Photo via Kind.png
By Natalie Sparrow
(UBC Arts One, Robert Crawford seminar)
In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King writes that “somebody once told me that racism hurts everyone. Perhaps in the broader sense of community, this is true. All I know is that it seems to hurt some much more than others” (King 185). This statement raises three challenging questions: What is race? What is racism? And can the effects of racism on an individual and their community be compared to another? The world’s immense diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds has created an assorted array of answers to these questions, as well as the topics surrounding race such as its purpose, its emotional toll, and the struggles that come from living in countries built on slavery and prejudice. The purpose of this paper is to explore these views through the examination of literature and various articles concerning the Black, Indigenous, and Irish communities of North America to demonstrate how even though these communities have all experienced racism, the personal, historical, and ethnic contexts have created very different interpretations and narratives towards race, assimilation, and identity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, says that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (Coates 7) in an epistolary account where he writes about the beauty of Black diversity, the harm that is made for the Black body, and the racism his community endures. As he says, race is the child of racism, which makes America the father of it, as “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows” (Coates 7). While people may assert that race is a natural construct made to maintain order, Coates points out that “the new people were something else before they were white” (Coates 7). A perfect demonstration of this is the treatment of Irish immigrants when they arrived in America in the 1800s. Michael Harriot, a writer for The Root magazine, writes that “we should never forget that both ‘American’ and whiteness are sociopolitical constructs that have evolved over centuries, always seeking exclusion and supremacy, and it was not so long ago that Irish Americans were on the outside looking in” (Harriot). As new arrivals to North America, Irish immigrants were portrayed as “the non-white ‘missing link’ between the superior European and the savage African” by the media (Harriot) and were thought of as careless threats to the American job market. Yet, despite the biased treatments the Irish endured, they are now part of the white population—indeed, they are celebrated every year during St. Patrick’s Day with little thought towards the past. How were the negative views of the past remodelled to create a space for the Irish in the white hierarchy?
According to Harriot, there are four reasons: firstly, the Irish were not enslaved against their will. They were not taken from their homes, considered property, and automatically placed at the bottom of the American hierarchy. While they did not obtain high-end jobs, they still had the right to work for pay. Secondly, European romanticism has created an Irish image of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, worthy of becoming valued members of white society. Little has been done to romanticize Black people in the same way, and when it has it has been extremely toxic, something that will be examined later in this essay. Thirdly, Irish “melanin-less skin […] allowed them to blend in that Black people [could] never get” (Harriot). Finally, and most importantly, Irish immigrants united with white people in the suppression of others, namely the Black population. Instead of fighting against the racism they endured, Irish immigrants saw hierarchy as an inevitable product of civilization, not the social construct it is, and as resistance against inevitability is pointless, it was better to become part of the hierarchy rather than remain at the bottom. The Irish example is one of many that makes it clear that the only need for race of any kind is to create a structure that keeps others at the bottom of the social ladder to support the creators of the system, and that through the acceptance of a fake inevitability, that ladder has remained in place for centuries.
The four ways that the Irish became white all fall under the category of assimilation, one main way that the white hierarchy has been kept in place. It is an issue that the majority of cultures on the planet have dealt with thanks to colonization, and one thing that Coates continually makes clear in his account is that,
Black is beautiful—which is to say that the Black body is beautiful, that Black hair must be guarded against the torture of processing and lye, that Black skin must be guarded against bleach, that our noses and mouths must be protected against modern surgery. We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostate before barbarians, must never submit our original self, our one of one, to defiling and plunder. (Coates 35–6)
The delegitimizing of rituals, clothing, and bodies has torn lives and communities apart for generations, and Coates knows that this assimilation is a key part of how racism has worked to dehumanize people. By not only taking away one’s identity but making the acquisition of a new one impossible, the white leaders at the top of the ladder have tried to ensure that there is always a group at the bottom supporting them.
According to Frank Cooper, present-day white America’s way of maintaining Black assimilation has been through giving its Black population two choices of identity, the Good and the Bad Black man. Only the people who fit into the ideal of the Good Black man will be welcomed into white society, and to fit into such a standard “the Good Black Man [must spend] his life trying to be like white men” (Cooper 897). Cooper and Coates stress that such assimilation must never happen, as it will socialize Black males into believing that they are missing something that only white male approval can give them. Coates makes it clear that Black people should never change themselves and should never be ashamed of their differences, as have “any people, anywhere, ever been as sprawling and beautiful as us?” (Coates 46).
