Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's Not Interesting Unless It Happens to White People

My archaeological expedition is almost finished for the summer (yay, no more 60 hour work weeks!), and soon I will be back home and teaching again. I suspect that my class load this upcoming semester may be light (sigh), which is good for you, because it means I will be able to post more often.

In this edition: Things That Happen To White People Are Alarming! And Scary! (but not so much when the same things happen to POC, particularly if they are poor and especially if they live outside the western world.)

There is something of a theory in Hollywood that if you want to appeal to a universal audience, you must use a white male. The theory goes that men won't identify with a female character, and whites won't identify with a non-white character, and so if you want your movie to do well ($), stick a white guy in there. This is particularly noticeable and annoying when the subject of the movie is, supposedly, POC.

The script is tired and repetitive. Because white and male stands for "neutral" in our culture, it is assumed that no one will care about a movie - even one with really awesome special effects and like shit blowing up and stuff - unless the main character is white and male. You know, someone that everyone can imagine themselves being.

Cough cough.

Let's look at the dying-native-culture genre as a repeat offender. This is the type of movie that shows a noble culture struggling against (usually white) oppressive outside forces. From first glance, still slightly problematic but not too bad, right? But the main character, the one who fights to preserve the dignity and culture of the oppressed peoples, can't actually be a member of the culture. That would be silly.

The white male usually becomes a part of the non-white culture, develops a crushing case of white guilt, and ends up championing the POC group as they (often, sadly, unsuccessfully) combat the white forces which oppose them. AND THEN WE FEEL SAD ABOUT HISTORY. THANKS FOR MAKING US UNDERSTAND POC THROUGH WHITE PEOPLE, HOLLYWOOD.

Examples? The classic of course is Dances With Wolves. I sobbed during this movie, by the way. Culture being overrun? The Sioux. Main character and redemptive hero? Kevin Costner. (Also, by the way, features Mary McDonnell as a Sioux woman. I may be wrong about this, but I don't think she's a Native American. But that's another post.) [ETA: I was indeed wrong. Mary McDonnell's character is a white woman taken hostage by the Native Americans as a child who now lives with the tribe. Thanks, Anonymous, for the correction! On another note, anyone know how to do strike-throughs? Oh, and my husband, who read this post before I published it, was like "yeah, you didn't know that?" Clearly his reading comprehension was compromised by his simultaneous viewing of Wipeout.]

How about The Last Samurai? Hint: the last samurai is... Tom Cruise? The awesome Ken Watanabe may get first billing on imdb, but Cruise was definitely the main character and the box office draw.

Movies which use thinly-disguised "others" (aliens) as analogs for POC also fall into this pit. Avatar, where the main character is a white guy who is, I guess, sort of wearing one of the aliens like a suit (I still haven't seen it, ok), and District 9, where the white guy literally turns into a disgusting black pers - I mean alien, oh the horror.

These movies include POC as major and powerful characters, which are often used to jolt the white people out of their previously blissful and unaware lives, but they are not the main characters. These aren't bad movies, but they are not movies that promote the abilities of POC to provide their own heroics in defense of their people without the assistance of some white guy.

There are certainly counterexamples: Rabbit Proof Fence, Whale Rider, and Amistad are the first that spring to mind, but ask yourself - which movies have the big budgets? Which get the major actors? Which have the biggest box office numbers? Which have you seen or have you heard of? (If you haven't seen Rabbit-Proof Fence, by the way, it is great and it will rip your heart right out.)

The reason that Hollywood has this theory is because it often proves itself correct. We are essentially selfish people, and we've been fed this constant idea that POC are foreign, weird, and exotic. We want to know how issues relate to us, not to some people who live in different neighborhoods, wear different clothes, and buy their food in the "ethnic" aisle of the grocery store. POC are, naturally, fed this same garbage even about their own cultures.

Which brings us, circuitously, to the rest of the post about the Animal Planet show Monsters Inside Me. This show is in its first season, and it profiles Americans who have been the hosts of various nasty parasites. I have to confess that I think parasites are cool (I'm that kind of dork), and so I was excited to watch the show when it came out. But as I watched episode after episode about little uninvited guests invading the bodies of innocent people, a pattern emerged.

Usually, the victims were white. Uniformly, they were middle class. And generally, the parasite they encountered is a common scourge in countries full of brown people.

Episode 1: Elephantiasis, found in the tropics (highest incidence is Ethiopia, where up to 6% are infected).

Episode 2: Cryptospiridium, responsible for 8-19% of diarrheal diseases in developing countries and affecting mainly children under 9.

Episode 3: Botfly, a horrifyingly disgusting maggot that lives under your skin, found in warm and damp places all over the world but certainly more common in places where people walk around without shoes on in the soil where the incipient parasite lives.

Episode 4: Threadworm, almost never found in countries with effective waste and sewage management (transmission is through contact with infected feces).

