepresentations which rationalized that behavior have changed over time, but they are not gone. Now, the more common stereotype of Native people is that they are inherently pure instead, but the dangerous part of the message about women remains—their inherent sexual availability. It is not an exaggeration to say that little images and messages are hiding in plain sight, reinforcing old-school stereotypes, literally everywhere in our daily lives. Merskin notes how brand imagery for Sue Bee Honey and Land ‘O’ Lakes butter associates their products with the Indian Princess, “as she happily offers up perhaps honey or butter (or herself)… Both images are encoded with socially constructed meanings about female Indian sexuality, purity and nature.” She is pure, but in an alluring way and like the product her purity is presented to the viewer, defined as explicitly for his consumption.

That’s my problem with these costumes—the meaning that they play into and make out of Native women. When someone chooses a sexualized Indian princess costume out of all the options that are out there, she is choosing to make one kind of meaning with her sexuality over another. In her article The Birth of Violence, Doreen Martinez describes how Native women themselves, as well as the imagery America has built around them, become commodities. In the Native-specific sexualization the Land ‘O’Lakes logo, the tropes of “purity and nature,” also come packaged with subservience. “In her hands is a plate, for the taking, of a box of butter. She is an emblematic servant.” She sits docilely, telling the consumer to take it, to take anything you want from her, because she is the Indian princess. Because our culture has made sure we know that proper Indians are the ones who help white people instead of resisting them, no matter what. Like the selectively-celebrated Sacagawea and Pocahontas, (who both would have been preadolescents when they “married” the white men they’re known for,) the Indian woman gives settlers what they want.

The expectations created by that baggage are bound up in practice with frightful things. I don’t mean that in a fun Halloween way, I mean sickening violence, unchecked and widespread attacks against women in body and spirit. I’m willing to venture that maybe Native women don’t appreciate being portrayed that way. Maybe they wouldn’t want the rest of the world thinking they can take anything they want from them. This is the part where some critic might say, “oh, those are just stereotypes, it’s a post-racial society now, nobody really believes that or acts on that stuff anymore.”

But they do.

Today, Native women are over two and a half times more likely to be raped than other American women, even other women of color, according to Amnesty International’s report Maze of Injustice. Even these staggering statistics are actually estimated to be conservative because of under-reporting.

But it actually gets even worse. The study also found that Native women are more likely to be seriously brutalized during their attacks, so not only are they more likely to be raped, it’s more likely that the rape will be super violent. Many die from the trauma if they are not murdered outright. Canada has a similar story. Official statistics say “Aboriginal women aged 25-44 are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence.” Due to a complex interplay of personal and institutional racism, Indigenous women are also far less likely to see justice or any police attention to them at all. And, The Maze of Injustice report also found that, while other groups of American women are more frequently attacked by men of the same race, for Native women 86% of the time the perpetrator was not Native.

Something is going on here. Something is being said, uniquely about Native women. Something is telling non-Native America that Native women are fair game for rape, maybe even murder. There is no other way to explain these statistics, especially the racial dynamics of victims and attackers.

The general tendency to say rape victims were “asking for it” is bad enough, but there is something out there telling us that just being a Native woman is somehow asking for it. That “something” is embodied in the sex-slave icon of the Indian Princess. It’s the reason that Andrea Smith has to tell us that “every Native survivor [she] ever counseled said to [her] at one point, ‘I wish I were no longer Indian.'” It’s not that they want to separate from their cultures and identities—they just don’t want to be the person who the world slaps a label on that says “OK TO RAPE.” And those costumes are that icon.

So, every time I see a girl at the bars wearing one of those outfits on Halloween, I know she doesn’t realize this. Maybe her costume stirs her ideas of peace and nature, of rebelling against modern society by effusing a kind of primitive, romantic image. Philip Deloria’s groundbreaking book Playing Indian shows the ways in which America has identified itself, and established and maintained racial power, by imposing identities on Indians with both denigrating and favorable traits of “otherness.”  So maybe she just thinks “cute” or “edgy” or “trendy” or whatever. And, because to her the imagery is favorable, she may even believe she’s honoring Native people.

That’s not what I think of when I look, though.

