Tag Archives: white privilege

Raising an urban Native kid in a white bubble

I fancy my husband and I as purposeful parents. In addition to the basic necessities (you know, tons of books), we try hard to ensure our child has well-rounded access to her traditional Lakota/Ojibwe cultures, feminist teachings, and spirituality. She picks herself up when she falls, has clear concepts of right and wrong, and – especially because she is an only child – is encouraged to grow her creativity and independence as much as possible utilizing a combination of modern technology, craft projects, and the outdoors. Her teenage self may throw shade my way for using her so often in my blogs, but I think most people who know her would agree my 5-year-old is a well-adjusted child.

But this kind of purposeful parenting is hard and actually pretty tough to keep up on top of all of life’s other stuff (jobs, writing, and Harry Potter marathons, among other things). My husband and I are constantly being tested. Two things happened recently highlighting a need to do better – do more – as parents: (1) My kid came home last Friday and started pointing out every Black person she saw as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and (2) more and more, she’s been describing the English language as “normal,” as in, “Mom, stop counting in Lakota and say it the normal way.” #crickets

Speechless

The concept of race didn’t hit me until I was in preschool or kindergarten. Before that, I was raised around my Native extended family – my tiospaye. Lots of cousins and aunts running around my house, or me running around theirs. My normal.

I was definitely the lightest of the familial bunch. With my paternal Irish/French heritage, my dark hair and eyes made my light skin appear translucent. I have clear memories of being teased for my wasicu pigment, and I envied people like my older sister, who to me had/has the most beautiful look to her (inside and out!). So when we’d take baths as young children together, and she would rub her knees raw “to take the brown off,” I was confused. Surely it was worse to be light-skinned – at least in our family circle. She is five years older than I am, and so was exposed to the cruel, systemically racist town that is Rapid City long before I was. The odd turnabout was that my light skin became “the norm” when I entered school.

Despite blending in with the locals, I was still very much set apart. When I was in first grade that god-awful White Savior flick Dances With Wolves came out and EVERYONE at Canyon Lake Elementary School thought they were part Native. “Tatanka means buffalo – I know an Indian word so I’m Indian!” was a popular phrase on the playground. While I looked white, my name (spelled Taté and pronounced tah-tay), personality (quiet, publicly inexpressive), and background (Eagle Butte represent!) were definitely “other” and so even though the noble savage was en vogue, I was an outcast. Looking back on it now, I see quite clearly how the Hollywood appropriation of Native imagery/culture victimized me. Light skin or not, as someone who bucked the stereotype, I was rendered nonexistent.

Really? You don’t look like an Indian… #StoryOfMyLife

 With my own daughter now, I’m super-sensitive to the messages she receives from entertainment media and her peers, and I make a point to talk to her often about race and fairness and the inequalities around her. And thanks to her extended relatives, she’s exposed to her father’s traditional Ojibwe heritage through her grandma in Ponema, Minn., and to my mom and sister’s multi-cultural families (from Eagle Butte to Omaha).

Powwow Girl

Still, it’s a struggle to ensure the cultural lessons the family shares with my kiddo aren’t suffocated by the messaging she gets from outside sources, like school. In Sioux Falls, all of my daughter’s education – from daycare to Montessori to kindergarten – exposed her to peers who spoke different languages, dressed in different clothing, and had a range of beautiful skin tones. Sioux Falls isn’t perfect, but it’s a town that tries because it’s forced to with the proximity of reservations, immigration and refugee placement agencies, and an expansive medical community.

Now we live in Manitou Springs – a beautiful, quaint community to be sure, but there’s nothing to force ideas or behavior beyond status quo. It’s a tourist destination, so while it must be open to a diverse crowd, it attracts people with money. It’s housing has inflated “tourism town” costs, so low-income families have few choices beyond living in urban Colorado Springs (which has its share of #smh moments). And it’s a small town, so while it depends on the money of strangers to survive, it still has that drawling “we have a certain way of doing things around here” vibe to it. Oh, yeah – the demographics are roughly 95 percent white.

The point is: Grow up surrounded by diversity and you find that difference is normal and expected and even valued; but grow up in a bubble where everyone looks, prays, and behaves alike, and difference is wearing a scarlet D on your chest. What parent wants the latter for their child?

Here, there are no kids of color in my daughter’s classroom, and apparently the class agreed Friday they “all had white skin” – Mimi said this as she exposed the lovely olive-colored flesh of her arm for me while we walked home and talked about her day. I don’t know if the “we’re all the same” message was teacher-sanctioned, but I do know they watched a movie about MLK and talked about segregation as an abstract concept: “White people wanted white kids to go to one school, and Black kids to go to a different school,” was what my kid was able to tell me she had learned.

