October 24, 2008

How people see blacks (and Indians)

Another fine Nicholas Kristof column illuminates how far we still have to go. And how electing Obama would be a major step on the journey:

Rebranding the U.S. With ObamaThe other day I had a conversation with a Beijing friend and I mentioned that Barack Obama was leading in the presidential race:

She: Obama? But he’s the black man, isn’t he?

Me: Yes, exactly.

She: But surely a black man couldn’t become president of the United States?

Me: It looks as if he’ll be elected.

She: But president? That’s such an important job! In America, I thought blacks were janitors and laborers.

Me: No, blacks have all kinds of jobs.

She: What do white people think about that, about getting a black president? Are they upset? Are they angry?

Me: No, of course not! If Obama is elected, it’ll be because white people voted for him.

[Long pause.]

She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!

We’re beginning to get a sense of how Barack Obama’s political success could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy’s presidency did in the early 1960s.
Comment:  As I argued in 40% of Whites Are Prejudiced, beliefs such as these Chinese woman's are incredible. We live in an age saturated with information, yet people still think minorities can't be president. They literally think blacks are janitors and crooks, Latinos are busboys and maids, and Indians are heathens and savages.

Variation on a theme

I can just imagine how the conversation would go if the subject were Indians rather than blacks:

Me: In America, we have Indian doctors, lawyers, scientists, and engineers. Even a senator and an astronaut.

She: Indians? You mean the red savages? [She puts two fingers behind her head to indicate feathers and a hand over her mouth to indicate whoo-whoo whooping.]

Me: Yes, exactly.

She: But surely an Indian couldn’t do any of these things?

Me: They're already doing them. One Indian was even vice president.

She: Vice president? That’s such an important job! In America, I thought Indians were drunks or lazy bums. I thought they were dead.

Me: No, Indians are alive and working in all kinds of jobs.

She: What do white people think about that, about Indians leaving their reservations and running for important offices? Are they upset? Are they angry?

Me: No, of course not! If Indians are elected, it’ll be because white people voted for them.

[Long pause.]

She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!

I'd say this is reason enough to vote for Obama. Namely, to send a message to "real Americans" and the rest of the world that times are changing. That we aren't just a white Christian nation that thinks we have a moral right to run the world. That we actually believe our own Declaration of Independence: that all people are created equal. (Well, all people except Jefferson's "merciless Indian savages," of course.)

Indians need the same kind of "rebranding" as blacks and America as a whole. That's why some of us fight so vigorously against racial stereotypes, mistakes, and slurs. Every example in the popular culture--sports mascots, TV shows, statues, magazine titles, parade floats, nude models, holidays, etc., etc.--reinforces the "primitive, savage Indian" brand. And every nonstereotypical example diminishes that brand.


Anonymous said...

The newest stereotype about Indians that bothers me the most is the widespread belief held by most whites that ALL American Indians in the United States are extremely wealthy because of casino revenues.

Not all tribes operate casinos and just a mere handful are quite successful due to the fact that they are in a good location (near an area of fairly high vehicular traffic).

And even those Indian casinos that have the appearance of extraordinary opulence are few and far between. Additionally, most of these more profitable gaming venues are "deep in hock" to foreign investors (exactly who these investors are is typically unknown as tribes are not required by federal gaming laws to disclose proprietary information to the public).

The sad truth is that the American Indian population is still very much the poorest of the poor in America (reference my tribe: the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which is situated in Shannon County, South Dakota - perenially among the poorest counties in the U.S., if not THE poorest). We remain the worst off in every index that measures quality of life issues than all other ethnic groups in the country - so, if we are all so RICH, then why are we still existing on par with most of the Third World?

Rob said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Melvin.

I've posted on the Rich Indians stereotype before. I think it's subtly linked to the "savage" stereotype of yore. Both imply that Indians are immoral--i.e., that they've violated the norms of society. Yesterday's rapacious Indians took the white man's life; today's rapacious Indians take the white man's money.

Anonymous said...

RE: Stereotypical Beliefs About Indians

An excellent source of reference, Rob ("Rich Indians")!

In my life thus far, I have seen this particular take on contemporary Native mythology evolve from the "ALL Indians receive a tidy monthly sum from from the government" to the ubiquitous bullshit of casino-rich Indians who are rapaciously "double-dipping" -- very casino-wealthy, but at the same time still dependent upon federal largesse to meet their basic needs. When is it ever going to end?

I live in Alamogordo, NM, at the present time - a "retirement town" close to a casino-owning tribe (the Mescalero Apaches) - and the absolute worst of the worst McCain-loving, older, white, ass-holish bigots who constitute a large percentage of the local population really do believe that each tribal member (of said tribe) receives $5000 a month, which is, of course, tax-free. Yet, on any given day, these same folks are at both casinos in droves, sucking up the senior freebies and totally loving it.

Anonymous said...

I am living the American Indian Dream of being broke.

I'm a Native American Indian Woman and yes, we do have a Casino and believe me I do not, I repeat, I do not receive a Red Cent from the Casino. I wish,I was just like the White people believe us to be "Rich" I laugh at that.

I do not live on the "reservation" so to speak and I do not receive any free stuff, I live in the City and pay for everything. I pay rent to wealthy man every month and I am scared that one of these months I might not be able to pay my rent, then what?

I am not a savage nor heathen but a child of God. That what I call myself.