All I wanted was a lousy beer. OK, a few lousy beers. Is that too much to ask?
Of course, I suppose it was partly my fault. After all, I had taken my laptop with me into the bar, having just come from the library, where I’d spent the day doing research for a new book. Computer in hand, and being a writer and all, I naturally flipped it open to type in a few random thoughts for a column: not this column, actually. This one emerged from what happened next.
Computers in brewpubs are like steaming piles of shit in a field full of flies: guaranteed to attract attention from the regulars. And so it happened, when a guy who’d gotten a four or five pint head start on me, asked what I was working on.
I could have lied. Maybe shoulda.’ Didn’t, though.
“I’m a writer, just making a few notes,” I answered back.
I hoped that might be the end of it, but I sorta’ knew it wouldn’t be.
“You a songwriter?” he asked. Made sense, seeing as how this was a bar in the heart of Nashville, just four or five blocks from Music Row: a street lined with recording studios and record label offices.
Once more, I could have lied. Maybe shoulda.’ But then again, tell someone you’re a songwriter in this town and you’ll have to listen to their latest song, which they’ll whip out, on an already recorded demo, hoping you know someone to whom it can be passed along.
I didn’t have time for that bullshit, so I just told the truth.
“Nope, I’m a political columnist. I write mostly about racism, economics, a few other social issues.”
Now here’s the thing: Up to this point, I’ve remained purposely vague, not tipping off my newfound bar mate as to my political stripes, or where I might be coming from when it comes to race.
But here’s the thing too: I’m white, and so is he. And there is an unspoken understanding among white folks, especially white men, it seems-and especially, perhaps, in the South-and that understanding goes roughly like this: when people of color aren’t around, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk badly about them.
As such, I knew what was coming, or at least that something was, though the form it would take was to remain a mystery-at least, that is, for the next three or four nanoseconds; that being the time it would take for the guy on the neighboring stool to formulate his next thought. And here I am using the term “thought” generously.
Apparently, ESPN had just announced that the NCAA had decided to sanction schools that continue to use demeaning, stereotype-laden mascots of American Indians for their athletic teams.
This, as it turns out, was not sitting well with the aging frat boy here, and he figured, I guess, that I would agree with him. It never crossed his mind that I might support the decision; indeed, think the NCAA had let the dozen or so schools in question off lightly. After all, they had only barred them from hosting NCAA tournament games, or displaying their logos at such events, in the latter instance not even until 2008, and all of this, only in basketball.
“What’s the big deal?” he huffed. “There’s nothing racist about a mascot. Talk about some oversensitive bullshit!”
Easy for him to say, I thought. Folks like us rarely have to worry about being objectified, and turned into dehumanizing caricatures. When people like you run the country and every institution therein, “sticks and stones” takes on a much more truthful ring than it does for anyone else.
Knowing I had an obligation to respond, yet wanting to do so in a way that wouldn’t get me thrown out of the bar, I asked if he thought it was really appropriate for those of us who weren’t Indian to say what was and wasn’t offensive to those who were.
“What?” he replied, clearly not expecting to have been challenged in such a way.
I repeated the question, at which point he suggested that not all Indians found mascots offensive. He even had some Indian blood, he insisted, way back in his family line: a claim that single-handedly proved what little he knows of indigenous culture. After all, the notion of “Indian blood” and blood quantum, were largely concepts created by the white ruling class to limit the scope of land settlements with Indian nations. Indians were not, with a few notable exceptions, biological determinists.
“Take the Seminoles,” he thundered. “They actually support Florida State calling themselves that!”
True enough, the official Seminole nation of Florida is on record as supporting the use of their name at FSU. But of course, there are other Seminoles in the region who feel differently, not to mention the black Seminoles who have been all but disowned by those who consider themselves “true” representatives of the tribe. Indian politics are complicated, as it turns out. Much more so, in fact, than the average white guy at a bar, who is nothing if not predictable.
“Understood,” I replied. It was at that point I offered what seems, to me, the only logical compromise on the matter: one which, if this guy really felt as though Indians supported mascots, he’d be quick to accept.
“So,” I said, “How about we just let Indian folks vote on it. But just Indians, and just those who are either tribally enrolled or otherwise clearly identified and active in Native communities, culture or politics? In other words, let’s stay out of it, you and me, and let those who are directly affected make the call.”
He didn’t like that much, as was made evident by how quickly he changed the subject.
“What about Notre Dame?” he shot back. “The Fighting Irish. What about that? My ancestors were Irish,” he continued (ah yes, one of those Irish Indians), “and it doesn’t bother me one bit!”
Of course, the comparison was utterly unconvincing. To begin with, to be called a fighter is not the same as to be called, or typified visually as a “savage.” There is a qualitative difference, made all the more evident by the history of this nation: a history in which fighting Indians were slaughtered, and for whom their willingness to fight back at those who sought to exterminate them, provided their murderers with what the latter thought the ultimate justification for the perpetration of a Holocaust. Fighting Irishmen, meanwhile, got to be viewed as perfect candidates for the Union Army, or for your local police force.