I could easily leave it alone. I could say, “At least they’re teaching – something – about Martin Luther King.” Lord knows I don’t remember any civic lessons about him as a kid. But that’s the easy way out. In my humble, tax-paying opinion, schools should be teaching MLK and civil rights lessons daily, maybe along with that pledge they’re so fond of. When just one or two days a year are set aside for Martin Luther King or Native American Day, you begin recognizing every other day as a celebration of White Privilege (“I can speak the language I want, dress how I want, go to school where I want, get a job more easily, make more money, smoke a bowl without risk of serving life in prison if I’m caught, stand my ground, not get pulled over in Arizona, walk down a dark street with a hoodie on and live to tell the tale, knock on doors and ask for help without being shot, and generally have far fewer things to worry about than POC”).

Beware the Idiots of February

I get the idea that there are some subjects you don’t burden young minds with, but I don’t believe in coddling. And I don’t believe in sugarcoating to make a concept easier to digest. “No,” I told Mimi. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did so much more for the world. Did you know white people would KILL Black people in some places just for being Black? White people would hang Black people from trees, would hurt Black women and Black kids, and never be punished for it. Martin Luther King helped stop that by teaching us that people shouldn’t live in FEAR of each other.”

We talked about her uncle, who is Black, and her cousins – my niece and nephews – who are Black/Native, and how without people like MLK to fight against injustice and racism, her family would live in fear – be hated – for the color of their skin. And how Native Americans – like her and me and her dad – were also persecuted and treated unfairly, and that MLK’s message of love and fairness and justice and resistance also helped people like us, helped all people who looked or acted different by fighting for laws like the Civil Rights Act.

Cousins
Cousins

Now, my kid is 5. I don’t know that I really grasped the enormity that is MLK’s legacy until college and later, so I’m pretty sure my kid won’t be marching or protesting anything except my cooking any time soon. But she’s also not stupid. And she’s aware of the world and notes injustice around her. Like when we walked into the Manitou Springs Public Library the other day, she wondered aloud: “How do people in those wheely chairs get books?” because she nearly tripped down the narrow staircase to the kids’ section. Sure enough, the building’s got the age to warrant a “historic” label, and there is no handicap accessibility. Granted, the whole town rests on one incline or another, and as an able-bodied person I’m dying after walking “up” a few blocks, but you’d think a public library would lead the effort in ADA standards.

This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam's Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. "Why do they think we look like that," her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.
This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam’s Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. “Why do they think we look like that,” her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.

Despite the conditioning I’ve given her in diversity advocacy and activism, despite living and breathing Native culture as much as we know how, it’s still very hard to teach our child about people like MLK or Sitting Bull in a way her 5-year-old mind can relate to. Living where we do and living a relatively privileged lifestyle (by privileged I mean not homeless, well fed, access to solid transportation, pursuing goals, educated — nevermind that we currently live in a one-bedroom where I sleep on the couch because we don’t have a bed, and I’m unemployed), her dad and I have to be very purposeful in these lessons.

We must seek out and identify the culture and heritage, as well as the injustice and unfairness, because we live in a community bubble that has no room for being Indian, unless it’s in a historical or economical/tourist context. When she starts identifying as white “like the other kids in class,” it’s time to reassess how we parent. Why? Because today it’s “I look/dress/talk white,” and tomorrow it’s co-opting white privilege in all its “I’m better than you” glory. I fell into this trap in middle and high school, as I think a lot of urban Native youth do, and had a huge identity crisis that didn’t resolve itself until after I began to rediscover my traditional ways as an adult. Today I am closer to my heritage than ever before, and while my teenage woes helped lead to that, I refuse to believe taking a backseat in my child’s diversity/cultural education will benefit her. Just because none of her friends are learning Lakota, doesn’t mean we’re going to stop teaching it. And just because she wants to cut her hair to match the style of the other kids doesn’t mean she’ll get more than a trim.

Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.
Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.

We talked a lot about Trayvon Martin last year, and we had the pleasure of recently watching Fruitvale Station, but the media doesn’t cover things like domestic violence, voter suppression or youth suicide on reservations, so it’s hard to put a face on indigenous issues that will undoubtedly impact my daughter as a Lakota/Ojibwe woman someday. We point out mascots or appropriation when we see it (so, like, every day), and we talk about why some people might be hurt by those images, but at the end of the night she’s well loved and taken care of with few things to worry about, and her father and I worked hard to make it so. It’s definitely a catch-22: We want to give her the (reasonable) best life has to offer, but in doing so run the risk of her equating the English language with “normal” and being frustrated when we require her to keep her sacred hair long.