I think of women dragged into cars and alleyways. I think of girls who accede to unwanted pressure because they are fearful of what worse harm may come to them if they don’t. I think of guns and duct tape and blood spatter. I think of boarding and residential schools where children were used as sex objects. I think of conquistadors smugly congratulating themselves on doing God’s work as they seize what they consider the honest spoils of war. I see human bodies in rural ditches and shallow graves, sprinkled with just enough dirt to hide death from our national view and cover it with a façade of romance.

So, not only will I never wear a Poca-Hottie costume, I am begging the rest of the world not to do it either. Of course, technically you have a right to wear whatever you want, but considering all this, do you really want to? It’s a free country, and freedom still means we have an obligation to choose freely to do right by each other. Ladies, don’t dress yourself up in an image packaged with ideologies that justify another woman’s rape.

Censoring Histories, Censoring Citizens: Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban

As usual, some very transparent and spooky examples of white hegemony, and veiled white power ideology,  have been surfacing lately. Take this interview that was aired last week when The Daily Show ran a segment about the ban on Mexican-American Studies in Arizona:

This is one of those things that made that screaming sound happen in my brain, the one that says, “What the hell is going on here!?” Especially at the end of the clip, when the school district’s representative says,

“If there’s no more white people in the world, then… you [people of color] can do what you want.”

WOW, now there’s a loaded statement. So what the hell is going on here?

We'll Fight for Our Right to All-White!

The first thing that struck me about this is the unspoken implication–that as long as white people are around, we will control the show. It’s our turf, we decide who can participate, we determine what gets to count as history. We determine who and what matters to our country. We are in charge. Although he leaves that part conspicuously unsaid, this one (white) person has the power to determine official standards for public education, claims that the representation of Chicano history is, in itself, a dangerous thing which should be stopped from happening, and is backed institutionally.

That’s mighty white of you, guy.

Violence and Memory

But wait a minute, it’s not really just the history he’s against, right? It’s the idea that this material is violent! He’s against “radical” education, the idea that kids are being taught that “This is their land, the whites took it over, and the only way to get out from beneath the gringo, which is the white man, is by bloodshed.” (Please picture the word “gringo” pronounced as Germanically as possible.)

Well, two out of three ain’t bad–usually. In this case, it’s the one wrong call that makes all the difference. The talk about bloodshed really says more about him, and about white privilege in our society, than it does about the curriculum.

It is extremely telling that, without even attending one of the classes to witness how it was conducted with his own eyes, school superintendent Michael Hicks found it perfectly reasonable to believe beyond a shadow of doubt that a current of violent rebellion was being sparked simply because kids were learning that “this is their land” and “the whites took it over.” That’s a leap of logic, and a massive one at that. It’s as if, in Hicks’ mind, this can be “their land” or “our land,” but not both. Even a cursory understanding of US history indicates that this is, in fact, “their” land as much as anyone else’s.

Knowing about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in which the border of the United States was moved to include over half a million acres of land whose inhabitants went from being Mexican to being American overnight, provides some depth to the saying which for many (white) people is just a sound bite –“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” For many Americans personally, this event was definitive in that it was directly responsible for the fact that today, they are American rather than Mexican citizens. It was definitive for all America because of that. And yet to advance knowledge about Guadalupe-Hidalgo is considered incendiary, rather than potentially unifying.

This remembrance grounds Chicano history and citizenship as American, but even it glosses over how Mexican people, like Americans, were already the product of long, complicated, and often-violent relationships between the Indigenous peoples of that land and its European invaders. These histories are inextricably linked, between all peoples of what we now call North and South America. White immigrants from Europe did, in fact,  import themselves and their culture and did, in fact, seize geographic, political, and economic power over a long period of time, often through physical violence. This is an ugly history, one we as a nation seem to want to forget. It is a history that is actively rendered invisible institutionally, through situations just like the one in Arizona.

Power, Hegemony, and Threat Perception

This brings me to Hicks’ leap of logic. What is the value in erasing these multiple histories? What is the value of reinforcing ignorance and thus, privilege?

The power that was eventually seized by European Americans was not seized exclusively by violence. Power is also established and maintained in “softer” ways, through the public, social  normalization of certain values, expectations, and systems. One of those is white hegemony: the construction of legal, economic, and social structures, and a national historical narrative based exclusively on Euro-American culture, values, and accomplishments. Hegemonic exclusivity on multiple social levels is a means to establish a certain cultural norm, and to minimize or dismiss people and knowledge that exist outside of that. It is not understood as hegemony, it is understood as simply “common sense” or just “the way it should be.”

