Recently I read a post by Native Appropriations about the usurpation of Native tribal identities by European-Americans in California. Near the end of the piece she wrote:
“People often argue that there is nothing wrong with playing Indian –that dressing up or donning headdresses does no harm. I find it hard to imagine that someone could watch that video and think that a young Native child encountering that scene would walk away unscathed.”
These seemingly innocuous insults to Self and culture are sometimes called “microaggressions“. Micro-aggressions are subtle attacks on a person or group, assaults that undermine confidence and selfhood. They occur in families, workplaces, and the larger social environment. They are aimed at the perceived other, including spouses, persons with disabilities, and ethnic and racial minorities. Often they are actions quite difficult to read as aggression, and are easily justified or reinterpreted by the person who originates the attack. Taken as an aggregate, microaggressions are immensely destructive over time.
Playing Indian is a microaggression erasing crucial cultural differences between Indigenous and European cultures. A central, usually unconscious, and unconsidered, underlying message inherent in “playing Indian” is culture may be appropriated as surely as land. It also ignores the crucial knowledge that healing only begins when the harming ends.
Another common microaggression is the refusal of European Americans (and sometimes darker skinned Native Americans) to acknowledge light skinned Natives or persons of mixed Native American and African heritage.
Friday Jennie and I attended a conference on racism in Vermont. The day-long gathering was for professionals, and focused on power imbalances based on skin color. Near the beginning of the program we participants introduced ourselves by ethnic origin. There were quite a few women of Irish descent. Jennie spoke to being Jewish, and a rainbow of other ethnic identities. I, the only male in the room, was also the only person who spoke to having a Native American identity.
Early on, the presenter, who has worked for many years to challenge racism in our country, suggested we “whites” practice noticing “whiteness”, for instance, saying “that white girl”. Trying to be respectful, I spoke to the Cherokee history of owning slaves, and intermarrying with both free Africans and African slaves. Anyone who is Cherokee may very well have African heritage mixed in with an array of Native and European ancestors. The presenter acknowledged that “whiteness” is complex. A while later she again suggested we practice acknowledging whiteness.
The presenter also spoke at length about “white” guilt and shame, and the ways many whites flee their white identities. She seemed to suggest any identity for light skinned Americans, other than “white”, was a psychological defense against guilt. Jennie and I each tried several times to get her attention regarding her continuing micro-aggressions. I have white skin but I am not “white”. Although my family passed as white for generations; we were closet natives. (I am proud of my heritage from the British Isles, yet that is not my dominant identity.) While they managed, due to our “whiteness,” to minimize the racism we faced, my parents and grandparents lived in fear of being identified as Native. They suffered many microaggressions at the hands of others.
As the conference proceeded, I remembered an odd microaggression from fourth grade. We were living in Illinois. I was quite light skinned and thin, as I was still recovering from polio. My teachers gave me a brief speech to memorize and present to several hundred adults during a parents’ night at the school. When the night arrived, I, dressed in Indian garb, limped onto the stage, raised my arm and hand in the traditional Native gesture of peaceful greeting, and began, “How! Me big chief What-A-Pot-Am-I.” The crowd erupted into laughter. I was flooded with shame, as, I believe were my parents. (There is some possibility we are related to the Potawatomi.) As I pondered this memory, I wondered how any Natives in the audience felt (especially Potawatomi, who are native to Illinois).
At the end of the conference, we participants were asked to say what we would take with us. I don’t remember what Jennie or I said, but it seemed as though all the others were speaking to how they would be identifying themselves and others as white. Jennie and I looked at one another in disbelief. We had both attempted numerous times to point out the real complexity hidden behind “white” skin.
I gave up being subtle. I talked about the impact being labeled “white” has on light skinned Native people around the world. I pointed out such labels are at best racist, and at worst genocidal. Many of us are light skinned because ancestors fell in love with Europeans. (Let us remember that aside from the human nature to be attracted to the other, Native women often had inadequate pools of Native men to draw from due to the prolonged effects of warfare and disease.) I reminded those present that Native women were often raped by white men, an ancient tactic of genocide. To label light skinned Native people “white” is to erase our cultural and racial identity, to forcibly assimilate us. This is an old, efficient, approach to the “Indian problem”.
After the conference, the presenter approached me and said while she would continue to urge white people to label whiteness, she would do so with much more attention to the subtle and complex nature of whiteness. Of course, this was another, probably unintentional, microaggression.
The theme of micro-aggression continued this past weekend as we attended graduation events at St. Johnsbury Academy. Saturday night, as I watched the graduating students proceed into the auditorium for one of many graduation related events, I noticed yet again that all the young men have short hair, a requirement for attending this very good public high school. This set me to thinking again about micro-aggressions. Surely making attendance at this very good school dependent upon short hair is a microaggression against young Native men, for many of whom long hair is an important cultural tradition, is a micro-aggression, a form of institutionalized racism and cultural genocide. (There are many Native families in the St. Johnsbury area.) Here in Vermont most of us Natives have fair skin, and not all men wear their hair long, as many local Natives also passed as European for generations. Still, it is important that as young Native men reclaim their heritage, they have the right to wear their hair traditionally, that is, long.
I am sure that if pressed, the administration of the school would deny any racism in their policy, nor would they acknowledge the microaggression. The school argues that short hair on all men contributes to greater group cohesion and better overall morale and discipline. That is, short hair reduces difference. The policy is both hostile to Native youth, and, on a larger scale, genocidal in it’s undercutting of Native values and identity. These are the same policies imposed on Native young people in residential schools in the past. An insistence on sameness is inherently a microaggression. When it is used against an ethnic or racial group it is genocidal, whether in parades or schools.
Finally, yesterday was graduation itself. The commencement speaker spoke about the founding fathers, and the glories of the republic. Not once did he acknowledge the Six Nations who’s constitution became the model for the U.S. constitution (this was acknowledged by the class valedictorian), nor the genocide against Native and African peoples upon which this country was built. I imagine few persons noticed this series of microaggressions, of erasures.
Perhaps the speaker himself did not notice his erasure of our collective history. After all, our national zeitgeist, like that of a trauma burdened family, is to move forward, forgetting the past as soon as possible. Microaggression is subtle, riding beneath normative cultural messages, and stealthily attacking the hearts and souls of it’s targets. Microaggressions do not only harm their intended targets, but, over time, also deaden the souls of their users. In the end, everyone is harmed.
Healing requires we be aware of the impacts of our actions and deeds, live with compassion, and acknowledge the past. One must also make reparation. This is indeed hard work.