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Weird racist snarking, of one variety

September 22, 2009

One thing in the last post raised another topic: one particular kind of common racist snarking. The example there was in Joyce Dugan’s Wikipedia entry, in which the author devoted one sentence of the three she was deemed to deserve, to pointing out that this former Principal Chief of the Eastern Band Cherokee is “half-white”.

Note the really freaking bizarre speculations about Osceola‘s ancestry. This is actually considered reasonable, not ghoulish in a hideously racist way (testing hair believed to be his?!). They don’t even mention how the Seminoles arose, pretty much guaranteeing “mixed” heritage. The man was about as culturally Indian as you can get, and was understood to be such at the time: ‘Osceola always maintained that he was full-blooded, but that was because his mother had told him that Creek and Seminole followed Matriarchal lineage….the male did not count: ” You are Muskogee because I am. I am because my mother is.”‘

I wish this kind of obligatory observation were unusual, but I’ve noticed it a lot, usually coming from people who wouldn’t know an Indian from a hole in the ground. From the usual tone, it’s hard to figure out if they are somehow trying to take credit for White people in general, or if it’s just another example of trying to discredit the person in question on racial grounds. It does seem to fit in with the old favorite “You don’t look Indian!” (whereas Jack Palance in a wig does), or the general glee in hassling Johnny Cash over not being able to find his ancestors’ names on various US government Cherokee rolls (which didn’t record the majority of the Cherokee, not if they could avoid it). At least I don’t recall anybody crowing that he didn’t “look Indian”, just that he couldn’t possibly be one. Then there’s the old favorite question to shut us up, “What kind of Indian are you, and how much?” (“And do you have evidence on US government-issued paper, in English?”), which is obviously reasonable from passing acquaintances or even complete strangers.

Yeah, that stuff will screw with your head after a while. See the Genocide of the Mind anthology for some experiences with this.; I don’t want to risk apoplexy thinking about details right now!

But, there is an additional tone of nastiness involved. People are always “half White”, or “part White” (which part?), or “only part Indian and looking mighty White” (sort of like how Burt Reynolds “looks White”, after centuries of this), or “really White and lying” (for such great rewards, why not?). I think this does have something to do with how, to paraphrase Vine Deloria Jr. from memory, White America has set themselves up as our true spiritual successors. Besides the centuries of forced assimilation.

With the way the US has uniquely been divided into two endogamous racial groups (and only two)*, White people can mostly ignore that NDN people even exist, and may honestly believe that we do not anymore. Within that tortured false dichotomy, it’s easy to claim that Native people are “really White” or “really Black”–and I think we all know which group NDN people are going to get lumped into when we accomplish something they can understand and feel proud of. Colonial racism as it’s developed requires people to ignore the fact that a lot of us in the East, especially, were “white” before we ever clapped eyes on Europeans. And, of course, if you don’t have obvious African features, you must be White or their castles of air will implode. It just doesn’t seem to hit as close to home when Black-identified people like Jimi Hendrix or Lena Horne acknowledge some Native heritage–though they can definitely run up against some other issues. If some people assume you’re White like them, they will get actively hostile if you say that you are really multiracial–much less Indian, since Indians are safely dead or on reservations. Maybe they think we openly multiracial Indians are saying that we’re genetically “part dead”, and culturally “full-blood” dead. (Braaains!) The “part-White” multiracial thing really seems to bug a lot of dominant-culture Americans. That’s screwed up on so many levels.

I can totally see how these folks get to define who everybody else is, from a position of encouraged ignorance. It would be a shame if they had to actually think about evidence that doesn’t fit what they’ve been taught to believe. Argh.

_________
* About half of the people with my surname in Virginia became “Black” on paper, while half became “White”. Self-identity and to some extent culture may have diverged, but that started out as an arbitrary division of the same (NDN-culture) people to fit the dichotomy. That was mostly based on the old Eyeball Test, even before they’d invented brown paper bags as an aid. *snort*

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