race/ethnicity: American Indians/Aboriginals

Robin H., Tomi L., and Kate McL. asked us to talk about the new movie, Avatar.   Tomi thought the gender politics were great, with men and women as equals fighting and ruling side-by-side.  I think she’s right.  It’s a great example of a cultural product that makes little of gender difference.  (UPDATE: Though commenters are disagreeing on this point quite insightfully.)

With that said, I want to comment on the race politics in the movie (I do so indebted to Annalee Newitz and Eric Repphun; you might also be interested in Meloukhia’s comments from a disability studies perspective).

First, a summary (super spoiler alert):

Avatar is a moral re-evaluation of colonization. In the movie, humans go about killing and displacing the indigenous population of another planet, the Na’vi, in order to extract a valuable mineral.

The Na’vi are a fantastical version of indigenous populations encountered by Europeans during colonization. They wear features, bones, and skins; they have a deep spirituality and a ritual-filled life; they are accomplished and principled warriors; they hunt and fight with bows and arrows; and they have an intense connection to nature (the end of the black braided ponytail of the Na’vi contains mysterious filaments that plug into the flora and fauna, allowing a sort of mind meld with the animals and the planet). They are, in short, the stereotypical “noble savage.”



In the movie, humans use technology to transport their consciousnesses into home-grown native bodies.

A character, Jake Sully, and his avatar:


They use these bodies to infiltrate and befriend the Na’vi, all with the intention of furthering the goals of mineral extraction.  Through our hero, Sully, we discover the moral superiority of the Na’vi people.  His own exceptional nature is also revealed.

Sully being blessed by the Goddess, a sign that the Na’vi should accept him:


Later, the chief’s daughter falls in love with him.

The anthropological effort to convince the Na’vi to give up their land fails and so the humans decide to take the land by force, wantonly destroying their home and killing any Na’vi that get in the way. A handful of humans, led now by Sully, defect and join the Na’vi.  During the battle, both the chief and the rightful inheritor of the role die.  After they win the battle, Sully assumes the role of chief, with the highest ranking female at his side.

In the end, Sully abandons his (disabled) human body and the Goddess transfers his consciousness into his avatar body. He has, literally, “gone native.”

Now, to the commentary:

Avatar is a fantasy in which the history of colonization is rewritten, but it a fantasy specifically for white people living with a heavy dose of liberal guilt. And it is one that, ultimately, marginalizes indigenous peoples and affirms white supremacy.

If it were a fantasy for, say, the American Indian population in the U.S., the story might go a little differently. In that fantasy there would be no Sully character. It’s that simple.

The Sully character is white redemption embodied; he “…is liberal guilt made flesh.”  His character redeems the human race (i.e., people of European descent) by proving that at least some of us (guilty liberals) are good. Whites can identify with Sully instead of the humans who orchestrate the genocide and displacement.

But Sully is not only a superior human being, he is also a superior Na’vi. After being briefly ostracized for his participation in the land grab, he tames the most violent creature in the sky, thereby proving himself to be the highest quality warrior imaginable per the Na’vi mythology.  He gives them hope, works out their strategy, and is their most-valuable-weapon in the war. In the end, with all Na’vi contenders for leadership conveniently dead, he assumes the role of chief… and gets the-most-valuable-girl for good measure. Throngs of Na’vi bow to him.

As Annalee Newitz summarized in her excellent commentary:

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.

I’m going to speculate that, if this were a fantasy written for a colonized population, the hero would come from their own ranks and, at the end of the movie, they would continue life on their land, with their culture intact, under Na’vi leadership, without a human in sight.

But that would be a movie that alienated the colonizer. And since history is written, and rewritten, by the victor, Avatar is what we get.

And it is a safe fantasy because the fight is over. During most of the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous populations in the Americas, stereotypes were cruel and dehumanizing. The “noble savage” stereotype that we are familiar with emerged only after the threat of American Indian resistance was long gone. We re-cast our enemy in romantic terms only after we won the war. How nice for us. It turns out our foe was a worthy one, making us look all the more impressive for being the victor. We can now pretend that we had deep respect for them all along.

Europeans can enjoy Avatar precisely because there is no risk to admitting that colonization was wrong. We can wallow in guilt about it and, still, the likelihood that power dynamics will be reconfigured in any meaningful way is just about zero.

