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Racism packaged for the kiddies

October 2, 2009

This is a prime example of one of the types of things I’d been trying to avoid, so I don’t give myself an an aneurysm. Somewhat ironically, my verbal retrieval seems to be better again lately, so I have a harder time resisting writing. 🙂

A link on Twitter slapped me in the face earlier. Sometimes it is the “small” things. This particular one came from 7 Hilariously Failed Attempts at Politically Correct Toys. (You might want to mostly ignore the tone, since it’s on

A lot of the rest were appalling–Amazonian Exploitation Barbie, anyone?–but one really caught my eye: #4. Spirit and Airborne, Native American G.I. Joes. The authors did pretty well at picking out a sampler of the racism there.

I don’t remember them from the early ’80s, probably because none of the kids I knew had them. (Gee, I wonder why parents might balk at buying this, even non-NDN ones?) What struck me very hard indeed was that Mattel honest-to-goodness thought this was OK* when I was a kid.

No doubt the general thinking was that (a) there are very few actual Indians left to complain, and (b) those few are too poor to complain effectively, possibly without even knowing it–you know, like Spirit. (‘Yes, seemingly unhappy with the regular old “Indians are poor” stereotype, they decided to go all-out and have Spirit be so fucking broke he doesn’t even know it.’) You can bet they weren’t expecting wealthy lawyers like Airborne to show up and give them The Look–you know, ‘The Navahos [sic] call it “the far-seeing look.”‘ (As the authors of that piece put it, “Those crazy Native Americans. If they’re not summoning spirit devils with their mystic mind powers, then they’re just looking at you, all aloof-like. Damn them and their crazy injun ways!”)

I knew the mascot issue** was a continuing thing, and I certainly got abundant servings of racist tripe when I was in grade school, usually from people trying to deny our very existance–to the point that I stopped even claiming to be that most curious creature, the Indian Descendant.*** (Look at Genocide of the Mind for some other people’s experiences with exactly this.) Then there’s the more recent creepily sexualized Disney Pocahontas thing, on top of the already fictitiously weird Anglo obsession with a poor girl who died at 21 after being held prisoner and used as a political pawn.**** I could go on.

It still shocked me that a major toy manufacturer thought this was OK to package up and sell to a new generation of children, especially that close on the heels of the ’70s. By that point, there could be absolutely no plausible claim that they did not know their toy was racist. Maybe I’m too easily shocked.

No wonder the same freaking stereotypes just won’t die. They’re too useful.

And, if you were wondering how much things have changed since then, in 2003 they offered another G.I. Joe doll called Dart. The difference? Apparently, they don’t explicitly say he’s a Rez Cowboy. He’s just a “Real American Hero” with a tribal tattoo on his chest. More “extinct” people must have jumped down their throats 20 years before than they’d expected. Not sure it’s much of an improvement.

Remember, “The token Native American G.I.Joe was all about freedom.”

* If you are considering asking what’s not OK about this, just go and find another blog. Now. It’s not my responsibility to give you Remedial Racism lessons.

** See above.

*** Written about my biodad’s people specifically, but applies elsewhere: “In the 1950s there were several ways of relating to Mingo identity. One had continued strong from the 1920s, and that was a minimizing or denial of Indian identity because of the desire to integrate into the small-town work force. The other was a reaction to that by a conservative party, very often made up of women who did not have to meet fellow workers directly and who wanted to preserve their traditional ways, including their ways of speaking. By the beginning of the 1960s both strong attitudes had mellowed, and people had fairly consistently begun to see themselves as Indian descendants rather than Indians. It was at this time that most of the native speakers of Mingo that were left died.” This in “savage” Appalachia.

**** The whole thing is creepy enough, and has been used to such hateful (‘According to a publication from the Registrar of the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, the law had to take account of “the desire of all to recognize as an integral and honored part of the white race the descendants of John Rolfe and Pocahontas.”‘) and just plain ridiculously privileged ends that some of us hesitate to publicly claim descent from the poor woman, via Bollings who went slumming (2nd heading, Amelia Co.) with the Saponi/Tutelo. Wayne Newton *****, from Roanoke, is the real deal through a different (and equally unsavory to some) route, and can apparently trace another line back to the man Powhatan. No mystical status, White or otherwise, goes along with that, alas.

***** Note more of the same weird snarking: “He is the half-Native American son of an auto mechanic father, who was Irish-Powhatan and a German-Cherokee mother.” Just because it’s internalized by now doesn’t mean it’s right.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 5:29 am

    Grrr …

    I wonder if you know of the Native American Literature site, and also the Oyate Press? (It’s actually called the American Indians in Children’s Literature site, and run by Debbie Reese).

    Toys … that is on another level. (All but one of the politically correct toys was made or distributed by Mattel, and that was the Cabbage Patches. Three were Barbies).

    I remember as a girl (in the very early 1990s) there was a The Print Shop pattern called “Najavo”, supposedly based (I reflect) on the rugs. And, yes, I did know (or ask) that it was Native American.

    It was good to read about Pochontas’s descendants.

    And racism can also be through the things we eat (or don’t eat), which is probably more basic than toys.

    • urocyon permalink
      October 5, 2009 4:48 pm

      I’ll have to look that up, thanks for the pointer. 🙂

      I hadn’t actually noticed that most of that crap was coming from Mattel, very possibly not just because they have such a large market share. *shakes head*

      Not too surprisingly, I hadn’t intended to go off on a sub-rant about Pocahontas, but it’s hard to resist in the context of crappy marketing images. Fictional characters are one thing, hijacking a real person’s life quite another.

      As to food, I agree. Lately, I’ve also been having to think more about that, specifically whether generic Fairtrade certification is a good enough rationalization for keeping buying certain things (as free range, organic, RSPCA certified, etc. was not for animal products). At least some Zapatista coffee is available in the UK, looking like a morally saner alternative if I need to keep drinking the stuff. After we move, I’m very tempted to plant some Yaupon, which is a lot like mate, and is a less popular drink these days mainly because there wasn’t much money to be made off it. It’s hard to tell how far to go with the DIY thing sometimes. 😉

      • urocyon permalink
        October 5, 2009 5:18 pm

        To be fair, there was also the association of Black Drink ceremonies (not the usual yaupon tea for everyday consumption) with rebellion, to the point that Osceola’s public name translates as “Black Drink Crier”. But mostly it got replaced by the more profitable coffee and Asian tea. Glad that hasn’t worked to the same extent in South America.

  2. October 6, 2009 5:26 am

    I’m also glad.

    Revolutionary tea! Drink up!

    No, Fairtrade stuff is pretty murky, and at the very least ‘not good enough’.

    And ‘freerange’ can cover up some fairly compromising situations.

    So there’s the story of the ten minute break especially in the South of America.

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