race/ethnicity: American Indians/Aboriginals

Dominant groups have the power to control representations of less-powerful groups.  They exert an out-of-proportion influence on their cultural portrayals.

We’ve previously featured objections to simplistic portrayals of the enormous continent of Africa, especially as a place that is primitive and hopelessly burdened by death, disease, poverty, corruption, and other problems.  Chimamanda Adichie, for example, objects to the “single story of Africa” and Binyavanga Wainaina tell us how not to write about Africa.  Elsewhere, we’ve illustrated how the bustling city of Nairobi is portrayed as a savanna with giraffes and elephants.

An organization called Mama Hope, sent in by Jennifer C., seeks to challenge this perception.  They want the world to think of Africa as a place of hope and possibility.  To this end, Mama Hope is producing videos that “…feature the shared traits that make us all human— the dancing, the singing, the laughter…”  They look like this:

The effort reminds me of the “Smiling Indians” and “More Than That” videos, sent in by Katrin and Anna W.  The first addressed the stereotype of the “stoic Indian,” while the second is designed to counterbalance the common portrayal of reservations as miserable places full of one-dimensional hopeless people (something we are certainly sometimes guilty of).

Smiling Indians:

More Than That…:

These videos are examples of the way that the democratizing power of new technologies (both the internet in general and the relatively easy ability to take video and edit) are offering marginalized peoples an opportunity to contest representations by dominant groups.

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.

In an interesting example of cultural borrowing/appropriation sent in by Catherine H., the Korean all-girl pop band T-ara imitates stereotypes of American Indians in their music video for their (strangely catchy) song, YaYaYa.

It’s difficult (for me) to know how these stereotypes of native North Americans “work” in Korea. It appears to mean something to Koreans, otherwise why use the imagery and narratives, but what? And how should Americans who oppose the stereotyping (and erasing of modern) Native Americans talk about this “borrowing”?

To get some perspective, I turned to James Turnbull.  Turnbull is behind the blog, The Grand Narrative, where he writes about Korean Sociology through the prism of pop culture.  This is what he had to say:

First, please note that T-Ara’s Yayaya is actually just one of several recent Korean music videos that have used Native-American imagery, and by no means the most offensive at that. For a list, see here, which points out that Indian Boy by MC Mong is much more problematic.

Second, so many Korean groups are being formed these days – over 30 new girl-groups in 2011 alone – that their management companies (most well-known Korean groups are completely “manufactured”) are in a constant battle to gain media attention for them. One way to do so is to regularly come up with new “concepts” for the group, of which a “cute” one incorporating Native-American imagery is just one possibility of many.

But thirdly and most importantly, it is no exaggeration to say that Korea is one of the least politically-correct societies out there, particularly in the ways in which non-Koreans are represented in popular-culture.

Often, this is completely innocent, most Koreans being ignorant of the connotations of Blackface for instance, or the passions Nazi imagery arouses in Western countries, to the extent that both are regularly found in popular culture and advertising. Indeed, I was especially struck once by reading of university students performing in Blackface at a festival because they thought Black audiences would like it, and would appreciate the interest in “their culture”. As the person who saw this wrote, this was not “offensive” per se, but it was certainly shocking.

Alternatively however, the ignorance can be willing. For example, last year the the Korean Overseas Information Service (KOIS) part of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, produced an expensive “Visit Korea” ad which played on the likes of CNN and BBC World and so on, but which relied so heavily on patronizing stereotypes of non-Koreans that it would likely have put off more potential tourists than attracted them. Non-Koreans in the KOIS were consulted in the making however, and did warn the producers of this, but unfortunately their advice was rejected, either because a) Korean advertisers are notorious for producing things that would appeal primarily to Koreans, despite the actual target audience, and/or b) it didn’t jibe with the advertisers’ perceptions of non-Koreans and their wants or needs. (Both are persistent problems with Korean tourism advertisements.)