(Images borrowed from here, here, and here.)

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Eloriane sent in a photo shoot for V Magazine (September 2009) that is both fascinating and confounding.  I noticed two things:

First, while the women are more or less fully-clothed, the men are naked.  Really naked.  Well, about as naked as they could be.  But the effect is really eerie, with one model looking like some combination of distressed, surprised, and high in most of her shots.  It’s nothing like our previous post featuring a photo shoot with clothed women and naked men, where the women appear gleeful about the situation.  To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of it, but my instinct is that, for some reason, this is not reversing the gendered power dynamic we typically see.

Coincidentally, Elle P. sent in a Dolce & Gabbana ad to similar effect.  You can see it below as well.

Second, the photo spread is titled “Wild Things” and subtitled “Adopt a Neo-Hippie, Anything Goes Approach to Dressing with Furs, Fringe, and Everything Animal Print.”  Then the photo titles refer to American Indians (“Warrior Princess,” “Navajo Sun,” and maybe “Indigo Girl”), Asians (“Eastern Promises”), Gypsies (“Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”), and Africans (“Tribal Council”) alongside animals (“Animal Instincts,” and “Wild Things,” of course), and Bohemians (“Boho in Paradise”; more akin to “neo-hippies”?).  So, again, we have the association of people of color with animals and human primitivity (here, here, and here)… even as no actual people of color show up in the photo shoot.

Images after the jump because WAY not safe for work:


As far as I can figure it, Halloween costumes come in three categories: scary, funny, or fantastical.  This is why dressing up like another “race” or “culture” for Halloween is racist.  A “Mexican Man,” for example (see below), should not be presented as scary, funny, or fantastical.

Brooke, at Whebr’s Hotub’s Blog, expresses her frustration for people who dress us like an “Indian”:

Why is it socially acceptable to dress like the stereotypical Indian: “Brave”,”Chief”, “Princess”, “Squaw”, “Maiden”? Pardon Moi, but when did the Native American enter the realm of Wizards, Fairies, Super-heroes, Goblins, or Ghouls? When did it become ok to reduce the diversity, language, and culture of nearly 500 different Indigenous tribes into a tacky “costume” of cheap suede, colored feathers, plastic beads, and fringe? Who decided that the history, identity, and lineage of Native Americans could be easily put on and taken off like greasy Halloween face paint?

Brooke features a whole host of “Indian” costumes at her site, including this one:


Illustrating the way in which these costumes tend to collapse culturally distinct groups into a cheap stereotype, Costume Craze has a whole section of the website devoted to “History and World Culture Costumes.”

Here’s a sample of the “Asian costumes” (don’t miss the fantastic font):


“Indian costumes”:


“Mexican costumes”:


Fatemeh Fakhraie, at Racialicious, points out how “Middle Eastern” costumes reinforce both ignorance and negative stereotypes.  Regarding the “Sheik of Persia Arabian Costume” costume shown below, she says:

History lesson: Persia didn’t have sheikhs, they had shahs. And Persia and Arabia were two different places! AKH!

of course he has a knife! All Middle Eastern men are dangerous, didn’t you know? You can even tell by his face: he’s pissed, and he’s going to take it out on some infidels!


For good measure, Cindy at Lotería Chicana has collected a set of racist Halloween costumes that she photographed at a store called Spirit in San Francisco.  A selection:


UPDATE!  Awesome tidbit from Rosemary in the comments thread:

The geisha one in particular makes me wince, partly because the “kimono” is tied the wrong way (the only time you ever tie it that way is when a person is dead)…

Of course, that’s actually perfect for Halloween!  But somehow I don’t think that’s what SPIRIT is going for.





And my favorite, the “Dream Catcher”:


Does making fun of white people (“tighty whiteys”) make it all equal?



The thing that amazes me most about these costumes is that they’re everywhere.  You can’t escape them.  And no one seems to notice or care.  For example, this “Hey Amigo” costume can be purchased at the Linens N Things website:



Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I recently wrote a quite popular post, titled “What Do Women Want?”, based on data collected by the dating site OK Cupid (short story: women like it when men engage with their personality, not just their looks).  Mary S. sent in a link to some of their data on race and response rate, with some fascinating findings.