It is white hegemony that explains the logic Newt Gingrich followed when he called Spanish the “language of living in the ghetto”; Successful people, worthy people, good American citizens, do not speak Spanish, they speak English–no matter how long the Spanish language was a part of their family and/or culture before the border crossed them. Not only that, English is “the common language.” Spanish is not American, even bilingualism is not American. That popular coded discourse is rooted in white hegemony.

This worldview, so taken for granted that it is rarely remarked on, is what allowed the school board member in the segment to associate Ethnic Studies with a slippery slope to an all-out racial civil war. The language of Arizona  HB 2281 bans classes that “promote resentment” or “the overthrow of the US Government,” and is now seen as the legal basis for banning Ethnic Studies.

As a white person getting my BA with a minor in the discipline, I can attest to the fact that “white-bashing” or incitement of race-based rebellion is not an issue. In fact, it is in these classes that I have seen the most promising debates, projects, friendships, and understandings produced between students of all colors, and the most potential to come to terms with our history and move forward in a good way.

The threat is not that people will turn to bloodshed. It is not that there will be some sort of violent government overthrow. It is much more subtle than that. The threat is that people will begin to question the official narrative, the one that says America is the best nation on earth where anyone can be free, be included, and truly have equal opportunity. They may begin to complicate ideas about American history, values and identity in their minds, and then the soft reinforcement system would begin to crumble. It is that reinforcement system which protects itself, showing remarkable resilience and adaptability as an obstacle to creating “a more perfect union.”

The threat is to the desire to perpetuate that narrative of equality without relinquishing the hegemonic control that cements racial and cultural privilege as the ones who hold and delegate power.

Calling ethnic studies “divisive” reinforces amnesia, because of how it forgets the fact that the white hegemonic history we have established as the national narrative is divisive in its exclusion of people of color. White hegemony in the creation and teaching of history says that there is no room for people of color in our past, which implies that there is no room for them in our present.  In deciding whose stories we will tell, we are also deciding whose stories are unimportant, and thereby what people are unimportant.

Silencing American Voices

I found a particularly poignant personal example of the harm that comes from white hegemony on a Canadian blog called âpihtawikosisân recently. (This is still an appropriate example for us because of the similarities between Canadian and American society and history.) A second-grade girl wanted to use a class presentation as an opportunity to tell a story that mattered to her, the story of Canada’s residential schools and why she doesn’t know her tribal language. Sadly, her teacher told her that the topic was “inappropriate.”

The story of residential schools was integral to this child’s story as a First Nations member, and as a Canadian. And yet she was told by her school, the institution which is supposed to be the official guardian and purveyor of knowledge, that her story had no place, no legitimacy, in the classroom. In the words of the author,

“Her school had given her the message that her story is unacceptable and unimportant.  That she, because of her culture and how Residential Schools had had an impact on shaping her life, is unacceptable and unimportant.”

Realizing the personal impact of this, giving white hegemony’s harm the face of a child, shows its impact in a new way. This phenomenon does more than simply erase the place of people of color from our past. It denies legitimacy to their identities. It erases their place in our future.

It tells people that unless they forsake their own stories and stick to the status quo, they have no place to speak, nothing to contribute. It excludes their histories, their stories, and their lives from the possibility of contributing to the national story. It says that the only way to be a legitimate citizen, the only way to belong, is to ignore their own history and culture and acknowledge only the Official Story. Anything else is divisive.

To me, this position on difference, rather than difference itself, is what is divisive.

Whitewashing History: How it Won’t Work for You

While it is certain that European Americans, and their actions and values, have had an enormous impact on creating our modern world, that is only one part of the story, a single thread in the tapestry of our nation. To value only that aspect falsely implies that people of color have been passive objects rather than active agents in our history. Equally important, it denies that American histories of people of color are the histories of white Americans too.  To say that we are divided in our history, divides us in our present. If we care about national unity as much as we say we do, this is a huge moral, social and political problem. And to take a utilitarian standpoint, is it even possible to conceive of the potential that is lost when knowledge is repressed, when individuals and their whole cultures are shunted to the margins of society, and their talents and ideas with them?

