My First Listicle, or Six Ways an Interest in Other Cultures Can Inspire Racism, By Sheena Louise RoetmanTweet
Disclaimer: I’ve been planning this post for some time, as you’ll see by the dates in the screenshots, and honestly just haven’t had the energy to tackle the myriad of issues with this exchange. I’ve blacked out names for obvious reasons (protecting the guilty, ugh!) but left dates and have been as completely transparent as possible. Of course, private Facebook, Twitter and even email messages aren’t legally protected in any way, so if you’re the guilty party consider this a professional courtesy that I didn’t out you. That said, the point of this unpacking is not to point fingers at a single person, but to make an example of how seemingly innocent cultural interests often lead to behavior and tone policing, gas-lighting, appropriation, white saviorism and, frankly, racism. Not to mention the borderline harassment detailed below.
Sometime this past summer, I was lying in bed, scrolling through my Facebook feed one last time before going to sleep. After a minute or two I came across a post from an acquaintance — it was the result of a BuzzFeed quiz, sponsored by GEICO, entitled “What Is Your Spirit Animal?” Her result? A hawk.
I won’t take the time to go into why the arbitrary and flippant use of spirit animals in pop culture and the entertainment industry is cultural appropriation, because others have done it so well. This is appropriation, and it is offensive. And, as I do, I tweeted about it:
A day later, I received this Facebook message:
My response (please note it was the middle of the night, hence the not-so-great writing and out-of-character curtness):
I then blocked this person from Twitter and Facebook and left it at that. In the past I have only briefly met this person while working on a local media campaign, and didn’t have particularly positive impressions or interactions from the get-go, so it wasn’t exactly painful to hit the “block” button. And yet, in my inbox later that day…
So. That’s the entire exchange. I drafted a particularly vicious response but then thought the better of it and saved the draft to WordPress to revisit as a blog post. And here we are, you’re all caught up.
Besides the obvious condescension and offensive nature of the email, there are some very serious and very common behaviors here.
How it all began: appropriation. That quiz is appropriative. It is offensive because it takes something sacred and bastardizes it while also pimping it out to a group that actively benefits from a systematic and purposeful attempt at genocide against the very people from whom they are stealing. Regardless of who it is, what the results were or the timing, it would be offensive.
Homogenization. There is no such thing as “Native American culture.” There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone. That does not include non-recognized tribes or groups in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Central and South America. Now, Indigenous identities are assigned by a government that, as previously mentioned, systematically tried to erase these cultures from the face of the earth, as well as create arbitrary borders to divide us even further. This is, simply put, asinine.
Policing and gas-lighting. Telling a person how to better respond to your (or anyone else’s) inappropriate behavior is tone-policing. Person A participates in racist behavior, Person B points it out, and yet Person B is expected to apologize and appropriately react to said racism, even though Person B is the victim of the behavior.
Historical trauma, abusive dynamics. Perpetual racism lends to historical trauma, and dismissing a reaction because a person is angry, which is not acceptable to you because it doesn’t fit with your stereotypical definition of how an Indian should act, has a term: abusive dynamics. This is especially true when the non-member’s anger is allowed but the group member’s anger is not, as illustrated in the email: this person was upset that I called out appropriation, but I was not allowed to be upset with the appropriation itself. Which is more offensive, problematic, harmful? If that small inconvenience bothers you, imagine multiplying it by 100, then multiply that for every day of the past 500+ years.
Expectation of gratitude for the opportunity to educate, leading to harassment. A person of another ethnicity, race or culture is under no obligation to teach non-members how to appropriately conduct themselves. Native Americans are not here solely to teach anyone about their various cultures — in fact, you will often find a tendency toward the complete opposite, which goes back to no. 4 in this list.
White saviorism. A non-member tells a group member how to best serve and represent their own community. It goes hand-in-hand with tone-policing. Assuming that you could possibly help my community, about which you already admitted (and proved by behavior) to knowing nothing, better than I is the epitome of collective-enabled hubris.
And, finally, on a personal note… Suggesting I involve myself with a group that I am already actively supporting is just poor form. It would have taken 10 seconds to search my Facebook interests (although I did block this person from Facebook immediately after responding, so here’s the benefit of a doubt…) to see that I am already very much aware of the Lakota People’s Law Project (to which you should absolutely donate, FYI!). But, alas, this savior knows better than I!
I want to be very, very clear about one thing, however: you will notice that in the headline and the disclaimer I said that an interest in other cultures can lead to racism. Not that they do or will. Undoubtedly, the world is a better place when we know more about each other. But that knowledge comes with the responsibility of respect and, at times, distance. You must earn access and allyhood — it is certainly not instantly obtained by mere intention. Absorb as much of the world and its people as you can, but be very careful not to participate in the above behaviors.