First, OK Cupid measured the compatibility of people of different races. They found that, by and large, race doesn’t impact compatibility scores:


Then they looked at response rates. When a man writes an inquiry email to a woman, what is the chance that that woman will write back?  Here is the data:


What this table shows is that race matters.  OK Cupid breaks it down:

Black women… are by far the most likely to reply to your first message. In many cases, their response rate is one and a half times the average, and overall black women reply about a quarter more often.

white males just get more replies from almost every group.

White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively. These three types of women only respond well to white men. More significantly, these groups’ reply rates to non-whites is terrible. Asian women write back non-white males at 21.9%, Hispanic women at 22.9%, and white women at 23.0%. It’s here where things get interesting, for white women in particular. If you look at the match-by-race table before this one, the “should-look-like” one, you see that white women have an above-average compatibility with almost every group. Yet they only reply well to guys who look like them.

And how do men respond to women?


OK Cupid again:

Men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder.

White guys are shitty, but fairly even-handed about it. The average reply rate of non-white males is 48.1%, while white guys’ is only 40.5%. Basically, they write back about 20% less often.

To sum, white men appear to have the most dating capital in the online dating world, while black women seem to have the least.  This means that white men can sit back and enjoy the adulation, while black women are required to do more outreach to men to get the same results.

This makes sense give the way in which race is gendered.

For more, read Restaurant Refugee’s experiment comparing  responses on OK Cupid to an identical profile with pictures of a white person and a person of color.

UPDATE: Duran2, Dave, and Assaf critiqued my comment about white men sitting back and enjoying the adulation as both inaccurate and unfair. Point taken. I apologize.

For more, see our posts on asymmetry in interracial marriage and how Asian women are marketed to white men.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

In the opening essay to the book Shared Visions: Native American Painters and Sculptors in the Twentieth Century, Rennard Strickland and Margaret Archuleta write,

J.J. Brody in his classic study, Indian Painters & White Patrons, identified the colonial nature of a patronage system that narrowly defined and dictated what was “Indian art”…It seems almost as if definitionally…that paintings by Indians can be considered only in a primitive, aboriginal context. (p. 9)

They discuss Oscar Howe:

…[he was] thwarted in developing new directions in painting and striving to break away from the old stereotypes limiting Indian art…one of Howe’s Cubist style paintings was rejected from the 1959 Indian Artists Annual because it was “non-Indian” and embodied a “non-traditional Indian style.” (p. 9)

Strickland and Archuleta quote a letter from Howe to a friend:

“There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures…Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting…?” (p. 10)

What Strickland, Archuleta, and Howe (as well as other contributors to Shared Visions) are discussing is the pressure American Indian artists have often faced to create a certain type of art. This pressure may come from other Indians or from non-Indians. Non-Indians have often had significant power over Indian artists because of their role as benefactors (providing money for artists to attend The Studio at the Santa Fe Indian School, for instance) and because non-Indians are the majority of buyers of art created by American Indian artists. And benefactors and art collectors often have a certain idea of what “Indian art” is, which includes assumptions about both themes and styles. Specifically, they want “traditional” images that depict Native Americans in a pre-modern world, often including images of animals.

I couldn’t help but think of that book when I recently picked up a tourist-oriented guide to Taos, New Mexico. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there is anything necessarily wrong with any of the particular art pieces (or with “traditional” type Indian art more broadly). I’m also not claiming these particular artists feel their artistic expression is limited by preconceived notions of what counts as “Indian art.”

What struck me was just the homogeneity of the images found in the guide, which seemed to more or less fit the mold of the stereotypical idea of “Indian art.” It brings up the question: what is Indian art? Is it any art made by an American Indian? Or does it only count if it fits in with non-Indians’ preferences for what Indian art should look like? What if a White person, say, masters the “traditional” style–is it Indian art then? Over the years a number of American Indian artists have created art to intentionally challenge the idea of the romanticized 19th-century Indian as well as what Indian art can be. For instance, Fritz Scholder painted “Indian Wrapped in Flag” in 1976, in an attempt to deconstruct images of Native Americans (p. 16 of Shared Visions).

