Why is Blackface Racist but Playing Indian is Not?


Published February 3, 2019

The photo from Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook was labeled racist upon arrival in the national media Friday afternoon. Calls came fast from the Republicans for the Democratic governor to resign because of the racist nature of the photo. Soon thereafter, Democrats were calling for him to resign.

The photo shows two individuals, one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and the other in blackface. The photo clearly personifies racism.

African Americans have long maintained blackface is racist and offensive. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, whites dressed in blackface mimicked black slaves on Southern plantations, depicting them as lazy, ignorant, cowardly or hypersexual.

On Friday, I was on a panel at the University of Dayton. Towards the end of the panel discussion, a student asked the panelists: If Indian sports mascots are so wrong, why have American Indians only opposed them in the last couple years?

Levi Rickert

The panel was part of a teach-in the University of Dayton hosted in reaction to the incident at the Lincoln Memorial two Fridays ago where Omaha elder Nathan Phillips drummed and sang the American Indian Movement anthem in front of a group of Covington Catholic High School students, many of whom began to dance in a mocking fashion. One teen even took off his shirt in the wintry temperature to “play Indian” as Phillips drummed and sang. The shirtless boy reminded me of how non-Natives are seen at sports events bare-bodied and painted up to play Indian. The largest difference between the silly-looking bare-bodied teen at the Lincoln Memorial and those at sports events is the ones at sports events are typically drunk.

American Indians have been opposed to Native-themed sports mascots for decades. The National Congress of Americans Indians and the American Indian Movement have opposed Native-themed sports mascots for 50 years.

According to the Reclaiming Native Truth project released last June, four out of five American Indians say they find Native-themed mascots disrespectful. There is a basis for American Indian opposition that goes beyond the racist nature of mascots: “Research shows that these mascots are damaging to Native high school and college students, negatively impacting feelings of personal and community worth, and that they reinforce bias among non-Native people,” says the Reclaiming Native Truth study.

The use of Native-themed mascots is seen by many non-Natives as honoring the rich culture of American Indians as being warriors—or fighters. I would say any use of others’ culture is often inherently racist. Using American Indian imagery is cultural appropriation that should be eliminated.

As long as non-Native people think they are “honoring” American Indians with sports mascots, they will miss the point of the racist nature of cultural appropriation. If Americans can immediately see how wrong the blackface photo is, they too should see how racist non-Natives dressed up and playing Indian is.

Side by side, using Native-themed sports mascots is just as bigoted as the use of blackface. Both are dehumanizing to people who have been deliberately portrayed this way through modern history to normalize colonial rule and slavery. This rhetoric is so engrained in the fabric of our culture that it is not easily recognized, not just by the children of the forefathers. It has also been “condoned” by Native communities that have barely survived under oppressive rule. If American Indians are not rising up to speak against the inappropriate use of their images seemingly until recently, should the only possible reason be that it wasn’t until recently that they found it offensive? By that reasoning, the bullied kid in the playground must be okay with it if he doesn’t fight back. Domestic violence must feel good if the victim doesn’t complain. The immigrant kid must be okay in his cage, if he hasn’t figured out how to escape.

On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo. On Saturday afternoon, Northam spoke from the Governor’s mansion and said he was not in the photo and says the photo erroneously ended up on his yearbook page. It’s too early to tell how long Northam can survive calls for his resignation.

Let’s not be naïve though about politics. Donald Trump’s supporters can look past all types of transgressions to maintain rule. Had Northam been a member of the Republican party, the silence would be deafening and any Democrat calling for his resignation would be mocked or picked apart.

Whatever way the chips fall, let’s at least open our eyes about the hypocrisy at play.

Levi Rickert (Potawatomi) is publisher and editor of Native News Online.

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