May 03, 2010

Native children bullied by stereotypes

Here's the beginning of a letter written by Linda Greene to her Native grandson's school:March 29, 2010

Narragansett Middle School
460 Baldwinville, MA 01436

Dear Mrs. Koziol,

Please consider this a formal complaint in regards to the consistent bullying and harassment that my grandson, Cyrus Greene has been subjected to. This harassment and bullying has been ongoing for the past three years. We have tried to deal with this quietly at home for the most part and have encouraged Cyrus to try to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ignore the harassment. We have tried to explain to our grandson that when other children call him names and insult him, it only shows their own ignorance and he should simply ignore the offender and mind his own business.

Obviously, the bullying reached the point where he felt he could ignore it no longer and on March 11 he struck back at his attacker after being bullied yet again while waiting for the morning bus. I received your phone call about the incident and I agreed that perhaps the mediation you suggested might solve the problem. Unfortunately, the other child failed to learn anything from your intervention. Cyrus came home from the bus stop in tears again on March 12, saying the other student is still shouting racial slurs at him.
Stereotypes = attacks

What I find interesting isn't the March 11 incident, but the years of racial attacks Cyrus had to endure. Greene's letter spells them out:Race and cultural sensitivity has been an issue for quite some time with this school district and began when Cyrus was sent home with a construction paper feather ‘head-dress’ in kindergarten and first grade. It continued with a conversation about an ‘Indian Christmas Carol’ with his music teacher in second grade. We had yet another conversation in third grade when Cyrus refused to dance to a ‘tom-tom’ Indian beat.And:[T]he harassment and bullying began shortly after Cyrus started riding the school bus. At that time, I initially reported the bullying to Mr. Garafilo at the East Templeton Elementary School. The bullying began with this boy and his brother calling Cyrus a ‘squaw’ and a girl. At the time we were encouraging Cyrus to grow his hair for braids as many young men in our native community do.And:Even after Cyrus altered his appearance, he was still taunted by "squaw" and they even added "whoo-whoo war cries." Again, we continued to advise Cyrus to ignore these racial chants.And:One thing that happened at school has had a very harmful effect on Cyrus. His class read a book called "The Sign of the Beaver." This book was read out loud in class. The first day that they met the native boy in the book, Cyrus cried at home. "Gram, they make the Indian sound stupid. And they’re reading it in front of my friends!" During that time, Cyrus lost respect for his teachers. We discussed the book here at home almost on a daily basis. He told me that his teacher said that Indians really did talk like that. The book compared native dance (something that Cyrus was really proud of) to the antics of a clown. It was completely disrespectful of native women and promoted harmful racial stereotypes.

During the book reading Cyrus was distressed on a daily basis. Each and every day he would come home and tell me about the escalating anti-Indian behavior of his classmates. Other children he thought were his friends started following him in the hallways chanting ‘whoo-whoo war-cries’ and calling him Geronimo and Squanto. Some of his classmates began pushing him as they walked by him in the hall. One day he came home so upset telling me he had just lost his best friends. They sat across the table at lunch chanting war-cries.
"Injuns and Injunettes"

Is this some sort of weird isolated incident? The volume of evidence about the harm of Native stereotyping suggests not. So does the following article on Senate Bill 107, the Colorado American Indian Mascot Regulation bill:

I witnessed execution of Indian mascot bill

By Simon Moya-SmithMidway through Sen. Williams’ introductory speech and bill eulogy, she introduced a young American Indian girl. Barely four feet tall, an elementary student who had written a letter to the committee members and Williams.

“Are you still living in teepees?” one sentence of the document read. The young girl’s peers incessantly tease her about living in buckskin, A-frame, old-time, plains Indians tents. I can only hope the letter made some sort of impact on the elected officials around the table.

In 1994, then just 11 years old, I sat in a L.A. County middle school. It was morning and everyone in the room waited for the daily announcements.

And then they came.

“Good morning Injuns and Injunettes!” said our school principal.
Let's pull together some of my previous postings to sum up the situation.