So, to people like Tucson’s superintendent Michael Hicks, I ask you to remember. Remember that this whole time, white people have not acted alone, although they have clung to power through the various social and institutional mechanisms which I have discussed. They have been parties in social, political, economic, religious, legal, and interpersonal relationships. Interactions ranged in violence levels from unspeakable to nonexistent, from explicitly dehumanizing violence to benevolently-intentioned dehumanizing violence to the honestly caring and reciprocal. People have agency even in the face of oppression and have contributed to America as well as being oppressed by it. Remember, as good Ethnic Studies scholars do, that to focus exclusively on harm done (or the “resentment” it could possibly generate) is to miss the complex dynamics that led us to the ground we stand on, and to let opportunities for improvement pass us by.

Remember that we are all in this together, and that we always have been. Remember that European Americans aren’t the only Americans with something to offer. Remember that to have only one story will starve us of necessary understanding. And above all, when you say that asserting a multiplicity of cultures and history is divisive, remember what the underlying message is. Remember the Americans who shouldn’t have to wait until there are no white people left on earth to have an official place in our shared nation and story.

University of Denver “Cowboys and Indians” Gaffe: Ad Execs, Apologies, and the Privilege of Ignorance

What do frat and sorority kids, “Cowboys and Indians,” and AMC’s Mad Men have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

In Mad Men’s fifth season opener, the first thing we see is a group of ad executives dropping paper-bag water-bombs on black people who are protesting social racism outside the office. (Which actually happened, by the way.) Don Draper’s response to the competing firm’s PR blunder was to run an ad for his own firm advertising them as an “Equal Opportunity Employer” who wanted to prove that “Madison Avenue isn’t all wet.”  (Pun totally intended–zzzing!) It was very clear during the episode that none of the company’s executives, the most powerful characters on the show, considered that advertisement to be anything more than a jab at their opponents. At one point, an executive specifically says that, in spite of how it specifically referenced hiring, the spot did not qualify as an employment want ad.

Everybody was stunned at the end of the show, when their lobby was crowded with black people brandishing resumés and expecting to be given an equal shot at a decent job.

Although Mad Men is obviously not real, the show does an excellent job of holding a mirror to our reality. And although the ad incident was a narrative created for the context of the 1960’s, it remains a perfect analogy for something that just happened, literally yesterday. The truth that this scene reflects is the nature of what my favorite professor calls “privileged ignorance.”

Privileged ignorance is protected by additional social constructs–physical and intellectual boundaries, names, words and discourses, and values– which reinforce and maintain that ignorance by rendering it invisible. It is a particular kind of ignorance linked directly to the maintenance of social structures of power. It is extremely hard to be aware you are ignorant of something when you have little or no frame of reference for it. Furthermore, social segregation means there is no immediate personal need to remedy that ignorance. Gaps in understanding are often not illuminated until harm has come from them.

In the season five premier of Mad Men, the executives’ privileged ignorance got them in an uncomfortable situation. They ran an ad saying they were an equal opportunity employer as a joke, made by white people, targeting white people–without it ever once occurring to them that there were black people out there who might not find it to be much of a joke, considering their economic livelihood was tied up in it. It took job seekers turning up at their door, expecting the firm to live up to their public claim of equality, for any of the executives to even remember that black people were a part of their social equation, and that they had an obligation to respond to those people in some way.

Privileged ignorance is a kind of socially reinforced amnesia. It is a mechanism of erasure and invisibility. Erasure and invisibility support the mechanisms of oppression. (Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering!)

I had to.

Which brings us to Cowboys and Indians. Recently some college kids in my current home state of Colorado–just like the executives on Mad Men–got into an uncomfortable public situation as a result of their privileged ignorance.

