race/ethnicity: American Indians/Aboriginals

From an angry tweet to an actual change.

On September 1st I objected to the description of the Disney movie Pocahontas at Netflix. It read:

An American Indian woman is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she years for something more — and soon meets Capt. John Smith.

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I argued that, among other very serious problems with the film itself, this description reads like a porn flick or a bad romance novel. It overly sexualizes the film, and only positions Pocahontas in relation to her romantic options, not as a human being, you know, doing things.

Other Disney lead characters are not at all described this way. Compare the Pocahontas description to the ones for a few other Disney films on Netflix:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, this Disney film follows a gentle, crippled bell ringer as he faces prejudice and tries to save the city he loves.”

The Emperor’s New Groove. “In this animated Disney adventure, a South American emperor experiences a reversal of fortune when his power-hungry adviser turns him into a llama.”

Tarzan. After being shipwrecked off the African coast, a lone child grows up in the wild and is destined to become lord of the jungle.”

Hercules. “The heavenly Hercules is stripped of his immortality and raised on earth instead of Olympus, where he’s forced to take on Hades and assorted monsters.”

I picked these four because they have male protagonists and, with the exception of Emperor’s New Groove which has a “South American” lead, the rest are white males. I have problems with the “gentle, crippled” descriptor but, the point is, these movies all have well developed romance plot lines, but their (white, male) protagonists get to save things, fight people, have adventures, and be “lord of the jungle” – they are not defined by their romantic relationships in the film.

We cannot divorce the description of Pocahontas from it’s context. We live in a society that sexualizes Native women: it paints us as sexually available, free for the taking, and conquerable – an extension of the lands that we occupy. The statistics for violence against Native women are staggeringly high, and this is all connected.

NPR Codeswitch recently posted a piece about how watching positive representations of “others” (LGBT, POC) on TV leads to more positive associations with the group overall, and can reduce prejudice and racism. This is awesome, but what if the only representations are not positive? In the case of Native peoples, the reverse is true – seeing stereotypical imagery, or in the case of Native women, overly sexualized imagery, contributes to the racism and sexual violence we experience. The research shows that these seemingly benign, “funny” shows on TV deeply effect real life outcomes, so I think we can safely say that a Disney movie (and its description) matters.

So, my point was not to criticize the film, which I can save for another time, but to draw attention to the importance of the words we use, and the ways that insidious stereotypes and harmful representations sneak in to our everyday lives.

In any case, I expressed my objection to the description on Twitter and was joined by hundreds of people. And… one week later, I received an email from Netflix:

Dear Dr. Keene,

Thanks for bringing attention to this synopsis. We do our best to accurately portray the plot and tone of the content we’re presenting, and in this case you were right to point out that we could do better. The synopsis has been updated to better reflect Pocahontas’ active role and to remove the suggestion that John Smith was her ultimate goal.

Appreciatively,

<netflix employee>

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Text:

A young American Indian girl tries to follow her heart and protect her tribe when settlers arrive and threaten the land she loves.

Sometimes I’m still amazed by the power of the internet.

Adrienne Keene, EdD is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She blogs at Native Appropriations, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Flashback Friday.

Jenn F. found herself faced with a “Lucky Taco” at the end of her meal at a Mexican restaurant.  It contained the following wisdom: “Paco says, ‘A bird in hand can be very messy.'”

The Lucky Taco is, of course, a “Mexican” version of the Chinese fortune cookie with which most Americans (at least) are familiar. Jenn also sent the link to the company that makes them, the Lucky Cookie Company, and they have two other versions, the Lucky Cannoli and the Lucky Cruncher (meant to be, respectively, version inspired by Italians and the “tribal” [their term, not mine]). Behold:

So this company took the Chinese fortune cookie and re-racialized it…. three times over. Is this is an appropriation of Chinese culture?

Nope.

The fortune cookie isn’t Chinese. As best as can be figured out, it’s Japanese. But, in Japan, the fortune cookie wasn’t and isn’t like it is in the U.S. today. It’s larger and made with a darker batter seasoned with miso (instead of vanilla) and sprinkled with sesame seeds. This is a screenshot from a New York Times video about its history:

This drawing is believed to depict Japanese fortune cookie baking in 1878:

According to the New York Times, it was Japanese-Americans in California who first began making and selling fortune cookies in the ’20s. Many of them, however, served Chinese food. And Chinese-Americans may have picked up on the trend. Then, when the Japanese were forced into internment camps during WWII, Chinese-Americans took over the industry and, voila, the “Chinese fortune cookie.”

So the “Chinese” fortune cookie with which we’re all familiar isn’t Chinese at all and is certainly of American (re-)invention. So, insofar as the Lucky Taco, Lucky Cannoli, and the Lucky Cruncher are offensive — and I’m pretty sure they are — it’ll have to be for some other reason.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:

Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.

It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.

In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.

But THESE. These were the best ones…

Noah:

Into the Woods:

This project is calling out the movie industry in a simple, powerful way. Just the facts, ma’am. Time for change.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Most people middle aged or older remember the “Crying Indian” campaign for Keep America Beautiful:2

Most of them, by now, also know that Iron Eyes Cody was no Native American. Born to Sicilian Immigrants in southwestern Louisiana in 1904, Espera Oscar de Corti became an actor in his youth, and found that he could “pass” as a Native American in Hollywood.

de Corti, changing his name to “Cody,” claimed to have Cherokee-Cree heritage. He played native roles in dozens of westerns, with John Wayne and other stars of the mid-20th century. His chanting was featured in the Joni Michtell song “Lakota.” And, of course, he was the Noble Savage face of Keep America Beautiful. All while sharing more heritage with Christopher Columbus than with the people who got the shit end of the Columbian Exchange.