Finally, for the source of those perceptions, consider Korea’s extremely exclusionary “bloodline”-based nationalism andextremely homogenous population (less than 3% of Korea’s population are “foreign residents”, a third of which are ethnic Koreans from China). Consequently, Korean society is really only just beginning to grapple with the concept of multiculturalism, albeit with much urgency because of the sudden huge influx of brides from Southeast Asia in the last decade or so, with the populations of many rural communities close to becoming a third or even half non-ethnic Korean. Certainly, a great deal of progress has been made in integrating them and acknowledging what their cultures have to offer, but when Korean school textbooks extolled the virtues of being an ethnically homogenous society until as recently as 2006 (and see here for how Blacks and native-Americans were portrayed in school picture dictionaries at that time), then I’m sure you can appreciate that much still remains to be done to prevent prejudice against them, especially in how non-Koreans and cultures are portrayed in the media.

Which to be fair, nobody outside of Korea was at all concerned with until K-pop became popular!

Thank you, James!

We’re happy to hear your thoughts in the comment threads. The video:

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.

According to Federal Parliament member Charlie Angus, leaders of the Attawapiskat First Nation have declared a state of emergency. Living conditions are so terrible on the reserve that members of the community are at significant risk of illness and death.  Many residents have no electricity, heat, or running water.  They are living in uninsulated tents and shacks.  Many of these residences are filled with black mold and prone to quick-spreading fires.  Some use buckets as bathrooms; with no facilities, they dump their sewage into the streets.

Angus writes:

When it comes to the misery, suffering and even the death of First Nations people, the federal and provincial governments have developed a staggering capacity for indifference.

Try to imagine this situation happening in anywhere else in this country. We all remember how the army was sent into Toronto when the mayor felt that citizens were being discomforted by a snowstorm. Compare that massive mobilization of resources with the disregard being shown for the families in Attawapiskat.

The government waited a month to respond, but has now accepted some responsibility for the health and welfare of the residents.  Attawapiskat leaders are now trying to raise awareness of the other First Nation communities in Northern Canada with similar conditions.

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.

Cross-posted at Native Appropriations.

 

After my open letter yesterday, I feel like some people still aren’t getting it (maybe it was the 100+ comments telling me to eff off?). Despite my appeals to emotion and greater human decency, it seems that many people in the world of thar’ intranets need some more physical reminders as to why dressing like a Native person this Halloween might be a problem. So I, dear random-probably-racist-internet-not-friend, am happy to oblige. Because, as a person of color, that’s my job, right? To prove to you that racism exists? To teach you why these things are wrong? To offer evidence of such wrong-doings? What fun it must be to never have to worry about such things! What a privilege!

To state my case, I wandered to the Spirit Halloween website. I did a simple one word search: Indian. I got 56 results, all Native-themed. I chose a few at random to share with you below. Hooray!

To start off,  I give you the description for that “Sexy Indian” above:

Hey cowboy – get a look at this Indian! Stop him in his tracks in this sexy Indian Dream Catcher adult costume and all your dreams will come true. There’s no need for a bow and arrow – just shoot him sexy looks and he’ll make tracks in your direction – it might get so hot he’ll put out smoke signals!

Awesome. Cowboy/Indian stereotypes, mentions of dream catchers, bows and arrows, and smoke signals! But it gets better (worse?):

Put the wow back in pow-wow when you go native in this very sexy Tribal Trouble Indian adult women’s costume. They may need to break out the peace pipe because the other squaws will want to torch your teepee when their menfolk see you in this foxy costume!

“The other squaws will want to torch your teepee?” That’s….great.

But the “menfolk” are included in the fun too:

Go native American in this classic adult men’s Indian Brave costume. Your job – to hunt. Hunt for prey like food and beer or pretty women in this comfortable costume. Get what you want then lay back and enjoy – pass the peace pipe!

Glad women are equated with food and beer. Glad the costume is “comfortable” too. God forbid you be “uncomfortable” when you’re being an ignorant misogynist! And I won’t even with the peace pipe comment.

and don’t forget the teens and tweens…they want to bring boys back to their tipi’s too!

