January 28, 2012

Hopkins on Conan's syphilis skit

Columnist Ruth Hopkins reacts to the syphilis joke on Conan O'Brien:

Is It Okay for Me to Laugh at Conan O’Brien’s Columbus Skit?

By Ruth HopkinsI watched the clip with an open mind, determined to reserve judgment. What’s my conclusion? While I didn’t find it very funny, I wasn’t offended. Sorry to disappoint you. However, this situation brings to bear a myriad of questions asked internally by modern-day Indigenous Peoples concerning the use, or abuse, of their perceived identities in mainstream pop culture.

As Native woman, should I have been offended? While memorialized by mainstream society as the explorer who discovered America, we Natives have a very different view of Christopher Columbus. There’s ample evidence showing that Columbus was a mass murderer involved in not only the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, but also the monstrous practice of capturing indigenous women and children and making them sex slaves. Not funny, at all.

However, Conan’s skit does acknowledge that Columbus wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and that he was promiscuous. Yes, they don’t point out that the sex Columbus had with indigenous women was likely not consensual, but Conan’s a comedian, not a historian. Also, it might be helpful if I told you that Conan’s original Columbus joke was premised on recent scientific studies that concluded that Columbus and his crew of scary miscreants were more than likely infected with syphilis in the New World, and took the disease back to Europe with them, where it spread like wildfire. Karma for smallpox? Who knows.

Artists poke fun at everyone, all ethnicities included. Should Natives be exempt? Maybe the difference is that Natives are a minority by involuntary diminishment, i.e. we’re a minority population because we’re the survivors of genocide at the hands of European immigrants. Not to mention, Natives have been through so much since Columbus landed. The traumatic legacy of colonization, termination and assimilation continues to this day.

Still, the issue remains. Do we take things too seriously? Should Natives never be included in public discourse or entertainment unless we give permission? If so, who gives permission? Who’s the PC chief? Do we take a vote? Are we to attend monthly meetings? I don’t think I’d go unless there were door prizes. Wait, that’s General Tribal Council meetings.

As Natives, we continue to face this situation again and again. Do angry, knee-jerk reactions to seeing anything Native-related in popular culture take away from the recognition and acknowledgement of legitimate acts of ignorance and racism that do occur and should be dealt with, like those things that profane the sacred or abuse, denigrate, or even kill Native people who are alive today? I’m just a girl from the rez, but I can’t help but feel my ancestors would be more concerned about whether or not I’m helping my relatives stay warm, have clean water to drink, get an education, or preserve our mother tongue than if I’m capable of sustaining outrage over a 30-second Conan O’Brien sketch.
Comment:  A couple of problems with Hopkins's response:

1) Her "offended/not offended" judgment addresses only the emotional side of the issue. There's also the "right/wrong" intellectual side. People can criticize something as stereotypical and thus wrong even if it doesn't offend them. I do it all the time.

2) Her "Do we take things too seriously? Should Natives never be included in public discourse or entertainment unless we give permission?" is a straw-man argument, since no one is arguing that permission is required. What I'm arguing is that humor about Natives should be done right, without stereotyping or racism. The "Radiant Syphilis" names aren't funny, portray Native women badly, and have no redeeming or critical value.

3) Similarly, people weren't and aren't reacting to "seeing anything Native-related in popular culture." They're reacting to stereotypical depictions of Natives. Funny that Hopkins misstates or misses this basic point.

4) Hopkins concludes that noting stereotyping and racism is a waste of time. That we should spend our time on things that "denigrate, or even kill Native people," instead. Stereotyping and racism do that, missy. Woodcarver John T. Williams was shot because a police officer saw him as knife-wielding savage. Frank Paul was left in the snow to die because the police deemed him a drunk Indian. Missing Native women are ignored in Canada because officials consider them worthless "squaws" and sluts. Etc.

No link between thought and action?

The last example is especially relevant here. You don't think Native women are beaten, raped, and killed in large numbers because Euro-Americans have treated them as sex objects for centuries? Just as Conan's skit did in its own small way? Then why are they beaten, raped, and killed in large numbers?

Prove that there's no connection between how our society perceives Native women and how it treats them. Good luck with your answer...you'll need it.

If stereotyping and racism don't matter, I guess Hopkins could argue that a few missing or dead Indians don't matter either. After all, tens of thousands of Indians need food and shelter, so why bother about one or two of them? If someone with racist beliefs harms an Indian, who really cares?

You can see the slippery slope here. There's no clear dividing line between "this racism is harmless" and "that racism is harmful." All aspects of racism are connected; they reflect a mindset that expresses itself in matters large and small. The person who shouts an epithet like "Redskin!" may well deny a job, a vote, or a helping hand when an Indian needs one.

Corine Fairbanks addressed this point in "Little Things" Have Big Consequences. I've addressed it many times in postings such as Solving Problems with Critical Thinking, Rob Should Fight Poverty?! and Protesting Mascots = Victimhood?! I've yet to hear a good answer to these arguments.


No one's suggesting that Hopkins or anyone should "sustain outrage over a 30-second Conan O’Brien sketch." As I said, the problems with the skit were relatively minor. Most people would have to think about this as much as I did to get its negative implications.

Indeed, Hopkins's column on the subject took more time to write than my posting did. I'd say I gave it the proper amount of attention. She's giving it more attention than it deserves.

Again, the point of my posting was to note the skit's inaccuracy, not its offensiveness. It's about encouraging people to think critically about Native representations in the media. If you know what's right and wrong in the news and the movies, you're better equipped to help Indians with everything from poverty to treaty rights.

As for Hopkins's PC-related questions--"If so, who gives permission? Who’s the PC chief?"--I think that would be me. Just kidding, sort of.

For more on Conan O'Brien's attitude toward Indians, see Burial-Ground Joke on Tonight Show and Indian Casino Joke on Tonight Show.

Below:  A harmless stereotype that isn't worth worrying about while Indians are hungry and homeless?

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