By all accounts Iron Eyes Cody tried to honour his assumed ancestry. He became an activist for Native American causes, and did lecture tours preaching against the harm of alcohol. He married a Seneca archaeologist, Bertha Parker, and they adopted two adopted two Dakota and/or Maricopa children. He even wrote a book about native sign language.

He also invented a backstory, quoted by Glendale News Press from  a 1951 local newspaper article:

Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians…

The article said that the television star and his wife would appear at a Glendale Historical Society event to tell the story of the “Indian Sign Language in Pictures” and would demonstrate Indian arts and customs. Plus, the couple would bring along their 3-month-old “papoose” Robin (Robert Timothy). All were to be attired in Indian regalia.

In 1996, three years before his death, Iron Eyes Cody was outed as European by his half-sister, May Abshire, who offered proof of the actor’s Sicilian parentage to the Times-Picayune. Cody denied the allegations.

Today, such a shocking exposé, proving that an upstanding member of an ethnic community was really an outsider, would be all over social media. Just like Rachel Dolezal.

I’m having a hard time digging up any initial reactions to Iron Eyes Cody’s outing from indigenous people in the United States or Canada. How is he remembered? Did he help make native issues more visible, or did he obnoxiously appropriate a culture of suffering that didn’t belong to him?

Cross-posted at The Ethical Adman.

Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at Osocio and The Ethical Adman.

Flashback Friday.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans, sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham explains that originally, and as late as the late 1800s, the term meant “indigenous to Louisiana.”  It was a geographic label and no more.

But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term. White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination. In other words, white. Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.

Today most people think of creole people as mixed race, but that is actually a rather recent development. The push to re-define the term to be more inclusive of non-whites began in the 1960s, but didn’t really take hold until the 1990s.  Today, still racialized, the term now capitalizes on the romantic notions of multiculturalism that pervade New Orleans tourism advertising, like in this poster from 2011:

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Like all other racial and ethnic designations, creole is an empty signifier, ready to be filled up with whatever ideas are useful at the time. In fact, the term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning:

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This book seems to define creole as free people of color (and their descendants) in Louisiana:

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Whereas this food website identifies creole as a mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian:

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In short, “creole” has gone through three different iterations in its short history in the U.S., illustrating both the social construction of race and the way those constructions respond to political and economic expediency.

 

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Reader Lindsey H. sent me a copy of a book called Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, apparently published in 1902 and revised in 1907 by Emily H. Vaught. Also available on Amazon. The book can best be described as an application of the theory of physiognomy, which is the idea that you can tell all kinds of things about a “person’s character or personality from their outer appearance” (wikipedia). Some images from Vaught’s book:

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The book is full of images in which the features stereotypically associated with Northern and Western Europeans, or the mythical Aryan race, are associated with sincerity, honestly, a work ethic, and every other positive character trait, whereas large and especially hooked noses and small, hooded, or almond-shaped eyes were indications of negative traits.

Here we learn that the broadness of a person’s face tells you whether they are vicious or harmless:

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The text does not explain whether the implication is that all Native Americans are vicious and all Blacks are harmless, or if these are just examples and those races would have just as much variety as we see among Whites.

For those of you who are considering procuring yourself a wife, Vaught provides some tips on picking out a woman who will be a good mother (the same general head shape indicates a good father as well):

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Avoid at all costs a man or woman with this head shape (notice the pointed nose, larger ears, and smaller eyes compared to the image above, in addition to the apparently super-important head protuberance):

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Also, based on the illustrations, apparently men who wear bowties are good fathers but those who wear neckties should arouse your suspicion. There is also a section titled “How to Pick Out a Good Child,” which I intend to take with me next time I am child shopping.

The back page advertises other books available from Vaught’s press, including Human Nature Year Book from the Human Science School and the new Text Book on Phrenology, which addresses “Heads Faces Types Races.”

I have seen examples of physignomy and phrenology before, and images of their practitioners measuring people’s heads and facial features, but I have never before seen an entire book devoted to it. These pseudosciences were taken quite seriously at the time, with “experts” showing that Africans and African Americans, for instance, had facial features that proved them to be less civilized and intelligent than those of European descent and that Jews were inherently deceitful.

Thanks a ton for sending it in, Lindsey!

Originally posted in 2009.

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

As we live our lives increasingly in the digital realm, the sights, sounds, and moving images of the internet impact our conception of the world around us. Take, for example, the many online mapping services.  What began as simple tools to find driving directions have evolved into advanced applications that map multiple layers of data.

But who decides what we see? What features are considered sufficiently important to be included? And what information about our country do those design decisions make invisible?

Here’s the map of South Dakota provided by Google Maps. Notice that the many Indian reservations are unmarked and invisible.  If you scroll in, eventually the reservations appear. At the state level, though, they’re invisible.

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In contrast, Indian reservations do show up on Bing:

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Among the other map services, Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest do label Indian reservations while OpenStreetMap does not.

While these mapping tools certainly empower the individual, it is the designers and the developers behind them who hold the real power.  I can only speculate as to why Google Maps does not include reservations at the state level, but their decision impacts the way we understand (or don’t understand) the geographic and social reality of this country.

Stephen Bridenstine is pursuing a history masters degree at the University of British Columbia, where he studies popular attitudes and public memory concerning Indigenous peoples, the historic fur trade, and the natural environment. He blogs about non-Native America’s weird obsession with everything “Indian” at his blog Drawing on Indians, where this post originally appeared.

This post was updated to reflect 2014; it originally appeared on SocImages in 2011.