Hate Lives: Exploding the Myth of the Post-Racial Society
Occasionally I receive messages from readers who take issue with some of the things I write about. Sometimes they are people with no indigenous ancestry who are offended by what they see as a divisive, race-based ideology. One particular reader recently said “it is unclear to me if you grasp or care to understand the biases, discrimination and racial division your ideas create. Any person born in North America is a native North American not just the Northern Siberian peoples that migrated to the Americas or Turtle Island, so-called, some 15,000 years ago [sic],” thus regurgitating the increasingly shaky Bering Strait theory like many unquestioning American citizens trained to perpetuate the theory as scientific fact.
Finally, my unhappy reader concluded “your insistent categorizing of human beings by race is the essence and scourge of cultural racism. Dividing one another by race is always, always meant to oppress or negate the ‘other.’” Not sure which “other” he is talking about (me as an indigenous colonized other, somehow intent on oppressing my own people, or him as “other” in the convoluted conservative logic of reverse racism) but the message is clear: I am a divisive racist, bent on oppressing someone. By implication, I’m someone who is not smart enough to understand the Bering Strait theory and that all Indians were at one time Asian “migrants,” a rhetorical tactic that always subtly implies less of a legitimate claim to land, couched in pseudo-scientific language.
At any rate, what my unhappy reader is implying, and desperately wants me to understand, is that we live in a post-racial society (just ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri if they think we live in a post-racial society.) And that when someone talks about race, or racial tension in society, it automatically means they are being divisive and presumably anti-American.
Based on the logic of the post-racial society, all the race problems in the United States were solved after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and all the anti-racism legislation laws and policies passed since then. The fact that we now have a black president validates this view and “proves” racism is dead.
We know that’s not true, but how do we articulate that? The fact is we live in a race-based society, created by a government that has been fixated on racial difference since its 18th century beginnings. American immigration policy has always been based on concepts of race and the maintenance of racial difference. The founding (and enduring) American philosophy of manifest destiny was based on the idea of the racial inferiority of Indians. And every time the census comes around we are asked to check a box stating our race or ethnicity.
But I want to make one particular point people like my unhappy reader fails to comprehend, a point Indians have made a million times, and that we will keep making until everyone understands. When American Indians (and yes, I mean true NATIVE Americans, as in “original peoples”) talk about their heritage and history, they aren’t classifying themselves based on racial difference. It was the U.S. government that inflicted (and continues to inflict) this socially constructed ideology on Indians as a way to ultimately claim their lands and assimilate them once and for all into American society. It is woven into the fabric of American society. This is one of the things scholars mean when they say settler colonialism is a structure, not an historic event.
Racial ideology was the basis of the 1887 General Allotment Act, embedded with the Social Darwinist theory that Indians’ racial inferiority necessitated the breaking up of tribal lands, communities and families. The Burke Act, which amended the Allotment Act in 1906, made it easier for Indians with more European ancestry to sell their lands (invariably to whites) because they were seen as more “competent” than Indians with more Indian blood.
The concept of blood quantum is still maintained as a racial marker for all Native people. Any Native person who interacts with the federal government today does so on the basis of their blood quantum, paradoxically as a test of their authenticity as a Native person. The Native who was supposed to be “vanishing” must always prove that they have not vanished, based on racial quantification criteria the federal government determines. It is a double bind few non-Natives seem to understand.
The distinction American Indians are talking about when they talk about their heritage is a political distinction, not a racial distinction. Native Americans as citizens of Native nations today fight for a “degree of measured separatism” in order to preserve their lands and cultures, and resist assimilation that has been forced on them by the United States. It is a conscious resistance to the universalizing melting pot theory of Americanism. And if that is what people like my unhappy reader considers divisive and un-American, so be it. As Americans, they are entitled to their opinions, however misinformed they may be.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.
You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page