Here are some remembrances for this land and context, to solidify the ground we stand on as we think about ignorance, amnesia and apologies:

  • Denver has one of the highest Native populations of any big city in America. Non-Native people in Denver have plenty of Indian neighbors, yet still often seem to be capable of acting as if they don’t realize they exist.
  • Technically, Denver is an illegal city.  The Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851 guaranteed inviolate sovereign territories for many Plains nations.  The area within these boundaries –a substantial portion of modern-day Colorado–was established as legal land base of the Arapahoe and Cheyenne peoples. Much of Colorado, if not all of it, was settled by people who were actively breaking federal law and invading a neighboring Nation. The fact that Colorado is now a state indicates that government policy was inclined to protect the lawbreakers rather than the ones against whom they transgressed.
  • Just east of the city of Denver lies the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, one of our most/least famous mass murder incidents. Hundreds of people were slaughtered in spite of a truce flag they were flying (the elderly, women, children and babies) by a volunteer squad of the aforementioned settlers. Here is a (suspiciously) concise version of events from the National Parks Service.

It was on this land that the University of Denver was founded in 1864–the same year as the incident at Sand Creek. It was on this land that DU Greek Life groups Delta Delta Delta and Lamda Chi Alpha threw a party in February with the theme “Cowboys and Indians.” It was on this land that yesterday they apologized publicly for it. In their apology, a representative of Lamda Chi Alpha fraternity said that the cause of their offensive action was “ignorance, not racism.” This is the danger of privileged ignorance, and the link that has with the social constructs that make space for oppression–we can perpetuate racism without even knowing we’re doing it.

The reasons that Native students were offended by the theme party can be explained by remembering. Some people remember Sand Creek and the Treaty of Fort Laramie. They remember that Denver is their city too. They continue to live and fight and laugh and grow in spite of the countless institutional attacks on their identities, their cultures, their nations, even their very lives… and they remember. If these remembrances were not absent from the minds of the students who planned the party, it might have occurred to them that “Cowboys and Indians” also carries the historical weight of colonialism and genocide.

I truly believe the people responsible for the party did not actively desire or intentionally try to offend or demean Native peoples. More likely, the reasons that make what they did wrong and harmful genuinely did not enter into their minds. I believe this is what was meant when the explanation of “ignorance, not racism” was given.  However, intentionally or otherwise, the harm was still done. The fact that it was done out of ignorance, does not mean it was not a form of racism.

Part of this was a painful reminder not only of the past, but of the present–a reminder that in this modern world, Native people are still socially marginalized. They find that other people do things that hurt them as if it doesn’t even matter, as if they don’t even exist to see it–just like Don Draper didn’t even realize that a real live black person might see and think about his “joke” ad. When things like this happen that turn Native people into a talking point, a “theme” or a mascot, it minimizes their humanity, their history and their cultures and turns them into a symbol. It makes them invisible as people and as Nations, and it makes them casualties of our national amnesia. The troubles that face Native nations as a result of racist American policies, legal precedents, and worldviews are so many and so convoluted that they will have to be a topic for another (maybe multiple) post(s). But they are all linked to this amnesia, to our collective ability to forget that in the beginning, The Peoples were already here, and that they have been with us all along, engaging, acting, watching, and remembering.

For the white students from the groups in question, this has been bad also. They have been publicly embarrassed, made to look like bigots in front of their whole community, and they probably feel they don’t deserve it. After all, they didn’t intend for it to be like this. They weren’t trying to be racist.

But the intention is not the issue. The privileged ignorance is. Both the white kids and the Native kids were impacted and harmed, although in different ways and different degrees, by the “constructed amnesia” through which the Greek Life kids, and many Americans, experience the world. If not for that, those kids might have been able to see for themselves what was hurtful about what they did.

It is the responsibility of the ignorant to combat their misunderstandings by actively seeking information, and especially, by communicating with and truly listening to people.  Simon Moya-Smith, DU’s advisor to the Native Student Alliance, gave an interview to WestWord in which he said, “Ignorance is not an excuse, and I’m not going to accept it. We live at a time when social media is out there and you can educate yourself in five minutes. So ignorance can’t be given as a reason for the party…”

He has an excellent point. There are tons of Native voices publicly available, telling America who they are and what they care about, where they came from and where they want to go, even as they debate about those things within themselves and between their own communities. This is a vital, vibrant part of America–one that, sadly, is often veiled by our national amnesia and its handmaiden, privileged ignorance.