So MLK Day has come and gone, but we will continue to honor Dr. King and his legacy daily, just as we honor the legacy of her relatives – through purposeful cultural survival and sovereignty. I might have to start quizzing her every now and then to keep it in the forefront, but when I ask her next time why Dr. King is important, she won’t give some soft story about separate schools or drinking fountains. She’ll be able to express how it relates to her, and how she can relate to – and better – the world around her. That might mean she’s just picking up the trash while we hike, or sending up prayers with sage, or noting the accessibility of public spaces, but at least she’s getting out of the bubble.

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On Why Hollywood’s Images of Natives are Dangerous

Producers of the Al Jazeera English show, The Stream, reached out last week to ask if I’d provide some commentary on today’s episode regarding Hollywood DEPPictions of Native Americans (that’s my pun!). It’s a neat, interactive show, and they had some good questions. However, I was given a 30-second window to comment, plus tweeting. For a topic this complicated (and controversial, especially among fellow Natives), I felt a little strangled for time. So in addition to my video on The Stream, I also wrote up this piece. By no means am I dropping anything here someone much smarter and more qualified than me hasn’t already discussed in detail. For more in-depth analysis, check out Native Appropriations and Reel Injun, just to point you in the direction of quality critiques.

@AJStream asked: “…[U]sing Tonto as an example… How do stereotypes affect the perceptions and treatment of Native Americans? And to what degree are racist depictions in mainstream media holding back progress within Native American communities?”

Following is the answer I’d have liked to have given:

Hollywood’s go-to design of a Native American character is this: The stoic Indian of bygone yesteryears, with his bow and arrow, feathers and paint, and a HUGE chip on his shoulder (and now a bird on his head – the new acronym is SMBH, shaking my bird head). The character is generally under-developed, very surface-y in his motivations, and never the title role. The character is usually male, as well. Outside of the newest Disney-generated Native bird-wearing archetype, I’m thinking of movies like Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and The New World, among others. Then, if you’re showcasing the rare female lead character, say, someone like Pocahontas or Sacajawea, you get the over-sexualized woodland sprite communing with nature and navigation alike. In both cases, Hollywood presents us with under-developed, historically and culturally inaccurate characters depicted as noble savages fraught with need for a great white savior.

Now, critics of this line of thinking will often say, “It’s just a movie. It’s fiction. There are LOTS of fictional characters out there absolutely no one believes is how a real person acts.” Yeah, OK, but those characters are generally white, male, and heterosexual. The Privileged, if you will, because there are so many incarnations of them in media that it’s OBVIOUS there is no one mold for them. Hollywood tells us a white male can be anything he wants to be – today, yesterday, or even in the future. But a Native American male wears face paint, leathers, feathers (with or without the body of a bird – yeah, I have a big problem with avian appropriation, too), has a caring and protective white friend, and exists between the years 1492 and the late 1800s.

Therein lies a big chunk of the problem: We have no modern representations of ourselves on the silver screen. This is a big reason I supported Twilight, and I get a lot of flack for that. (Side note #1: Chaske Spencer, aka Sam Uley of the Twilight Saga, was featured on The Stream show and he was amaze-bombs.) Believe me, I get it, and I whole-heartedly agree that just as Johnny Depp donned redface for Tonto, so too did Taylor Lautner for Jacob Black. Beyond this, however, Twilight did a great job of casting several talented indigenous actors for various big roles; in addition, the story behind Jacob Black (and I’m talking the book here, to deviate a little) describes him as a lead character who just happens to be Native. His ethnic heritage (usually the only depth a Native character has) takes a backseat to the love triangle, and his character development as a son and capable leader. And I really enjoyed that this was the case for most of the wolf pack characters in the books and – to an extent – in the movies. No war paint or feathers (albeit a lot of fur) or alcoholism to be found.

This issue kinda came up during The Stream conversation, too. Chaske Spencer was asked about people seeing his role in Twilight as a sort of sellout move on his part. He had a fantastic reply, saying the franchise gave him an international platform to not only choose a more diverse range of films to act in (catch Winter in the Blood if you can!), but also to advocate for great indigenous causes. Then the host asked him something along the lines of: So, you’re using your heritage as a selling point? And Chaske Spencer was like: No, I’m not “selling” my heritage. That’s just who I am… I was proud of Chaske in that moment, because he brought to light the point I make over and over again in this post: Native Americans are relevant only when cultural byproducts (like regalia, and smudge sticks, and feathers) are involved. We are not individuals.

I’ll end the Twilight discussion here. For me, the biggest thing was it jumpstarted a new generation of readers. (Side note #2: I was introduced to The Twilight Saga by my then-15-year-old mentee, Tiffany, who recently turned 20. There were times throughout our relationship I didn’t expect this kid to graduate high school, for various reasons, so when she started telling me about this great book with a Native main character, I had to check it out. Thanks – in part – to Twilight, Tiffany and I built a stronger relationship and I have been entertained by the series – including the movies – ever since. I’d hang my head in shame if I weren’t so jazzed. *shrugs* Never said I was perfect!)