In other words, one group of fighters had to be eliminated, the other, assimilated. If we can’t discern the yawning chasm between these two things, well, we really should stop drinking, be it at the local brewpub, or anywhere else.
Secondly, indigenous persons, unlike Irish Americans, continue to be marginalized in the United States. A substantial percentage have been geographically ghettoized and isolated on some of the nation’s most desolate land, while those off the rez have largely been stripped of the cultures, languages and customs of their forbears by a boarding school policy implemented against their families, which policy’s stated purpose from the 1800s through much of the twentieth century was to “Kill the Indian and save the man.”
To be Irish American is to be a member of the largest white ethnic group in the nation, and one of the most accepted and celebrated at that. It wasn’t always that way, to be sure, but it is now. For Irish folks to be stereotyped as fighters simply doesn’t have the same impact-given the power and position of the Irish in this society-as when stereotypes are deployed against subordinated groups. Objectification only works its magic upon those who continue to be vilified. For those on top, it can become a source of amusement, laughter-a good time.
“Yeah,” I responded. “But when Notre Dame chose to call themselves the Fightin’ Irish, the school was made up overwhelmingly of Irish Catholics. In other words, it was Irish folks choosing that name for themselves. How many Indians do you think were really in on the decision to call themselves ‘redskins,’ or to be portrayed as screaming warriors on someone else’s school clothing?”
Again, silence, and again a changing of the subject.
“Yeah but what really galls me,” he continued, “is that a bunch of these schools are just trying to honor Native Americans. They’re just trying to pay respect to the spirit of the Indians. It’s like nothing we can do is ever enough for those people.”
Aside from how calling indigenous folks “those people” jibes with a true desire to honor them (let alone his claim to be one at some remove), this particular nugget-offered by far more than just one drunk guy at a Nashville bar-has always struck me as especially vile.
If schools wanted to honor first nations people, after all, they could do it in any number of more meaningful ways. They could establish Native American studies programs and fund them adequately. They could step up their recruitment of Indian students, staff and faculty, rather than retreating from such efforts in the face of misplaced backlash to affirmative action. They could strip the names off of buildings on their campuses that pay tribute to those who participated in the butchering of Native peoples. Here in Nashville that process could begin by renaming, without delay, any building named after Andrew Jackson, of which there are several.
Perhaps most importantly, we could begin by telling the truth about what was done to the indigenous of this land, rather than trying to paper over that truth, minimize the horror, and, once again, change the subject. You know the kind of people I’m speaking of: the ones who refuse to label the elimination of over ninety-five percent of the native peoples of the Americas “genocide.”
Folks like conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, who, in a debate with me at Western Washington University in May, insisted that terming the process genocide was absurd. It was, to him, merely an emotional appeal on my part, devoid of content; calculated to gain applause at the expense of honesty. To Dinesh, genocide was an inappropriate term because most of the Indians who perished died from diseases, not warfare waged by whites.
That Dinesh has never read the definition of genocide, readily available in the United Nation’s 1948 Genocide Convention, certainly was no surprise. But had he done so, he would have seen that in order to qualify as genocide, one does not have to directly kill anyone per se. Rather, genocide describes any of the following acts, committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group’s destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring the children of the group to another.
In fact, each of these categories has been met in the case of American Indians. And had it not been for conquest, those diseases to which Indians had no resistance-and which colonists praised as the “work of God,” clearing the land for them-wouldn’t have ravaged the native populations as they did. To imply that such deaths were merely accidental or incidental would be like saying the Nazis bore no responsibility for the 1.6 million or so Jews who died of disease and starvation in the camps, rather than having been gassed or shot. But try saying that at your local neighborhood synagogue and see how far you get-with good reason.
Once again I suggested that if Indians thought mascots were a form of flattery and tribute, then surely they would vote that way in an Indian-only plebiscite. So, I repeated, why not just let them vote on it, and keep out of their way? After all, that would be honoring them too: trusting the wisdom of Indian peoples to prevail, one way or the other.
“But this is America,” he shot back. “And I’ve got a right to my opinion too! I shouldn’t be disallowed from having my say on it, just because I’m white. That’s reverse discrimination.”
Ah yes, reverse discrimination. Not being able to turn other people into a cartoon for your own enjoyment is now to be seen as a form of oppression. One wonders, indeed, how white folks can stand such a burden placed upon our shoulders.
Just as I was about to respond, he pulled out some money to pay his bar tab. And as he slapped down his bills upon the bar-twenties as it turns out-and I had the occasion to glance down, my eyes fixing on the eternal gaze of this nation’s pre-eminent Indian killer, I wondered out loud, why it is that white folks get more upset about taking offensive Indian imagery down, than we do about the normalization of white male imagery like that on this particular greenback. Why do we not find that image, on one of our most common monetary denominations enraging: an image that we’re supposed to revere; a man we’re supposed to praise; a “hero” we’re supposed to view as a national role model of sorts.
In other words, why do we allow ourselves, as white men, to be turned into a caricature too-into a stereotype?
I’d like to think that most white guys are better than Andrew Jackson.
I’d like to. But on days like this, I just don’t know.
TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: email@example.com