And yet, how can we know? Nobody told us. It wasn’t in our history classes in public school. Most of the time they don’t talk about it on the mainstream news. Non-Native spheres of life typically portray Native peoples as caricatures when not ignoring them entirely. Fox News, for example, could certainly be called complicit in the perpetuation of ignorance, which it indicated when it ran this highly amnesiac segment about national debt and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Because of this perpetuated ignorance, Americans like these DU Greek Life members not only fail to realize the complex histories and realities behind Native issues, they fail to realize that we are all connected to them by virtue of our shared citizenship and history. Native people are not a party theme, or a mascot, or an icon or a symbol or a mythical creature. They are our neighbors, our friends, our fellow citizens, who have been with us along the whole crazy ride we call American history, and who remain, who live, in the words of Paul Chaat Smith, “asking others to notice, to see, as we perform a work titled Not Dead Yet.” (Emphasis original.) We can see if we choose to look for it.

This is why it is up to the privileged to demand more from society,  from our teachers, our friends and relatives, and especially from ourselves. We have an obligation to start asking questions about the things that we take for granted. And it is possible to look elsewhere, outside the “mainstream,” to the people actually in question.  Who knows, maybe we could even learn to listen to someone and really hear what they are saying, even when they tell us things we don’t want to hear, like that we have hurt them. It is critical that we ask ourselves about what we do not know, and keep searching even if we think we will never find the answers.

Don Draper was created to inhabit the America of the 1960’s. DU Greek Life kids are as current as “so 17 seconds ago.” And yet the two are the same in a lot of ways. Were the apologies offered by the fraternity and sorority sincere? I don’t think I’m qualified to say. But sincerity is not the question. Whether it will be a useful apology, the kind that opens dialogue, invites understanding and truly brings change and healing, is the important thing, and it remains to be seen.  It depends on listening, and remembering. Let’s try to learn something from this. Let’s make it so that we aren’t making the same mistakes in 50 years that we are making now.

*Note: The idea of the “residue of history” comes from one of my favorite scholars, the late Jack D. Forbes.  It is a great concept that is extremely useful to apply but I have not been able to locate a link to an online source so I have not cited it, but it is originally his idea, not mine. Hopefully someday I will be able to talk more about him in another post!

Watch That Quicksand! — Remembering Our Present

I am starting this blog because we need to remember.

America is a land of amnesia.  We forget for a living. We forget the last hundred years, the last twenty, even the last month and week. We forget ugliness. We forget what we fear. We forget the things that define us, that brought us to the nation we inhabit, the people we are, and the places we stand. As Paul Chaat Smith says, “amnesia turns the ground beneath our feet into quicksand.”

No one seems to know what to make of “the race question” these days. While explicit bigots are denigrated and dismissed, (as they absolutely deserve,) that means racism has had to take on new, less explicit forms, absent of what we think of as the buzzwords of bigotry. “Political correctness” has led to a much more insidious climate of racism. Our modern version has gone underground, breaking the surface and emerging covered in old mud and new topsoil, and disguised as any number of other things. The “birther” rhetoric that questioned President Obama’s citizenship, the ban on Ethnic Studies in Arizona which says that to keep and value (non-white) culture is automatically divisive, John Stossel’s claims  last year that American Indians are “freeloaders” –all are superficially, rhetorically focused on some issue other than race itself, but their components, their foundations can be traced back to classic aspects of the context of America.

Don’t like the idea of a black man for president, but can’t say it? Just say it’s because he’s probably not even a citizen.  Don’t like the pride some of your fellow citizens have in cultures that you aren’t part of and may not understand? Just say that pride is divisive–then you don’t even have to try to understand, because it’s their problem. Don’t want to keep spending federal dollars upholding legally binding treaties with those pesky Native nations? (Are they even still here? ) Go ahead, just call them lazy. These ways in which we think and speak have deep roots  that drink from a more straightforward time, when we acknowledged instead of denying that racism was the foundation on which our nation rests.

In our world, dehumanization is everywhere, sugar-coated, insidious, infiltrating people’s brains and shaping their thinking. But we deny that because we want to live in a “color blind society.”  We want it so badly that we actively forget how we got here. We forget the ways of thinking that, historically, needed to be naturalized and passed on as part of American culture and society. They are the ideas that made room for us to rationalize how, in the land of the free, some of us got to have freedom and some didn’t. I am talking about black people, of course, but I am also talking about Native peoples, immigrants, Chicanos, and women of all colors. Each group of us had a different social script for inferiority, tailored to whatever reason the national system needed peoples subjugated. In many ways, we still do.