Kids like to taunt other kids about their physical differences. No doubt bullying is a universal problem, but it doesn't help that asserting our racial and cultural superiority by demonizing others is a common theme in US history.

In any case, kids are pathetically ignorant about Indians. They don't know anything but the Native stereotypes they see in the culture and media. Another term for our culture and media might be "cultural commons," where apologists excuse stereotypes because they supposedly belong to everyone.

What kids know about Indians includes: hatchets, feathers, and the color red; phony tribes, headdresses, and totem poles; and Indians shot arrows and died. In other words, a mishmash of mistakes and stereotypes.

No doubt most teachers mean well, but they often do as much harm as good. So we have kids in headdresses learning Creek lore, "Grey Eagle" teaching stereotypes, and the ubiquitous playing Indian for Thanksgiving. Even if the information is accurate, which is rare, it positions Indians as primitive people of the past.

What schools should do

For starters, the notion that you can raise your children to be "color-blind" is sadly mistaken. Kids see racial characteristics whether you teach them to or not. Telling them to be color-blind is telling them to accept racism as the norm.

As Cyrus's grandmother Linda Greene learned, instructing kids that "names will never hurt them" is worthless. That doesn't stop the bullying or teach kids an effective way to handle it. Greene didn't get results until she confronted the school with her letters.

Adults who claim Native stereotypes are a minor problem, harmless, or "just plain fun" are nothing but ignoramuses. They may have the decades of training to resist insults or slurs--although I bet I could drive most of them to rage or tears. But to expect children to have the same defenses is illogical and asinine. It's like saying a big dog can bite its master so it's okay to kick a puppy.

How can kids learn about Native culture? By reading good books, attending powwows, teleconferencing with Indians, or meeting Indians in person. In short, by avoiding bad information and seeking good information.

Epilogue: Cyrus's story has a reasonably happy ending. Greene's letters triggered a district-wide meeting about the situation. That didn't resolve the issues, but it made people aware of them. As Greene writes:There was quite a bit of discussion on whether or not Cyrus had brought on the bullying himself by calling the bully names. Although I said Cyrus did nothing to start off the incidents with these boys calling him squaw and a girl, I don’t think it was believed. As it so happened, a week after the meeting the boys were after him again. I wrote another email to the school and the Superintendent interceded this time and let the boys know in no uncertain terms if it happened again, they would face boot camp and their parents were going to receive a phone call. At this point in time, it hasn’t happened again.A phone call to the parents? Not exactly scary stuff. A suspension and threat of expulsion would be better.

Schools should have detailed policies in place to deal with this kind of problem. As with child abuse or suicidal behavior, officials should treat reports of bullying as deadly serious. Bring in the kids and their parents, tell them the bullying will stop, and lay out the penalties if it doesn't. (If this isn't the best response to bullying according to the evidence, then do whatever is the best response.)

Make sure the teachers and staff are trained in cultural sensitivity. Do seek out innovative programs that teach students about today's Indians as well as their histories and cultures. And don't use stereotypical books that win awards but are denounced by the critics who know best.

Below:  An all-too-typical example of teaching about Indians in school.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whites--the so called "Master Race", yet they still don't know hoot about Natives, even after 500 years later. As for the "phone call" bit, is a joke quite laughable. Its basically a slap on the wrist. A case of double-standards. My question is--are there any Blacks and Latinos in that school? Or is Cyrus the only non-White? If so, I say it spells trouble. I spent my elementary years in Phoenix, and it was as diverse as any other metropolitan school. Race wasn't the issue at my school. Which was a good thing, because I wasn't exposed to it and didn't know what "racist" meant and never heard of "racism" or "stereotypes" until I reached Jr. High(8th). Being exposed to other races, gives you good insight of other people as well as social skills needed for the greater American public environment. It shows you that everyone has feelings and we're all human. I can see why in all White school, there is evil taught there, generally fear, a fear of the non-White or of those who look different. So techniccally the end results is--ignorance begets ingorance. Which is why, its not really a good idea to attend an all White school as a non-White. It surely be problematic for those children when they reach adulthood, they are unprepared to react/interact appropiately with the non-White in the general public.