The R-word and Casual Racism

Barack_Obama_Hope_posterRemember 2008? When President Obama won his first presidential election against John McCain? It was a great time, the election had the largest youth turn out in history and everyone was abuzz with optimism. The national political conversation had collectively declared that we were officially living in “a post-racial America.” It was a beautiful time in our nation’s history all wrapped up in a single word, hope. We felt the country was going to move in a new direction and move forward.

How myopic.

The election of the nation’s first black president is definitely a big thing, don’t for a moment think that I’m trying to downplay that. President Obama’s election, and re-election, show us that we’ve come a long way from state-sanctioned segregation. Jim Crow may no longer be in office, but his presence still haunts us all. So to say that the United States is “post-racial” is laughable, and the Washington R******s controversy should illustrate that clearly.

The United States has a long and disgusting history of institutional racism, we just don’t like to talk about it. We pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and providing Spanish forms at the dentist’s office. We’re comfortable as a society creating the illusion that we’re falling all over ourselves to accommodate and build a “level playing field” for “minorities.” (The word minorities itself is a problem, but that’s a topic for another day.) However, we’re not doing anything of the sort. Somehow we’ve managed to lift our heads up and accept the burden of shame for slavery after the Revolutionary War, but we’re still too afraid and ashamed to mention the genocide of Native Americans.

As a child in elementary school, I learned that the pilgrims—a friendly and peaceful people—came to the “New World” and built friendships with the native people they encountered. I learned English settlers worked together with indigenous populations peacefully and respectfully. Then, in middle school, I learned that wasn’t the whole story, that Europeans brought disease and war with them to North America. I learned that the fledgling United States government signed false treaties with tribal leaders and started wars with natives in an era of expansion justified by what was labeled “Manifest Destiny.” Manifest destiny has a nice ring to it, perhaps it’s an early example of marketing language—buzzwords.

The mythos of the Cowboy and Indians portrayed in films and TV shows, comics and books tells us that the settlers were a superior people who were justified in taking what they wanted, forcing inhabitants to leave, and warring with indigenous peoples. If they hadn’t “settled the west” and brought “civilization” to the “savages,” the American Experiment™ would have failed and the entire world would be worse off. I call bullshit.

jw-smTake, for example, the iconic cowboy, John Wayne—who was at best incredibly misinformed, and at worst a horrible racist. Not exactly the best role model, his characters defile Native American dead with sanctimonious speeches. Through his star power, his film The Searchers did more to perpetuate the myth of natives as savages and inferior to white settlers than almost any of the other 2000+ films featuring Indians in the “old west.” Yet, somehow, he is revered and idolized as an All American Hero™.

We were never told in school that disease, likely introduced by early explorers from Europe when they “discovered” North America, ravaged the population of the continent before the Virginia colony was even a speck on a map and that without that plague the native population would likely have overwhelmed European settlers. We never learned that Vikings tried to establish a colony in North America only to be repelled by the indigenous people already living there. We did learn that the famous Lost Colony mysteriously vanished—the only plausible explanation for the disappearance of an entire colony of intelligent and superior white people—with no mention of their neighbors, who they may have moved in with when they couldn’t hack it in the rough winter of the mid-Atlantic coast. (While there is no body of irrefutable evidence to support this theory, it does exists as a distinct possibility in absence of other explanations.) All of this history has been cleverly written and explained to us to create the illusion that the actions of settlers and the early United States government were justified and that they did no wrong.

Remember: History is written by the victors, often with little consideration for truth or unbiased accuracy.

Fast-forward to 2014. When was the last time you can remember hearing a story about American Indians or native issues on the news? How much do you know about the poverty and economic difficulty facing so many on reservations? Or the cultural wounds like the loss of language and history? How much do you know about even the more recent struggles and events of Native Americans? We, as a society, have become comfortable ignoring the Native American population here in the United States. It’s the perfect illustration of the childish logic of “if I ignore it, it will go away.”

Since the trademark and patent decision stripping the NFL team of its registrations was announced, I have heard people from all over the country on both sides of this issue voice their opinions. So far my favourite defence of the team is that “words like braves, chiefs, and warriors aren’t offensive, so r*****n isn’t either.” My response to that is that terms like farmer, plumber, and soldier aren’t offensive, but you’d never call someone a w*t-b**k or drop the n-word with impunity. Black face causes instant outrage, and rightly so, but we’re comfortable with Chief Wahoo and the Washington R******s. Racism is racism. Just because you’re comfortable with your personally approved flavour, doesn’t make it okay.

