How We Look To Others (Part 1)

How We Look To Others (Part 1)

There’s a guy at my work who wears a Sturgis Rally T-Shirt. On it are the skeletons of Native Americans, dressed in war bonnets and riding motorcycles. This is a bike rally in the heart of what used to be Sioux Territory, in a town located within an hour’s drive from Mount Rushmore.

A little experiment for you: go to your favorite search engine, type in Sturgis Rally, click on images, and scroll through them. Count how many pictures of people you see before you see someone who is not of the European persuasion. Now continue to scroll through them and see how many more pictures before you find a second. (What does this little experiment say to you? I’d love to hear your comments.)

Mount Rushmore is carved into The Black Hills, known to the Sioux Indian who once lived there and still have claim to the land as Paha Sapa, which translates to “the heart of everything that is”. From the tops of these most sacred of mountains are carved the faces of those who brought the white man’s reign over the country. Perhaps they are not the four most prominent bringers of destruction and death upon Native Americans, but none of them was a slouch. As the most recent president memorialized on Mount Rushmore, Teddy Roosevelt had the least to do with the destruction of the Native American people. But even he could be found to say such things as “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are. And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

I wonder how it is possible that a white person could wear a t-shirt with the ghosts of Native Americans and not feel that this cultural appropriation might be viewed as offensive. I have come to realize that honest self-reflection is not a skill developed by many, particularly when such self-reflection contradicts cherished ideas and narratives. Comfortable people like to remain comfortable.

For the average white person, the story of humanity is predominantly that of white people, shaded here and there with stories of others. The story of African Americans easily works into the larger narrative as an America that made mistakes but righted them. Thus, the story of slavery is not a story of African Americans at all but rather a story about how a great nation became even greater by wiping this singular blemish from our history.

So too, the story of the Native Americans. The story of their suffering, their tragedy, their eradication is not their story to be told, but simply part of the larger narrative of the American experience. Looking back on it now, for the “real” American, for those who claim themselves to be “true patriots”, America has realized its misjustice and can weave it into the story of an exceptional but still-flawed people who are continually working to become less flawed and still more exceptional. The story of the Native Americans can now be told (by establishment America). Everything’s okay now because White Americans realized what they did in the past was wrong. This is a lesson they have learned and carry forward in order to make America an even greater nation than it was when they were killing Indians and enslaving Blacks.

This is not White America rubbing their dominance in the faces of those they have conquered and subjugated. This is White America truly believing that they are forgiven for their earlier sins because they have forgiven themselves. They honestly don’t realize how this could look any different to people outside the Great White Narrative because they’ve never felt the slightest need to step outside of it themselves. They firmly believe that accepting what Danny Haiphong calls American Exceptionalism, American Innocence, is a righteous, patriotic, and even Christian duty. Their highest duty is not to truth or justice but to belief and loyalty. To consider a different perspective, to actually view history from the point of view of those who were not white, is un-American.

I’m not saying Americans are the only ones who engage in this sort of behavior. But I will say that it is the only sort of this behavior the typical American would not be utterly appalled by. Imagine a memorial funded by the family of Osama Bin Ladin erected across the street from where the World Trade Towers once stood. Imagine if the carved faces of the plane hijackers were permitted to overlook the site of 9/11. I cannot imagine anyone wearing t-shirts with the skeletal ghosts of the victims of flight 11 while walking in downtown Manhattan. Imagine those wearing such t-shirts brushing away the concerns of others by saying they’ve recognized the mistakes made in the past and have moved beyond them.

Being able to view the world purely through a narrative of your particular segment of the population is a matter of privilege. I’m not suggesting that White Americans should feel shame for having dominated other races throughout the history of the United States. I’m suggesting instead that no one group of people are capable of keeping their position of dominance over others forever. Which means a little humility and willingness to consider the lived experience of others might ultimately be not merely the more moral choice, but the more pragmatic one. As Wilson Mizner said, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet them on your way down.”

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