Both Indians and non-Indians picketed some of Scholder’s shows in protest.

Similarly, T.C. Cannon painted “Osage with Van Gogh” (I’ve also seen it titled “Collector #5“; from around 1980), which reverses our idea of who collects or appreciates which type of art by showing a Native American collecting a European artist’s work. Another great piece is “When Coyote Leaves the Reservation (a portrait of the artist as a young Coyote)” by Harry Fonseca (1980). See images here.

So are those pieces Indian art? Does it count as “Indian art” only if it contains specific styles and themes?  In which case, does it remain a sub-genre of art–part of “ethnic” art, as opposed to the neutral, non-marked mainstream art world?  Are Indians who paint or sculpt or play music in ways that don’t fit the existing idea of Indian art not “authentic” Indian artists?  If we accept that premise, “Indian art” is, as Howe said, “held back forever,” with themes and styles frozen in time and artists discouraged from experimenting or innovating in their work, as Howe learned so clearly. This tendency is apparent in other elements of U.S. culture, of course: movies like “Dances with Wolves,” books about “noble savages,” and conflicts over what types of technologies American Indians can use when spear fishing (with non-Indians arguing Indians should only be able to use the methods that their tribes used in the 1800s) all indicate a wider perception that “authentic” Indians should inhabit a time-warp universe in which their cultures and lifestyles have remained basically unchanged since the late 1800s or early 1900s, a requirement we don’t ask of other groups.

For more evidence that Indians are represented, and expected to represent themselves, anachronistically, see this post.

UPDATE: Commenter Camilla points out a documentary that asks similar questions about “African” art:

Christopher B. Steiner produced a fantastic anthropological documentary about the market for “African” art that addressed many of these same issues. It’s called “In and Out of Africa”…It explores the issue of how ideas such as “authenticity” and “tradition” are socially constructed phenomena. It also questions why particular types of “ethnic” art are successful in Western markets, while others are not.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The always-awesome Miguel, of El Forastero, sent in an interesting image and post from Puente Aéreo about an article in El Correo ridiculing a Peruvian congressional representative , Hilaria Supa, for her language skills. Supa represents the district of Cusco, an area where the majority of residents speak Quechua as a native language, not Spanish. The magazine ran an image on the cover that shows notes she was taking during a legislative session.

Just a disclaimer, the translations below are mine, not Miguel’s, so if they’re incorrect it’s my fault, not his; I read Spanish decently well and I gave it my best shot, but if you think I misinterpreted the meaning of something, by all means let me know. Nicely.

The caption under the photo on the El Correo website says, “Según la hoja de vida de Hilaria Supa, en 1991 impulsó la alfabetización de mujeres campesinas a través de la Federación de Mujeres de Anta (FEMCA),” which translates as, more or less, “According to the bio of Hilaria Supa, in 1991 she began a literacy campaign for rural women as part of the Women’s Federation of Anta”). Clearly the idea is to ridicule her–this woman claims to have worked on literacy issues for rural woman?

Some quotes from the online article:

… lo que descubrió una reveladora foto de Correo, sus limitaciones en cuanto a ortografía y sintaxis dejan mucho que desear. [“As shown in a revelatory photo by Correo, her orthography and syntax leave much to be desired.”]

Muchos años antes de ser elegida congresista, Hilaria Supa se desempeñó como empleada del hogar en el Cusco, Arequipa y Lima. [“Many years before her election to congress, Hilaria Supa  was a house servant in Cusco, Arequipa, and Lima.”]

…su colega Martha Hildebrandt se quejó de sus destempladas protestas sobre un proyecto para declarar oficiales las lenguas aborígenes. “Miren los modales de estas niñas quechuahablantes”, comentó. [“Her colleague Martha Hildebrandta complained about her acrimonious (inharmonious?) protests about a project to declare indigenous languages official*. ‘Look at the manners of these childish Quechua-speakers,’ she said.”] *Apparently this refers to the fact that Supa and another indigenous representative spoke their swearing-in oath in Quechua instead of Spanish, the first officials in Peru ever to do so. Apparently this pissed people off even though Quechua is one of Peru’s two official languagues, along with Spanish.