Thomas King holds many of the same views regarding the purpose of race, but there is a conspicuous difference between how Coates describes the Black community regarding assimilation and how King describes the assimilation of Indigenous communities across North America. He describes how “the hope for Native peoples was that, with a little training and a push in the right direction, they would become contributing members of White North America. This was not to be a compromise between cultures. It was to be a unilateral surrender” (King 104). Again, non-white people were forced to give up their identities so that they would serve, but the significant difference between the Black and Indigenous populations is that one was expected to modernize as they assimilated while the other was confined to a romanticized past while dealing with modern-day obstacles.
The destruction of land, the implementation of Residential Schools, and the practice where “Native families were encouraged to send their kids off-reservation to live with Mormon families [….] [so that they] would have a greater chance at success [through being] raised and educated in White society” were all done to change “skin colour, from dark to light, from savagism [sic] to civilization” (King 62–3). Unlike the early Black population, the early Indigenous peoples were colonized in their rightful homeland and were not transported to be sold as property (though slavery of Indigenous people did indeed happen). Instead, they were the victims of genocide and disease, and those that survived were taken on as projects, precedents for all the manifest destiny cases that were to come after them.
The assimilation to another culture leads many authors to write about how it feels to be trapped by white constraints of identity. For Coates, his discussion around identity is largely around what he calls “the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body” (Coates 24). Because of the establishment of such racist binds such as redlining and the systematic jailing of Black people, Coates says that “we could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out” (Coates 27–8). Everything that white people did in early America was to make sure that Black people would not get the opportunity to grow, and while this may not be the intent of everyone in modern America, the systems are still in place and continue to do their job. Why do white people trap others in the confines of their streets and not allow for the growth of the mind or body? According to Coates, it is because “the Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (Coates 50). Black culture and identity, as Coates describes it, is not referring to the art or beliefs of the people in his community and other Black communities, but of the universal feeling of being constricted.
The only way to leave the constricted space, both Coates and Cooper find, is to surrender their Black identity, or as Coates puts it, to believe they are white. Cooper writes that “the image of the Bad Black Man stands ever ready to be applied to those who do not surrender their Blackness” (Cooper 887). Anything that has not been determined as white culture, whether that be art, communication, or bodies, is bound by the generalizations and danger that white America has made for Black people. America has become a place where the feeling of forced assimilation is not just a feeling, but a reality, and because of that, Coates’ culture and identity of the streets is one of fear and quarantine, but also resistance.
King also describes in depth the feelings of isolation and ensnarement of Indigenous communities; however, his idea of individuality and cultural entrapment relate more to the stereotypes of Indigenous culture that are imposed on all sides by white society. In The Inconvenient Indian, he deals with two main ideas of this: the issue of “Indian authenticity” and the problem of the “Live Indian.” These problems are interconnected, as they both concern classification by white society, and how Indigenous people do not amount to what the white hierarchy wants. King writes that “whatever cultural significance they may have for Native peoples, full feather headdresses and beaded buckskins are, first and foremost, White North America’s signifiers of Indian authenticity” (King 55). The stereotypical cowboy television shows that King writes about throughout his account have given white America a romanticized idea of the “native savage,” and decades later it still has not let go of this image.
King describes two kinds of Indigenous peoples: the romanticized Dead Indians, and the reality of Live Indians. “Live Indians are fallen Indians, modern, contemporary copies, not authentic Indians at all, Indians by biological association only” (King 65), while “Dead Indians are dignified, noble, silent, suitably garbed. And dead. Live Indians are invisible, unruly, disappointing. And breathing. One is a romantic reminder of a heroic but fictional past. The other is simply an unpleasant, contemporary surprise” (King 66). White America’s desire for Indigenous identity has not remained consistent, as easily demonstrated by these descriptions. It was made clear that America’s goal was to modernize the Indigenous populations, yet the moment that an Indigenous person is “inauthentic” and takes on a modern ideal, they lose their standing as Indigenous. King refers to how tourists were unhappy at how there were televisions in reservation homes—forcing a population to assimilate through the destruction of their land and taking of their children, only to shame them for not resembling their ancestors has become the new American pastime. Instead of feeling trapped by the culture of the streets as Coates does, King feels trapped by the monumental pressures of white America to be a Living, yet Dead, Indian.
