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Some really ugly faces of wétiko

November 20, 2009

The WordPress site is malfunctioning, so I couldn’t post a further comment reply. (It also mangled the last comment I posted, and I’m going to have to fix that after it’s up again.) Thinking about it more, I thought I’d bring another over to its own post.

But first, while I’m thinking about it, a bit of recent news that illustrates how far from hyperbole Jack Forbes’ Wétiko (Cannibal) Psychosis model really is: Peruvian gang killed victims for their ‘fat’. The quotes are inappropriate there; an apparently Mestizo gang ambushed and killed up to 60 indigenous people with the aim of rendering and selling their literal body fat. They have apparently gotten away with doing this for 30 years.

Disturbing in another way: even with the quotes thrown in, my first assumption was that gangs in Lima had been taking the bashing of fat people to an extreme point.

What the first few American reports of this story I read omitted: they sold it to European cosmetic companies. “The prosecutor’s indictment said the gang allegedly targeted farmers and indigenous people on remote Andean roads, tricking them by offering jobs before killing them.” A couple of Italian citizens are also under investigation, presumably on the buying end. From the first couple of articles, you might pick up the impression that those “savage” South Americans have been lining up to smear this expensive stuff on their faces.

From the same (Australian) article:

Signs of “an international network trafficking human fat” first surfaced about two months ago, according to General Felix Burga, head of the police criminal division.

Peruvian press cited him as saying the fat can be sold for $US15,000 a gallon ($4200 a litre) in European countries.

Cannibalism? You decide. Unfortunately, it’s just a couple of steps above a lot of the other stuff that goes on, for all its horror value. Compare to the “offering poor women jobs” aspect of (usually) less immediately lethal human trafficking, which has been going on for a very long time indeed. Compare to “just” working people to death under awful conditions, while continuing to blame them for being poor. It’s all cannibalistic, just quicker or slower.

But, back to what I was intending to write. My slightly expanded comment from earlier:

Yeah, I think it’s way past time for our own version of “Black is Beautiful”. Glad somebody could identify with that post (well, sorry in a huge way, but…). Don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately.

I couldn’t resist doing a similar photo post recently on the Dread Childhood Obesity.

Jack Forbes summed it up pretty well in Columbus and Other Cannibals. The relevant bit in the book is actually quoted from “Colonialism and American Education”, one of the excellent pieces available on his website:

A colonial system always assigns low status to virtually all Native customs and, if racial differences are apparent, also assigns low status to the physical characteristics of the conquered population. The conquered people are made to feel inferior and this inferiority is used as a weapon of psychological warfare to control them. It also serves to “justify” colonialism and prove that the invaders “deserve” to be in a ruling, superior position.

Jack Forbes’ observations have also made me look at hateful crap like this quite differently. (Another piece I just ran across.) I’m “fat” according to racist BMI, I’m Type 2 diabetic, I smoke, and I was born in West Virginia. My family still lives up and down the same river system where Huntington is found; I grew up on it myself. There are a lot of people like me in West Virginia. “16% – the highest rate in the nation – of men chew tobacco”, and so did my g.g. grandmother. She grew her own heirloom tobacco to make it. A lot more women smoked pipes, and we still get the corncob pipe images used against us.

They were made from corn, for the purpose of smoking tobacco. How that does not make people think “racist imagery” still astounds me.

Exactly the same things get bitched about in relation to reservations; these horrible people are costing us so much money, they’re so unhealthy (possibly due to Bad Genes, even when there’s evidence to support more reasonable explanations), they’re just trashy and offensive to think about, they’re to blame for any poverty they experience, and so on. In short, they need to be controlled for their own good.

Also compare the expressed need for control over us fatties to how Lawson described people living on the same river system ca. 1700: “tall, likely men, having great plenty of buffaloes, elks, and bears, with every sort of deer amongst them, which strong food makes large, robust bodies.” (That page also mentions attacks on Native religious uses of tobacco.) Elsewhere, Virginia Indian people got described as “of superior build”, while “[t]heir bearing is noble and proud”. My, how the tone changed once we got thoroughly colonized! The need to attract more colonists has been gone for a long time. It sounds like a way of diminishing a perceived threat. Unfortunately, one comic artist has apparently taken down an excellent illustration of this one, with the man Powhatan very realistically towering over a shrimpy John Smith, pointing out how little threat the few starving Jamestown colonists seemed to offer at that point. This focus on our physical size has a lot in common with the same culture’s attempts to physically diminish women through shame.

Back to that hateful “health” article, I wonder who has a long history of chewing tobacco, and why the mainstream considers this such a lowly thing to do these days? I can only imagine the reaction if 16% of women were still using it too. It’s not even clear whether the 16% includes snuff, which is also popular. That figure is mentioned just for shock value, since there’s not much health risk. The EU ban (outside Sweden) on smokeless tobacco was based on debunked research, but you still can’t buy it in Europe. Living in a hostile environment, I was strongly encouraged to find any type of tobacco use “backward” and embarrassing, something only done by stupid hicks. I’m rather ashamed to admit that I did buy into that for years, when I was in school, and particularly looked down on people who used smokeless tobacco as poor “white” trash.

Purposely inhaling any kind of smoke obviously isn’t good for you–I would be amazed if anyone living now doesn’t know that–but there’s still an amazing amount of condescension and classism thrown in attitudes there, before we even start seeing racism and/or racist regional bias. Look at all the screeching about smoking rates in the Southeastern U.S., with West Virginia at the top of the list.

Once you recognize what’s going on and the kind of ideology that’s driving it, all the implications start to unfold. And that is from just one wétiko tactic.

Forbes goes on to describe, step by step, how the old Divide and Conquer is employed, creating different castes based on things like skin tone and “blood quantum”, and pit them against each other. Everyone is supposed to “rise above” indigenous customs and identity. It’s unfortunately easy to see how this has played out in English-colonized areas, not only in Peru and other parts of Latin America. It’s fed a whole spectrum of nasty attitudes and behaviors, from the familiar “squinchy eyes” shaming, to honestly considering your Mestizo self entitled to ape your “superiors” and kill “worthless Indios” for any reason you can find/invent.

And it’s a logical extension to personalize the physical characteristic insults (“It’s nothing to do with race, it’s just your own badness!”), so that the individual has trouble seeing that tactic for what it is. It’s even better if individuals come to believe that they “don’t look indigenous” at all.

Yeah, Forbes is one of the writers who made me wake up about things like taking on other people’s loudly expressed opinions about my appearance. “Fat” is a particularly strong smackdown in this culture, and you’re unlikely to pick that one up and bludgeon yourself with it if you haven’t been hearing it from other people. I still have to try hard not to beat myself with that one, but it will probably get better with time and awareness!

Interesting about your reaction to your grandmother’s picture. I had the same reaction looking at the (varying quality, you’d think they were trying to paint a space alien) portraits of Thayendanegea/”Joseph Brant”. My first reaction was that he was one ugly sucker, then it hit me why.

Beating yourself up over internalized racism isn’t going to help, trust me. 😉 Awareness and doing my best to stop the hurtful self-talk has gotten me to the point that now I just have attacks of “my hideousness is an objective fact.”

It helps to remind myself that the wétiko is the truly ugly thing here.

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