You are an Indian Princess, able to hunt, gather and lead. In this cute Indian Princess tween costume it will be a snap to gather and lead the boys back to your tipi! Dance to celebrate the harvest or welcome a full moon in this fun costume trimmed with lots of fringe, feathers and more.

I’m sure every parent wants their daughter to be gathering boys and leading them back to the tipi. but only while they’re mocking Indian spirituality by “dancing to celebrate the harvest,” of course.

and saving the worst for last:

Girl, you won’t be sitting around the campfire stringing beads in this Pocahottie Pow Wow costume! The work is done and it’s time to play cowboys and Indians, only this time the Indian picks off the cowboys that she wants. Put the wow in pow wow and practice some native American rituals in this sexy Pocahottie costume. Is that an ear of corn in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

Yeah…I can’t.

I hope these can serve as examples as to why I’m so pissed off. The dripping misogyny and stereotyping is so blatant, it almost reads like satire. But these are real products, for sale on websites and in thousands of Spirit stores nationwide. Thousands of people are seeing, reading and internalizing these messages.

These costumes are hurtful and dangerous because they present a false and stereotyped image of Native people. The public sees these images, and it erases our current existence, so the larger, contemporary issues in Indian Country then cease to exist as well. When everyone only thinks Indians are fantasy characters put in the same category as pirates, princesses, and cartoon characters, it erases our humanity. Have fun thinking through that one.

But let’s be real for a minute. Can you seriously read those descriptions and still say that this is totes ok? Really. Be honest with yourself. Read them again. Think about if these descriptions were describing you and your family. Then tell me I’m being “over-sensitive.”

Thanks for playing, and have a happy, healthy, racism-free Halloween!

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Adrienne K. is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate student in Boston, where she studies access to higher education for Native students. In her free time, she blogs about cultural appropriation and use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life at Native Appropriations.

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Eleven readers sent in this wonderfully simple campaign to discourage people from dressing up like racial or ethnic caricatures for Halloween.  Or dressing their dogs up as such.

Kudos to the STARS students at Ohio University behind this campaign!  The costumes that they’re holding up, by the way, are real; we’ve featured several of them in previous years at SocImages.

Thanks to Norma M., Amias, Katrin, Dmitriy T.M., A.M.S., Joe F., Sarah D., Sara P., Molly, Patrick C., and Washburn University professor Sangyoub Park!  It’s exciting that so many readers sent this in and that the campaign got so much attention. It suggests that many people were hungry for a clear message against this phenomenon.

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.

Race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, disability, and veteran status are all what are called protected classes under federal law — characteristics that cannot be used as the basis for discrimination in hiring, housing, or other arenas. There are loopholes, however; one is that it is acceptable to discriminate based on a protected characteristic if you can show that it is “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ). So, for instance, if you can show that being female is a legitimate requirement for being able to perform a particular job, you can refuse to hire men. Hooters used the BFOQ argument when they were sued for sex discrimination because they would not hire men as servers.

The exceptions are race and color, which are not legally seen as ever being legitimate qualifications for doing a job. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website states, “Nor may race or color ever be a bona fide occupational qualification under Title VII.” That is, there is absolutely no good reason that being of one race or another would ever be a legal basis for hiring.

And yet, there’s still at least one arena where race is blatantly and openly used as a basis for hiring: Hollywood casting. Back in 2006, Russell Robinson, a faculty member at the UCLA School of Law, looked at the sex and race/ethnicity characteristics specified in “breakdowns” — the summaries of characteristics presented in casting announcements. As Robinson explains in the article “Casting and Caste-ing: Reconciling Artistic Freedom and Antidiscrimination Norms,” his sample certainly doesn’t include all roles in the process of being cast during that period. Roles aimed at big stars who don’t go through the typical audition process may never be released as a breakdown, since there’s no intent to recruit for the role. But

Robinson’s team looked at all breakdowns for feature films released between June 1 and August 31, 2006, excluding calls for extras and stunt people. As they reported in the research brief “Hollywood’s Race/Ethnicity and Gender-Based Casting: Prospects for a Title VII Lawsuit,” the vast majority of the breakdowns explicitly state the race of the character, with only 8.5% of roles open to any race/ethnicity:

Notice that African Americans and Latinos are particularly under-represented compared to their proportion of the total U.S. population. And while 22.5% of breakdowns specifically said the character should be White, almost half included language that designated the role as implicitly White — for instance, including only White actors in a list of prototypes for the role. In fact, interviews with casting directors indicate that roles are presumed to be White unless the breakdown specifically says otherwise.