The article also clearly implies that she doesn’t deserve to be in Congress, interviewing people about how political parties are supposed to serve as a filter to be sure that not just “anyone” can be elected.

Miguel says,

This picture is a clear statement of the white, Spanish-speaking (and male) [establishment] that opposes the participation of indigenous people (and women) in the government.

Indeed. Although Quechua is an official language of Peru, and even though large segments of the population do not speak Spanish as their native language and there is no requirement that they do so, the message here is clear: attempts to redefine the political establishment in Peru so that indigenous communities can participate more fully on their own terms (as opposed to being forced to completely assimilate to non-indigenous, Spanish-speaking Peruvian culture as a requirement for respect) do not deserve a place in public life.

NOTE: Sigh. After reading everything in Spanish and translating the above sections into English, both of which made my brain hurt, it finally occurred to me to see if any English-language blogs or media outlets have discussed the article and provided translations. Yes, they have. Google “Hilaria Supa Peru” and several items will come up. Then I just felt dumb, but since I have papers to grade and no time to redo it, I’m just leaving my translations and hoping for the best. You might want to check out some other English-language sites for more discussion.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Kelly Zen-Tie Tsai asks Obama to include the even-less-visible minorities (by which she doesn’t mean the purple, blue, and green):

Via Stuff White People Do, where there is also a nice discussion.

Daniel T. Lichter and Domenico Parisi provide a couple of interesting images using 2000 Census data in a recent article about rural poverty. They use Census block-group data (block-groups are significantly smaller than counties) to identify non-metro areas of concentrated poverty. This map shows all block-groups with more than 20% poverty in 2000:


If you overlaid this map onto a map of American Indian reservations, you’d notice that many of these high-poverty block-groups are on reservations–particularly in the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico.

UPDATE: Here’s a map of state and federal reservations put out by Pearson (you can find very detailed maps of individual reservations at the Census Bureau):


And TOTALLY AWESOME reader Matt Wirth overlaid the poverty map on the reservations map. The two maps weren’t exactly the same so some of the state outlines don’t line up perfectly, but you can get a good sense of how high-poverty block-groups (blue areas) and reservations (red areas) overlap:


Clearly there are many poor block-groups in the west that aren’t associated with reservations, but we see an awful lot of overlap of blue on red, as well as in the regions directly surrounding reservations. Thanks so much, Matt!

We also see a band of high-poverty block-groups in border counties in Texas with high numbers of Latino residents, and of course the band along the Mississippi River and through the Black Belt up to North Carolina, and the ever-present Appalachian section.

Another note about the map: As Lichter and Parisi point out, if they had mapped poverty at the county level instead of the block-group level, many of these areas of high poverty would not have shown up. These are areas of concentrated poverty in counties that are not, overall, particularly poor. The authors note that studies of poverty that look at county-level data often miss isolated rural areas with extremely high poverty rates.

On a side note, see that little blotch of brown in north-central Oklahoma? That’s where I grew up! According to the 2000 Census, my specific hometown has a 17.6% individual poverty rate and the median home value is $24,400. That doesn’t matter to you, I know, but it does make me acutely aware of the problems of rural poverty.

The following bar graph shows how geographically concentrated poverty is among three racial groups. The graph shows what percent live in Census blocks of concentrated poverty–that is, areas where 20% or more of the population is poor (20% is the standard baseline among researchers for defining an area as “high poverty”):


Clearly, in both metro and non-metro areas, a much higher percentage of all Blacks and Hispanics (both the poor and non-poor) than Whites live in areas of concentrated poverty. Notice (in the last two sets of bars) that less than 40% of poor Whites live in neighborhoods with such high proportions of poverty, whereas the vast majority of both Blacks and Hispanics who are poor live in areas where many of their neighbors are poor as well.

Lichter and Parisi argue that the concentration of poverty matters, particularly when it indicates that the poor are socially isolated. Such isolation can mean lack of access to social services, decent schools, and the types of social networks that provide job leads, recommendations, and so on. This type of social isolation can be much more harmful than being poor in and of itself, a topic also investigated by William Julius Wilson in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor and The Truly Disadvantaged.

From “Concentrated Rural Poverty and the Geography of Exclusion,” Rural Realities, Fall 2008, p. 1-7, available from the Rural Sociological Society.