Lots of the talk I hear about race these days emphasizes a “color-blind” outlook on life. We have a black president, right? The civil rights movement happened like fifty years ago! That’s way over, we must live in a post-racial society… right? 


Just hoping for something, or just imagining something, does not make it so. We received a stinging reminder of that when we heard about the slaughter of a 17 year old kid from Florida named Trayvon Martin. His killer still skulks freely on American streets, carrying the same gun he used to murder this child. As far as we can tell, he never used a racial slur.

This editorial from Indian Country Today asserts that this is not a “racial” tragedy, just a human one. A human tragedy it certainly is. Trayvon will never hug his mother again. He will never go to college. He will never bake cookies for his little cousins again. That aspect is universally human. But the specifics in this case, the context, means more than that. To deny that this child was murdered because he was black is extremely dangerous. The killer wasn’t after Trayvon, the person. He was after a phantom, a product of his own imagination, someone marked as dangerous in the killer’s mind by the simple fact of his skin color (regardless of what Geraldo says). The victim didn’t have to be Trayvon. It could have been anybody who looked like him.

I don’t think we can afford to deny this any longer. Too many of our number are dead.

Which brings us back to the amnesia. This comes back to one of the most dramatic consequences of our dark history–that now, we so fear what we used to be, that even the acknowledgement of difference is labelled as divisive.  Well, guess what? We do have differences. They don’t automatically come with the baggage of denigration, that baggage was actively, socially crafted over centuries. That crafting is what we want to forget.

Some of these differences appear so vast that it seems like they may never be crossed, so we become afraid and shy away, not wanting to acknowledge what those differences used to mean for people of color, and subsequently, what that meant and means for us, especially for white people. We fear an honest dialogue about the past, the present, and the link between them. We fear it because it potentially casts our grandfathers, our great-grandfathers, maybe even ourselves, as antagonists in a core conflict, one ripe with highly distasteful, un-American overtones.

And then, we forget. And the ground beneath our feet turns to quicksand and sucks us down.

How long will it take for us to forget about Trayvon Martin? How long did it take to forget about that oil spill that could be seen from space? How many of us know about Chernobyl? How many of us know that President Lincoln–yes, the one who freed the slaves–also ordered 38 Dakota men executed (the largest mass execution in US history) for fighting to protect their homes?  These are definitive moments lost to our collective amnesia.

If we can’t do better than this, we, as a nation, will be lost. Americans of color will continue to be harmed by institutional racism. White Americans will continue to undergo what Dr. Martin Luther King called the “eternal death of the spirit,” that poor health of the psyche that comes from rationalizing the unethical, and lying to oneself too much, over too much time. And our nation will suffer.  If we cannot come together, we cannot go on.

We can do better than this–as long as we remember. We need to acknowledge the ugliness, the historical trauma we’ve built our nation on, no matter how many tears or how much bile it takes. As long as we forget, we make space for people like Trayvon Martin to be sucked down into the quicksand, through the cracks in our national understanding, to a cruel and undeserved fate. We make space for laws that can force a woman to undergo sexual humiliation to get a medical procedure. We make a space in which Native American women currently have over a 250% higher chance of being victims of sexual violence compared to other groups of American women. We make a space in which a talented athlete like Jeremy Lin has garbage like this “Chink in the armor” comment thrown at him. By adopting this amnesia, by forgetting what we were, by ignoring what we don’t want to be, we make the space for it to continue.

We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to engage in an honest, ugly, gritty dialogue about these things, one that breaks all the rules we’ve established in pretending that difference doesn’t exist. We want to be able to be proud of where we are and how far we’ve come. That’s why points such as the one I’m making are so often met with such intense hostility. But I am not unpatriotic.  I say this because I do love what America stands for–I just would like to see it play out for everyone, in real life rather than just in poems and warm fuzzy feelings of home that come from the minds of those genetic lottery-winners who were born into the privileged castes, the people for whom the system (superficially) does work.

So let’s make that happen.  We can choose to see the realities of how the residues of history are still with us; or we can choose to brush off those who do as “reverse racists,” “too-sensitive” people who don’t recognize how to act in our new, “color-blind society.” We can tell ourselves all of these things. We can perpetuate the amnesia. But us trying to forget about the quicksand won’t stop it from sucking us down.


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