Playing 'Indian' and Color-Blind Racism

Dwanna L. Robertson
September 20, 2013

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.





sweetgrass777's picture
My Dear, Indians first and foremost are some of the biggest racist ourselves. We have to correct ourselves before we correct others. After being in American 500 years with non natives who are we really? What defines us and our characteristics? With so many tribes and tribal heritages some decimated or destroyed or cultural identity wiped out or hijacked others sold out. Then the few of us sitting there like we have a copyright on Native heritage while others are less important. Tell me when will we get it right? What hypocrites.
dwanna...your article is great, however, i have to agree with 'sweetgrass' that natives are right up there amone the most 'racist'...if you're the wrong shade of red, dont have a high enough blood 'quantum', dont have an 'enrolled' relation, dont have a documented relation, etc...etc...etc....that effectively leaves all we 'dis-enfranchised' who care nothing about federal govt handout monies, i.e. health care, food stamps, etc, standing out in the cold, yearning to be part of our tribe/culture...we are good enough to be 'accepted' on a strictly 'social' level, but when the rubber hits the road, we have to drive on because we just dont make the cut...
chahta ohoyo
Sweetgrass777, it sounds like you're using this column to spew your anger over much more than what's in this column. Good luck with that. However, your name-calling, lumping everybody together, and demonstration of internalized racism (look it up), doesn't invalidate or make any less relevant the overt racism indigenous peoples experience on a daily basis.
aronaya's picture
Hi, this non-Native followed the link for the repulsively-named costume, and found that it was offered by Oriental Trading Co. Guess what? They had a site survey in a pop-up window. Filled it out and used the "other" blanks to register my disgust with their item. A bonus at the end of the survey - they say they were just acquired by Berkshire Hathaway. Off to virtual Omaha I went, and sent a blunt email to their contact address there, recommending that, if Oriental Trading does not drop the offensive item, that Berkshire Hathaway drop their investment in Oriental Trading. I won't presume to speak to previous comments about internalized racism - not my place. I can assure you, though, from growing up in the dominant culture, that casual racism is still alive and well, using the code words and "dog whistles" you speak of. Think I'll share this article on Facebook now. Thank you for writing it.
tmsyr11's picture
I don't believe it is racism as much as being ill-informed, ill-advised. THese days, 'racism'-term is used as much to downplay a statement or dis-agreement with the majority. "Racism" i believe has been watered down by political pro-opp ponents. In my experience , 'racism' or a much lighter form of 'discrimination' is just as prevelant among indian people or tribal/community people as what the article tries to re-affirm. I don't disagree that discrimination is prevelant outside, but the secret is indian people are just as suspect to implement discrimination (maybe racism) among to their tribal people / tribal co-workers / tribal families. If your a localized tribal member or 'native' to the area - why is there a $50 co-charge to a motel room than if your a tribal member coming in from outside the REZ? The $50 is used to cover any damages to the room from "wild parties" or "out of hand events". Why does an native familiy in a touristy restaraunt on the REZ have to sit an wait while the native waiter/waitress tends a tourist couple that came in later, but got seated sooner than the native family waiting (not once but on other occassions). Why does a 'white' co-worker get more attention and more participation from co-workers than an obviously experienced, informed native worker in the work environment? Why are you working at a State-funded institution than for working and/or sharing your experience with your localized tribally-US Govt. funded educational insitution?