Returning to the topic at hand, even including Twilight, these Hollywood images leave us with few – if any – ways to interpret how a real, modern Native American looks, behaves, or what she desires. In our own familial and friendly circles, many of us will joke about how people ask if we really live in tipis, or ride horses all day, or if they can touch our hair. Funny, right? It happens far more often than any of us want to admit. We have to laugh to keep from crying. The frustrating reality here is this: We don’t exist as people until they actually meet one of us. And even then, developing a relationship beyond the silver screen takes a lot of time and patience on both my part and the part of the non-Native, which means true exchanges don’t often occur, because it really is just easier to live life based on assumptions (you know, like Skittle-wielding Black kids are inherently dangerous).

So where does that leave us? On one hand we have a Hollywood Indian dramatized as a paint-and-feather-wearing warrior whose people have all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. On the other hand we have the fantastical Hollywood Indian, a werewolf. And in these depictions lie the danger of the Hollywood Native Stereotype: We’re like museum artifacts from “back then,” and the imaginative creations of a white profiter; we’re fun to look at, but absent from any modern or realistic context.

That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find either of these stereotypes in the real world today, and because those Hollywood images are what many people are working from, real Natives – and our issues – remain invisible. So when we have very real issues like crippling poverty, staggering unemployment, laundry lists of health issues, or even when we’re trying to enact positive change with protests against pipelines and predatory alcohol sales, we rate less than the latest celebrity gossip on the local news channels.

Stereotypes hold everyone back, because they don’t allow outsiders to see the human beings underneath all that black and white makeup and stupid bird hats. Stereotypes allow non-Natives to appropriate indigenous images and traditional aspects of our heritage with offensive whooping and tomahawk chopping, dancing in fringed costumes and war bonnets, Navajo panties at Urban Outfitters…

Argh! I AM NOT YOUR HIPSTER ACCESSORY, dammit!

It is so normalized and accepted in America that we see this (mis)appropriation of ourselves in music videos, fashion shows, Halloween parties, frat shindigs, and sporting events. We become obsolete pieces of art used solely for entertainment purposes. And just as Depp’s Tonto ended up as a carnival sideshow, so too do important tribal issues.

How does this all come back to harm Native people and communities? In one of my favorite books, The Lucifer Effect, Philip G. Zimbardo talks about how stereotypes and misrepresentations are classic tactics of those in power to marginalize, dehumanize and ultimately do away with specific populations:

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows. (Zimbardo p. 307)

Zimbardo explains how dehumanizing can trigger ‘good’ people to commit atrocious acts, i.e. the Jewish Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dehumanization allows people to redefine harmful behavior as honorable, minimizes personal responsibility, maximizes apathy, and “reconstruct(s) our perception of victims as deserving their punishment” (p. 311). <—- Sound familiar? Read through some of the comments on my blog… Or better yet, through the troll-infested comment sections of news stories about Indian mascots or Hollywood depictions of ethnic people. In case you were operating under some delusion to the contrary, let me be the first to point out how alive and thriving racism is today. Let’s stop that whole "post-racial" fantasy, mmmkay?

In the case of Hollywood whitewashing, the context behind the offensive Native imagery is at issue. In relegating Native Americans to Western or mythological roles, Hollywood perpetuates and popularizes racist trends proponents say “honor” Natives; mascots, in particular, which are the little racist brothers to Hollywood’s stereotypes.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding AI [American Indian] mascots is that, because AIs may be largely defined by (and socially represented in terms of) mascot stereotypes, AI people have ceased to be perceived as real. From the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage––terms that imply AI people are less than human. Thus, it could be argued that AIs have existed as mascots for the 500+ year history of this country, and one consequence of AI sports mascots is that they keep AI people allegorically fixed as a kind of ‘cultural souvenir’ preserved in the American identity. (Chaney, Burke & Burkely, 2012, p. 43)

Mascots and Hollywood stereotypes exacerbate the issues plaguing Indian Country today by making the American public complacent and indifferent to those “Indian-only” problems, in addition to totally leaving out the fact that many of these issues are because of past and current U.S. POLICIES (I’m thinking in terms of assimilation, allotment, boarding schools, ICWA, VAWA, and – most recently – the sequester)! These images further divide Us and Them, because we Natives are nothing more than ticket sales and sports jerseys. Who cares about the Indians when there are REAL issues to deal with? Dehumanizing Natives through racist imagery has been the most effective modern means of annihilating the few of us remaining.