How Obama’s ‘Acting White’ Blunder Erased Indigenous Concerns

Kyle T. Mays

Lost amidst President Obama’s recent, controversial and unfortunate statement on young Black men “acting white” was the question posed by Vance Home Gun of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Home Gun asked, “How is the United States Government helping American Indian people revitalize their language and culture?”

Obama acknowledged that it was a “great question” and, even mentioned the young Native people on the Rez whom he saw texting and taking selfies on their cell phones (implied here is that he seemed surprised that Native Americans use modern technology, too). Obama then moved into outdated discourses of Indigenous Peoples being relics of the past, incapable of living in the present: “You can’t just live in the past. You also have to look to the future…. There has to be an adaptation to what is increasingly a world culture.”

President Obama didn’t suggest to indigenous youth to challenge the notion of “acting white” like he did for Black youth. He challenged them to instead attain forms of whiteness by adapting to the broader American and global culture—whatever that means—thus relegating their own cultures to the backdrop. A highly intelligent man, Obama illustrated very little knowledge about the long history of indigenous adaptation, blending and resistance to many cultures, before, during and after European settlement.

Kyle T. Mays

Based upon the places President Obama visited during his summer tour throughout a small part of “Indian country,” he must not know of the great diversity that makes up indigenous communities and peoples in the United States, including the nearly 80-percent who reside in urban areas. These people not only continue living as distinct cultural groups within cities, but also embody and engage with a myriad of other “modern” cultures and peoples, including, Black people and Black culture (i.e., Hip Hop).

President Obama then shifted into the issue of young Black men “acting white,” hoping to make a comparison that he was far more familiar with due to his organizing work on the Southside of Chicago. I will get into the ‘acting white’ controversy below, though it is worth mentioning that I have yet to read a commentary where someone actually presented evidence of how young Black people themselves understand the notion of ‘acting white.’ Still, an important question remains: how did Obama shift from Home Gun’s legitimate concern regarding what steps the U.S. government was going to take to foster cultural and language revitalization within indigenous communities to stereotypical notions of young Black men ‘acting white.’ Obama, like larger media outlets, virtually erased Home Gun’s concerns.

President Obama’s move away from the very real concerns of Indigenous communities leads to a broader point about the fallacy of Black and Indigenous comparisons, and how we have come to understand race in the United States at the expense of Indigenous Peoples. Here, a “thing” that allegedly affects young Black folk (though not exclusively) was used to erase—perhaps not purposefully but it happened—indigenous priorities. Unfortunately, indigenous erasure happens all too often within a settler regime. By settler regime I mean the combination of settler colonialism and white supremacy within a country that has created a hierarchy of difference between Black and Indigenousone in which Indigenous Peoples are supposed to be relics of the past, largely incapable of adapting to change. Moreover, the Black-White racial binary is the medium through which we have come to understand race in the U.S. As a result, when indigenous problems are placed on the table, such as at this moment, they are muted for more “important” issues.

It is ironic that a President with the linguistic style-shifting capabilities of Obama (see the work of Alim & Smitherman, 2012) had to engage in discourses of indigenous erasure. Even as Indigenous Peoples have historically and continue adapting to a more globalized world, we need to challenge the idea that we want indigenous youth in particular and Youth of Color in general to seek validation from a society where whiteness remains the gold standard. As President Obama mentioned, and I think he is right, of course we want our youth to learn math, engineering and science; many indigenous communities are creatively teaching their youth these subjects (and humanities) using their indigenous languages. There is no need to cater to the notion that we have to adapt to the cultural norms of whiteness—that idea itself is outdated, a relic of the past. After all, given the fact that many white people like to “play Indian” by wearing headdresses and that a more global world means the interaction of peoples and ideas that are non-white, indigenous youth’s alleged ineptitude in adapting to change is not really the issue. Perhaps Obama should shift his attention from young people ‘acting white’ and erasing indigenous concerns, to more carefully responding to young men like Vance Home Gun who ask questions that are central to the survival of our various indigenous cultures.

Kyle T. Mays is a Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe transdisciplinary scholar of urban Indigenous history, Afro-Indigenous studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He is currently finishing up his dissertation titled, Indigenous Detroit: Indigeneity, Modernity, and Racialization in a Modern American City, 1871-1994 in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at [email protected]. He can also be followed on Twitter: @mays_kyle.

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R Dale Potrykus
R Dale Potrykus
Submitted by R Dale Potrykus on
Natives were forced to "act" white for many years, just to keep from being discriminated against in the job world, and in everyday life. Actors pretending to be Mexican or Italian to get roles. Statesmen such as Will Rodgers for instance would have never received the recognition that they deserved, during their time period. When I was young, Chiefs like Geronimo were regarded as heroes both on and off the reservation, but our people were still being treated less than human in many cases. I am not white, I am not fully Native. I am a combination of the above, I have lived off the reservation my entire life, but have traveled on and off enough to learn many of our ways from the elders. Morals and Values that I stick with today. Yes I had to learn to be Native, and I am proud that I did. The one thing I can say, is DO NOT fall for Obama's Smoke screen. Do not let Beads and Trinkets from Washington destroy us further as a nation, and that goes for the nation entirely, not just for Natives, but for everyone in America!

nikkiru's picture
Submitted by nikkiru on
Black people were brought here from Africa by force, and prevented from assimilating into the culture that brought them here. How can the president fail to comprehend that this is not the same thing as having already been here, and having gone through centuries of forced assimilation into a hostile colonial culture?

Kevin Mumford
Kevin Mumford
Submitted by Kevin Mumford on
Kyle, this is an incredibly important point of view, especially about radicalized erasure and Obama's neoliberal black masculinity, i.e. neo-Bookerites ( his bias, intolerance and, frankly, unimpressive thinking). However, the idea that there is no "acting white" discourse is off-the-mark. I remember that Charles Willie wrote a book with the title, Oreo. I certainly heard about this phenomenon growing up.

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
Until we adapt and lean towards British accents, value Greek mythology, classical music connecting to people with special interest religion and, we blindly support popular culture we are nothing but "dimwitted people" because many of us refused to accept the market culture "gold standard". Many forget the keeper of the earth faith is more in tune with the cosmos because we come from birth of stars and we are materials from the stars. Many culture maintain there religions and language, they only pick up selective tools of knowledge. Good topic, now someone tell that world class schools do not have NBC teachers, they have the best leadership. Kyle Mays will be an excellent education leader soon. Thanks Kyle.

builds-the-fire's picture
Submitted by builds-the-fire on
I don't think Obama's comments were "controversial and unfortunate statement"s. The question was about "revitalization" of culture and language. In a round-about, and "polite" way, Obama was saying (just my thoughts on the subject as I'm not him) that the government isn't going to do a thing. If you want to revitalize your language and culture, it's up to you. From reading other posts, I gather his bottom line (by way of example) was to encourage people to not be held back by the notion that someone else has to do it for you, and to not be afraid of stepping outside of the box of your own perceived culture to make things better for yourself and your community. He used his own experiences (who else's was he going to use?) to drive this home: the notion of "acting white" in Black communities--a notion that I can say from experience is still very much alive in economically poor Black communities. Matika Wilbur is an example of someone "outside of the box"--through her work, she is a part of revitalizing interest in Native American languages and cultures. She is making it possible for those with the $$ to see the importance of keeping alive the languages and cultures of NA--and use their $$ to help do so. Her work will continue to give to this cause long past her time on this earth.