This sentiment is repeated in an article from The American Indian Quarterly, where Jodi Byrd writes about how America has placed natives in an unwinnable situation, where they have been forced to modernize while remaining in the past. Her article delves into a topic that King does not deeply explore, which is how assimilation has changed American Indian portrayal through media. She scrutinizes the aftermath of the first residential school shooting on the Red Lake reservation, which was deemed an example of how “American Indians have finally, fully assimilated into American culture: Indian youth are committing the same crimes that blacks, whites, and Mexican [sic] do” (Byrd). However, Byrd says, white America used this tragedy as a way to finally discard the burden of blame for school shootings, as instead of a white problem, it had become a fully American problem. What is strange is that despite this sentiment, Byrd finds that people are unwilling to let go of the Noble Savage stereotype and that there are,
deeper cultural discourses that require Indians to remain primitive vestiges of early modern man [dictating] that Indians cannot intellectually, culturally, or spiritually cope with the corrupting influences of technology that contributed to the rise of fascism and death-dealing regimes in Europe. The Noble Indian Savage is free of the ills that threaten modern society. (Byrd)
King does not explore assimilation in the way that Byrd does, but both he and Byrd understand the problem of the “Dead Indians” and their assimilated counterparts that have been immersed in the said “ills of modern society.” Both agree that anIndigenous person who does fit the description of “Indian authenticity” is invisible and unimportant. As King puts it, “for us Live Indians, being invisible is annoying enough, but being inauthentic is crushing” (King 64). The paradox of assimilation that both authors have noted forces one to choose between the authenticity of the dead and an invisible life where one is incapable of freedom of individuality.
Toni Morrison said that “racial prejudice is an unnatural and learned phenomenon” (Haas), and as seen in the examination of multiple articles and pieces of literature, it is clear that her thoughts are shared by many. The various pieces explored in this essay all offer an inside look into the experiences of three different American minority populations and how though they have all suffered at the hands of white racism, their experiences that define their identities, cultures, and struggles against assimilation are markedly distinct. Every member of a minority has stories that demonstrate the true ruthlessness of the American system of oppression, and if there is one main take away from all of them, it is that the key to assimilation is collaboration. Collaboration takes on many different forms—the Irish contributing to the mistreatment of the Black population is one, while Cooper’s idea of submitting to the white ideal of a Good Black man is another. In both circumstances, people are stripped of their identity and put down, so authors like Coates and King leave their readers with a clear message: cooperation cannot happen. They are not focused on the eventual education of white people or the hope that one day everyone will understand the struggles their communities have faced, but instead, they focus on their strengths. For King, what is important is that “we’re everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Just a reminder of our cultural persistence and adaptation” (King 165). For Coates, it is that “they made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people” (Coates 149). Both men know the struggles that their communities have gone through, but they know that despite these struggles they have managed to retain their identity and resist the temptation of the collaboration that would make them “equal” by white standards.
Byrd, Jodi A. “’Living My Native Life Deadly’: Red Lake, Ward Churchill, and the Discourses of Competing Genocides.” The American Indian Quarterly, vol. 31 no. 2, 2007, p. 310-332. Project MUSE, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/article/214812.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me.The Text Publishing Company, 2015.
Cooper, Frank Rudy. “Against Bipolar Black Masculinity: Intersectionality, Assimilation, Identity Performance, and Hierarchy.” U.C. Davis Law Review, vol. 39, no. 3, March 2006, p. 853-904. HeinOnline, https://heinonline-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/davlr39&i=915.
Haas, Lidija. “The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison Review – the Language of Race and Racism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/18/origin-of-others-toni-morrison-review.
Harriot, Michael. “When the Irish Weren’t White.” The Root, 17 Mar. 2018, www.theroot.com/when-the-irish-weren-t-white-1793358754.
King, Thomas. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Anchor Canada, 2012.