Almost all breakdowns specified the sex of the character; 59% of the breakdowns specified the role was for a man, while 35% of roles were for women.

Robinson also analyzed the cast of 171 films released in 2005 that made at least $1 million. The majority of all roles were reserved for men. An overwhelming 73% of leads were men, and even supporting roles were predominantly for men:

Of the leads in those films, 81.9% were White non-Hispanic:

Robinson’s work shows that Hollywood still explicitly uses protected classes in hiring decisions, including race/color, which have been excluded from the BFOQ loophole. For more on this, see our posts on race and roles in recent trailerscasting Whites in Asian roles, Hollywood’s discomfort with Asian lead roles, gendered positioning in promotional posters, race and representation in Hollywood, the Smurfette Principle in movies, who goes to see movies, anyway?, Anita Sarkeesian on male-centric plots, and the lack ofra African Americans on Friends.

Thanks to Dolores R. for the tip about Robinson’s study, which she originally saw at Racialicious.

Andrew Francis D. sent in this 1970s commercial for Faygo soda that appropriates elements of Native American culture, presenting them as part of a ridiculous caricature (“Running Pudgy”?):

For other examples, see our posts on the stoic Indian in marketing, advertising with Eskimos, a parody of Native Americans in ads, confusing the Sioux with Robin Hood, Sambazon’s Warrior Up campaign, Levi’s brochure of “American Indian lore,” and appropriating Native cultures in fashion.

Cross-posted at Scientopia.

A couple of days ago I posted a video about stereotypes of Native Americans in video games, including the Hot Indian Princess. Though the video discussed video games specifically, these tropes are common in other area of pop culture as well. Dolores R. sent in a great example. Over at Beyond Buckskin, Jessica Metcalfe posted about the 2011 Caribana Parade in Toronto. This year the parade theme was Native America, including various sections such as Amazon Warriors, Lost City of the Aztecs, Brazilian Amerindians…and Tribal Princesses. Here’s a Tribal Princess costume provided by one band, Callaloo (it’s now sold out).

A commenter on Metcalfe’s post takes exception with criticisms of these costumes and the parade theme, saying,

[This is a] celebration of historic alliances between African Diaspora peoples and Native peoples. In New Orleans, the tradition was a specific response to racist laws that placed Native and other POC communities in a common frame of reference. This tradition is almost 200 years old among Caribbean/Diaspora people in North America…you are making a tremendous mistake by attacking a part of Afro-Caribbean culture as if this was the same as an expression of White/Euro privilege.

So the argument is that this can’t be problematic cultural appropriation or propagation of the sexualized Indian Princess trope because it is part of an event meant to celebrate and recognize the histories and cultures of groups that have themselves been the target of discrimination and political/cultural exclusion. Certainly there is an important cultural and historical context there that, the commenter argues, distinguishes these costumes from, say, the current fad of “tribal” clothing in fashion.

And yet, that argument seems to discursively claim a right to represent Native Americans in any way without being subject to criticisms of stereotyping or cultural appropriation. For instance, the Apache were not a Caribbean tribe (though the Lipan Apache moved far into southeastern Texas by the late 1700s, coming into regular contact with Texas Gulf tribes). Does this sexualized “Apache” costume, as imagined by non-Apaches and sold to the general public, differ greatly from other appropriations and representations of Native American culture and identity as fashion statement?

This feels a little like a different version of the “But we’re honoring you!” argument used in efforts to defend Native American sports mascots — that any concern the viewer has is only due to their lack of understanding of the reason for the depiction of Native Americans, not because that depiction might be, in fact, problematic.

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