Pundits are complaining that the Obama administration has overstepped its bounds with this decision, never mind for an instant that this was a decision resultant from a lawsuit filed by private citizens against a privately-owned company. People are whining about tradition and heritage, with no consideration for the actual heritage of genocide they’re referencing. Arguments are being made that if the Atlanta Braves don’t need to change their name, the Washington R******s shouldn’t have to either. The talking heads and loud voices are crying foul left and right, outraged at every little thing they can pick up and talk about for 45 minutes.

Let’s examine some facts, though. The r-word isn’t a term of endearment. It’s not a racial category (i.e. asian, white, black, or hispanic/latino). It’s not used in polite speech. It’s a slang term, a pejorative for Native Americans dreamt up in the 19th century by cowboys (arguably some of the greatest villains of US history) to put down and attack the people they were mercilessly persecuting. For almost every attack on white settlers in the west, military forts, and wagon trains you can find an attack by military regiments that precipitated it. And there are some that weren’t responses, and some that weren’t responded to, on both sides. The difference is that the tribal warriors were defending their people, their way of life, and their homes from an encroaching invasion force of hostile and violent foreigners. American settlers were stealing land and forcing entire tribes to uproot themselves.

The persecution of Native Americans didn’t stop with land theftwhich continued well into the 1960s—though. Native children were taken from their parents, placed in foster care or boarding schools, forced to convert to Christianity, and barred from speaking their languages. There was even a phrase to explain away these atrocities: “Kill the Indian to save the man.” Many, if not most, Indian Nations are still recovering from these cultural attacks today. Native languages are critically endangered with the majority of North America’s languages already lost. The subjugation and destruction of native peoples in North America was so complete and relentless that entire cultures were eradicated. It was so thorough that the common knowledge amongst non-native citizens of the United States today is that all Indians are Plains Indians with feather war bonnets, face paint, and bad English.

That Dan Snyder is so adamant that he will NEVER change the name is bad enough. That the Tea Party is calling the lawsuit decision a breech of First Amendment Rights is ridiculous—no one said they can’t keep the name, just that they can’t register it as a trademark because it is offensive. That we have to have this conversation at all is outrageous. But that our country is still actively geared against Native Americans is absolutely, without question, indefensible. The United States will never be able to hold its head high, truly, until we’ve confronted these issues. And to defend the continued disrespect of our native brothers and sisters is truly appalling.

sweetsioux1.0The NFL must absolutely and without delay pressure Dan Snyder and the Washington club to change the team’s name, immediately. And while our national attention is here, let’s talk about broken treaties, land and water rights, education on reservations, assimilation, sovereignty and crippling poverty! Let’s talk about correcting our severely skewed historical record! Let’s make a big deal about Native American Heritage Month (also known as November)! Let’s discard the caricatures of native culture like Pocahontas (the Disney character, not the historical figure), the entire Land-o-Lakes brand, Indian halloween costumes, and Chief Wahoo—who arguably has more in common with 1880s Aunt Jemima than Slyde, the mascot for the New England Revolution (MLS).

Then again, Rush Limbaugh still has a radio show and hundreds of fans, so I won’t be too surprised to wake up tomorrow to not very much progress having been made.

But it’s not just the r-word. The disrespect and malice towards Native Americans is rampant in our modern world. Next time you see an ad with an Indian in feathers selling cigarettes or “peace tokens,” think twice about how comfortable we all are with racism. I love Bugs Bunny, but take a serious look at any one of the many Looney Tunes episodes featuring Indian Joe and ask yourself how well he represents Native Americans. Count the number of names listed on Wikipedia’s page for Native Americans in federal and state government in the United States—don’t worry, it’s an “incomplete list” and there are only 20 names. (Fun Fact: There are currently only two native members of Congress!) Seriously ask yourself why so many people don’t even think twice about phrases like “Indian giver.”

The only silver lining to this single confrontation between native cultures and the dominant attitude of dismissal is that it has focused our collective attention on native issues and brought this conversation to the forefront of the media conscious. It’s unfortunate that the R******s trademark is what brought us all to the table, but it has clearly fixed the spotlight on AIM and ChangeTheMascot.org. That it has practically coincided with President Obama’s first visit to an Indian Reservation—making him only the fourth sitting president to visit an Indian reservation—only makes this mandate for action that much more important. Let’s not squander this opportunity to set right what our ancestors got so horribly wrong and to tell the truth to our children. We can’t undo the past, and we’ll never really be able to make up for it, but we can do our best to stop this casual, flippant racism and highlight the truth about our history and native cultures.

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  1. Pingback: Native American Heritage Month | Adventures in the Triangle

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