Education and Conscience Versus Institutionalized Racism
By John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk
Well, now that everyone can feel better about their battle and stance on unacceptable racism in the wake of giving the old "what's for" to Donald Sterling, the racist owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, we can all go back to settling in with the institutional racism that keeps Daniel Snyder, the equally racist owner of the NFL's Washington R-word, warm and safe at night. I know "spic,” "wetback,” chink" and the R-word still can appear in print but if the N-word can't, then, in my book neither can the R-word.
Of course, it is institutional racism — the team, its logo, merchandise and name are trademark-protected, NFL-licensed and owned by a white guy. Not to mention the fact that most Americans are perfectly comfortable with the NFL franchise in their nation's capital bearing a racial slur for a name.
Now I won’t go off on another rant about how the dictionary defines the word or its history or even the damage the use of the word does to our youth. The simple truth is that a significant number of Native people are offended by it, yet most Americans are only offended by the fact that we are offended. That is to say, how dare we be offended by tens of thousands of mostly white people in red face, feathers, war paint, “costumes” and in an alcoholic stupor making a mockery of Native people? Not only is it not just this team or even just this sport. It's several teams in almost all sports. And it's not just the fans that are offensive. The opponents, sportswriters and TV producers can't resist the clichés or most outrageous comments or visuals. The Eagle's fan that brings the knife-impaled Indian head to the Washington games with “Red-Skin, Dead-Skin” written on the face, comes to mind.
But that's not the really bad part. Granted, this is all plenty offensive and SHOULD disturb more than just a number of Native people but that is not my ultimate problem with institutional racism. A team name or a mascot may seem trivial but what it really represents is the notion that a dominant society can appropriate a name or an image or even a racial slur against a people and normalize it in that culture.
The first impulse is to suggest this misappropriation "honors" us. Of course, that falls flat the moment we claim that we don't feel honored or that we are insulted by it. Then we are told that it's just a team name and that it is NOT meant to represent us. The best part is when they tell us that we aren't those people anyway — that we are no longer those "grand kings of the forests and the plains." I have heard Native people criticizing the mascot issue told to “go back to the reservation and drink a few.” Some honor, huh?
This acceptance of appropriating an image and then attempting to separate the affected people from it has consequences. It allows racist laws, policies and actions to continue year after year, decade after decade and century after century with no guilt and no real consequence to the dominant culture but with devastating impact on the affected people. Poverty, depression, suicide, alcoholism and little hope or prospect for the future is not caused by mascots. That's ridiculous! It's caused by the underlying racism.
You might ask how can this be? Where does racism become institutionalized or normalized? The simple answer starts with the church. The Doctrine of Christian Discovery established the idea that a Christian people could claim the lands and possessions of pagan people, that a “godless” people could be subjugated to slavery and ownership. The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court then codifies this concept into U.S. law and equates discovery with conquest. The establishment of the "ward-custodian" relationship draws a straight line from 15th-century popes to 19th-century judges. And when racism is both entrenched in church and legal doctrine that IS institutional racism.
This institutional racism accepts racist mascots, team names and logos. And this racism is government driven and societally acceptable. The notion that the dominant society owns us and that the once proud, brave, free and noble savage is gone, sucked into American history, has become the false narrative that is American history. And what is left are people deemed wards of the state and barely a resemblance to what America now claims for naming their weapons and sports teams.
And what do wards of the state need? Obviously, just welfare, a check or a budget line. Wards of the state don't need an economy, they don't need opportunity and they certainly don't need United Nations protection. Not in the good ole USA or in Oh Canada.
Well, that's not the way we see it and, interestingly enough, neither does the rest of the world. After half a millennium of our resistance to racist church dogma and court bigotry the United Nations declared to the world in 2007 that:
"all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust."
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) also includes 46 articles that form the minimum standard the member nations insist should be respected.
So while American and Canadian societies hang on to the last vestiges of their state-sponsored racism, even as they declare themselves morally superior to the rest of the world, they remain clueless to the social advances all around them.
We are not wards of the state. We have asserted our distinction, our rights and our sovereignty as we have begun to rebuild our economies. We fight for our lands and our resources. We have brought back our cultures and languages from the brink of extinction from acts of genocide and we are protecting the planet. We always knew we were right and had the right to do these things and now the rest of the world agrees with us. We know this fight is ours and it is a battle of education. But perhaps with international pressure we can open some minds.
Racism is ignorance. Mascots are racist and, more importantly, so are the policies that discriminate against and hold Native people down.
I believe Native mascots and team names must go but the racist policies are a bigger issue for me. I'd rather use the absurd racism that everyone sees to shine a light on what is hidden in plain sight. The singular concentration by some on mascots makes us seem shallow and superficial. And the worst thing that could happen would be for us to lose the battle to educate and enlighten people about racism yet force a name change or a ban on mascots leaving the dominant society and their leadership more entrenched in the racism with their harmful policies more firmly intact.
Today, both the U.S. and Canada are actively waging a campaign of forced assimilation against Native people in direct violation of the UNDRIP. Canada's Bill C-10 and various U.S. state and federal laws, regulations and policies are attempting to criminalize our trade and our people. Protecting our women and children and creating a future for our people require that we protect our land, assert our sovereignty and create hope and opportunity now and for the future.
I, for one, am prepared to use the UN or any international stage whenever possible to garner support and shame, if necessary, the U.S. and Canada into change. And who knows? Maybe we'll ultimately take out an “R-word.”
– John Karhiio Kane, Mohawk, a national expert commentator on Native American issues, hosts two weekly radio programs — “Let’s Talk Native…with John Kane,” ESPN Sports Radio WWKB-AM 1520 in Buffalo, N.Y., Sundays, 9-11 p.m. EDT and “First Voices Indigenous Radio,” WBAI-FM 99.5 in New York City, Thursdays, (“First Voices Indigenous Radio” programs are archived in perpetuity at www.
firstvoicesindigenousradio.org ). John is a frequent guest on WGRZ-TV’s (NBC/Buffalo) “2 Sides” and “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter” in Albany. John’s “Native Pride” blog can be found at www.letstalknativepride. blogspot.com. He also has a very active "Let's Talk Native...with John Kane" group page on Facebook.