August 11, 2008

Wrong to point out stereotypes?

May I Be Offended on Your Behalf?

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami SaidI recall every time a non-black editor has changed my use of “black” to African American, “because ‘black’ is offensive”…I recall every time I have been challenged, overruled and lectured about the feelings of my own community in particular and people of color in general…and I don’t want to be the person who does that. About the Bobby Lee post: In the end, I decided that I don’t have enough information to dissect Asian stereotypes in popular culture, and I certainly have no right to discuss how a Korean man’s acting choices affect his cultural community. I left the topic alone.

It’s just too easy to move from being aware to being offensively presumptuous. And, I have to say, as someone who runs in liberal circles, progressives do offensively presumptuous like no one else. There has been a rash of the problem of late. In discussions of sexism vs. racism, the Michelle Obama lynching illustration on Daily Kos and the scandalous New Yorker cover, a lot of progressives have been eager to explain to black people why they should or should not be offended about a thing. My most jaw-clinching encounters have been with white liberals who have done anti-racist work or academic work on a group of non-white people. (African studies, Asian studies, Native American studies, etc.) Sometimes I want to shake these folks–allies who generally mean well–and explain that studying a people, visiting message boards or really admiring a cultural group, isn’t the same as being a member of that group.

I guess what we all want is that allies will be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but that they will keep their privilege in check and remember that the voices of the marginalized should be the loudest ones. The victims of an “ism” must take the lead.
Comment:  As I wrote in response to this posting, I don't completely agree with Tami’s sentiments.

As a white liberal male, I spend most of my time working on Native American issues with Native American people. Going by the number of words written or the number of minutes spent, I'm probably one of the leading analysts of Native stereotypes in the country. I don't have any academic credentials to justify this position, but I think Native people know of and accept my work.

I try not to tell Natives how to think or feel. I try not to tell them when they should be upset or offended. But I see calling a stereotype a stereotype as a different issue.

A stereotype is an inaccurate description or depiction of a minority that doesn't match the reality. For instance, all American Indians = Plains chiefs ( If you look at the numbers, this simply isn't true. Most Indians aren't Plains chiefs, so portraying them as such is wrong. Objectively speaking, it's a stereotype and I can prove it.

I won't tell Indians they should be offended by a stereotype. I will tell them it's wrong. If they don't see it, I'll point them to the facts and evidence on the harm of stereotyping. Let them read what their fellow Natives have to say on the subject.

I don't necessarily hold off when the person doing the stereotyping is Native, either. For instance, The American statue sculpted by a Native artist, or Redskin magazine published by a Native staff. Sorry, but most Indians aren't half-naked savages, so the statue is stereotypical. No Indian has red skin, so the magazine's title is stereotypical.

Many Indians do find "redskin" offensive; some don't. I'll be happy to point these things out: that "redskin" wrongly stereotypes Indians as red-skinned savages, and that many Indians find "redskin" offensive. If anyone disagrees, they're free to dispute the facts. Since I've examined the evidence in detail, I stand behind my claims.

Does this make me a typical bastion of white privilege and arrogance? Maybe, but I don't think so. I don't see many Indians doing what I'm doing, and I don't see many telling me I'm wrong. If they did tell me I was wrong, I'd listen, but that isn't what they're saying.

In fact, most of them are glad to see what I've written. Here's an outsider, they think, who "gets" what they've been telling themselves. Here's some validation that they aren't just "professional victims" who form a self-centered "grievance industry." That has to be gratifying to them, and it is.

As I always say, stereotypes aren't just "politically incorrect," they're historically and factually incorrect. They're incorrect, period. And I have the evidence to prove it.

Below:  Does it really take an Indian to know Indians? Are these images stereotypical or aren't they?


Tami said...


Tami here. Thanks for your comments on Racialicious and on your blog. I find all of those images you shared offensive. I think we ALL, regardless of our race, need to become more cognizant of the ways race bias and "othering" slips into our culture. I simply don't think that I have the right, as a black woman, to tell someone of another race what should and should not be offensive to them.

I used the Bobby Lee example in my post and a commenter chimed in that though she also found Lee offensive, many of her Korean friends felt differently. As much as I am interested in and study race in America, I don't think I have the right to argue with those folks--who actually experience being Asian in America and all of the nuances that I can never know--that they should be offended with me.

Thanks again for the comments. I am a fan of your blog--a longtime lurker.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
BUT -- BUT -- BUT -- you, Rob Schmidt, already have said on this site that tribal per capita payments should by law be required to be invested instead of being cash-in-hand, and that we Natives should forego --gasp!-- fry bread! Are you not, therefore, in violation of your own statement that "I try not to tell Natives how to think or feel"? Someone here is doing that very thing, and it is not writerfella...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Hi, Tami. We don't get nearly as many comments as Racialicious does, so I'm glad to learn of lurkers.

Russ, I think I said casino revenues should go to tribal services first and individual Indians second. Which is only what the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act says, of course. About the only "law" I suggested was a requirement that tribal members earn their payments somehow--perhaps by going to college or studying their Native culture and language.

And again, I'm not forcing my views on anyone. People who come here and read them do so voluntarily. If you don't like what I have to say, you can go as easily as you came.

For more on the subject, see Telling Indians What to Do.