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Playing 'Indian' and Color-Blind Racism

Dwanna L. Robertson
9/20/13

We all know it’s that time of year. I wrote about it around the same time last year. Since then, we’ve won some battles, but also lost some, too. Here are just a few examples: Paul Frank Industries is collaborating with Native Designers and Gap pulled its Manifest Destiny T-shirt, yet CBS refused to apologize for offensive dialogue on Mike & Molly and Dan Snyder, the owner of that Washington football team, said he will “NEVER” change the name. Just the other day, my daughter sent me this link depicting the “sassy squaw” tween costume for Halloween, copyrighted for 2013.

Since the mid 1990s, race scholars have argued that after the U.S. Civil Rights era overtly racist acts gave way to color-blind (covert) racism. In other words, it was no longer socially acceptable to express blatantly racist views or use the n-word and call people other bad words in public. People now speak in coded language, utilizing “colorblind” language to discriminate. White folk claim that, since they don’t see color, so their actions can’t possibly be racist. This logic allows them to explain away education, income, and health disparities for people of color. Political and economic inequalities can be painted as the result of individual failings and cultural weaknesses.

Natives do experience the covertness of color-blind racism that limits life opportunities. Under the logic of colorblind racism, if I don’t make as much money as a white woman who does the same job, it’s because I’m not as experienced or competent. If Natives, on average, have less college attainment, it’s has nothing to do with the 500+ years of internal colonization and genocide or the eras of removal, relocation, reservation internment, and forced boarding school attendance. It’s because Indians are lazy drunks. No thought is given to historical context or constrained opportunities. Race scholars admit that marginalized groups still experience inequality, but argue that racism is expressed increasingly without direct racist terminology.

But this certainly does not hold true for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. We also routinely experience overt racism in the form of racial epithets like redskin, injun or squaw and horribly distorted depictions of Natives as mascots, reminiscent of the propaganda used against black, Irish and Jewish people in the 19th and 20th centuries. And this overt racism is not confined to hate groups, but is visible in everyday communication and throughout the media.

We still live under the prevalence of Native misrepresentations in the media, archaic notions of Indianness, and the federal government’s appropriation of Indian names and words as code for military purposes. Racist informal statements are common expressions—statements like being an “Indian-giver,” sitting “Indian-style,” learning to count through the “one little, two little, three little Indians” song, or getting together to “pow wow” over a business idea.

While minstrel shows have long been criticized as racist, American children are still socialized into playing Indian. Columbus Day celebrations, Halloween costumes, and Thanksgiving reenactments stereotype Indigenous Peoples as one big distorted culture. We are relegated to racist stereotypes and cultural caricatures.

Why is racism against Natives hardly recognized or pointed out by non-Native people, especially non-Native scholars? It’s important to remember that academics are people first, and scholars second, and just as susceptible to internalizing phrases like “it’s about time to circle the wagons” when feeling under scrutiny or vulnerable. Historically, Native Peoples were portrayed as savages, Native women as sexually-permissive, and Native culture as engendering laziness. Therefore, non-Native race scholars, influenced by hundreds of years of playing Indian, may fail to check their assumptions.

In his book, The Racial Contract, Charles W. Mills states that only recently have scholars been confronted “with the uncomfortable fact, hardly discussed in mainstream moral and political theory, that we live in a world which has been foundationally shaped for the past five hundred years by the realities of European domination and the gradual consolidation of global white supremacy.

Finally, it’s important to note that Indigenous Peoples are not a race, of course. We belong to distinct, sovereign Native Nations. I often explain that lumping all of us together just because we’re from the same continent makes no sense. Non-Native people wouldn’t lump people from Germany with people from Italy on the continent of Europe or people from Russia with people from Vietnam on the continent of Asia. Geographic location, culture, and language matter. Yet, no matter how we identify culturally, it seems that, especially in the media, non-Natives still see us as all the same.

Make no mistake. Playing Indian is racist—in no way different from wearing blackface or participating in minstrel shows—because it collapses our distinct cultures into one stereotypical racialized group. Even worse, because playing Indian is deemed socially acceptable (e.g., normal), any other racial or ethnic group may now participate—without ever recognizing the inherent racism in doing so.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a writer for Indian Country Today Media Network, and a public sociologist.

 

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Anonymous's picture
When I "played Indian" as a four old living on the Mandan Indian Reservation of North Dakota in 1956 it was because even at that age I was impressed with Native way of life. How can a four year old be racist? I've had nothing but respect for the Native Peoples all my life and have dedicated my life to educating my culture about the reality of Indian history in this country. If you take the time to read history you'll find that Indians adopted white people into their cultures and saw them as equals, not as lesser than themselves. In most traditional Native cultures, in the old days, it was considered "bad manners" to publicly complain about other people. Life is an adventure and even bad things were an opportunity to grow as a human being, to develop character. To dwell on past events that cannot be changed was also considered "bad manners". I taught for nine years on the Navajo Indian Reservation, and never once, NOT once, did I ever hear a student or parent complain. I took my students on all day field trips into the Grand Canyon, and we got caught in rain, dust storms, and hail and NEVER did the kids, or their parents ever complain. My last field trip we got caught in a flash flood where we had to cling to rocks with water raging all around us with 700 foot water falls coming down all around us and the kids never complained. They saw the entire event as a gift from Mother Earth. When their parents found out they'd been in a flash flood not one of the parents ever complained, not even we got back to the high school three hours late, in the dark. When I was a kid in the 1950's the phrase "Indian Giver" meant that you give something to someone --then out of the blue you take it away. It was a reference to the bad treatment of the Indians by the U.S. Government. How did that become racist?
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