I didn't really catch on to what was going on, however, until episode 5: malaria. A very nice white computer programmer's wife looks right into the camera (actually, the camera kind of looks right up her nose; it's that kind of show), and reports her shocked response to the news that her husband had malaria.

"I mean, who gets malaria?" She sniffed.

At that moment I snapped upright from my customary TV-watching stupor. "Who gets MALARIA?" I yelled. "MILLIONS OF BROWN PEOPLE."

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million cases of malaria every year. 1-3 million of these people die from the parasite, many of them children. Most of these people live in the areas where malaria is common: the tropics, particularly sub-Saharan Africa where 90% of these deaths occur. Malaria is a mosquito-borne parasite that used to enjoy a much wider distribution (malaria was once endemic across North America and Europe, in fact, King Henry VIII of England was a famous sufferer), but which has been beaten into submission by a combination of the eradication of swampy areas (where mosquitoes breed) and liberal use of pesticides like DDT.

Malaria has been with us since the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 BC, when farmers settled in permanent villages and cleared forests to produce the open, wet areas that mosquitoes love. It has been such a scourge throughout our evolutionary history that we have evolved numerous genetic defenses against the parasite, most notably sickle cell anemia. (a carrier of the disease has fewer intact red blood cells, which ferry the parasite around the body; see here for a good explanation of how malaria works and here for more information on how sickle cell and other genetic adaptations battle malaria.)

Who gets malaria? Thousands of your direct ancestors, lady.

There are hundreds of parasites which attack humans, and these are ubiquitous and devastating in non-western countries. I recall an Anthropology professor telling us about an African group that she had studied and lived among who had the conception of a male form of menstruation - around puberty, blood would come from these men's penises with regularity. The people were afflicted with a parasite (which one, I can't remember), which caused blood in the urine. By the time they reached adulthood, all members had the parasite. The condition of having blood in the urine was so universal among this group that they considered it a mark of adulthood, not a symptom of disease.

In "developed" countries* parasites are rare for a number of reasons. Not only do we spray heavily with pesticides, many people aren't exposed to the prime vectors for contagion: wild animals and water and soil contaminated with fecal material. We have efficient, effective plumbing systems that whisk this material away to be treated and cleaned. We don't have to dump our shit in the open sewer running in front of our home, or walk barefoot into the privy used by the rest of the village. We get to drink inspected water from the tap and eat inspected meat from the grocery store. When westerners do get parasites, it's usually due to a breakdown in these systems, pets are another common vector.

So when a nice, middle-class, white guy gets malaria, we ask "who gets malaria?"

There are shows about parasites in non-western countries, but not an entire series. A parasite in Africa is Not News, a parasite in Mrs. Smith up the street is ENTERTAINMENT. We're invited to cringe and empathize right along with these people because for us, parasites are a bizarre anomaly instead of a universal, albeit disgusting, way of life. It's not supposed to happen to us.

And at the end of the show, when we get our last (often optimistic or entirely cured) update on the sufferer, no voice-over reminds us that thousands of people in the rest of the world are unlucky enough to live in a place where health care is too expensive or absent, where parasitic infections are common enough that they are just lived with.

Just like in the movies, we are not invited to identify with the nameless, featureless hordes of non-westerners who suffer from parasites. Who cares about them?

*I don't like this term, although I prefer it to first world / third world. I usually use western / non-western. Anyone else have good terms to suggest that aren't too value laden?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Random Acts of Racism

This is the beginning of a new segment called Random Acts of Racism. In this segment I'll share pictures or stories of racist acts that I encounter in my daily life. If you have pictures or stories, email them to me with your comments at seeing.race@gmail.com, and I'll include them in upcoming posts.

Why do this? Because racism is all around us, every day, and it is taken for granted by so many people. It is an act of radicalism to point at these acts and call them what they are. The more that we tolerate racism in our society, the more we will breed and nurture racists.

Today's example comes from the parking lot of my hotel:

I'll blow that up, if you can't see it:

"US Marines: Travel Agents to Allah"

Why is this racist? It is a reference to the war in Iraq, obviously, but makes no delineations between the members of an entire religion, Islam, and the specific individuals involved in the Iraqi conflict. There are 1.57 billion Muslims, and they are 23% of the population. They live across the world, and are drawn from every racial group.

It also flippantly refers to death - but only towards a particular segment of the population. War leads inevitably to glorification of killing, this tries to make it funny. And justified.

If you were a Muslim living in America, would you feel threatened by this bumper sticker? I would. This statement supports violence towards ALL Muslims.

How to Teach History

This is Part Three of a series on how we learn and teach history. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here. If these posts haven't been your favorites, don't worry. I'll be returning to other topics with the next post - a rant about Monsters Inside Me and ignorance of global realities (yes, really). So stay tuned!

There was a gap between this post and the last for a few reasons. First of all, my vacation ended. Sad face. But secondly, when I got back to the area I'm working in (a rural area on the East Coast about 20 minutes from a small city and 2 hours from major cities), I found a local magazine that really made me want to just give up and become a hermit far far away from everyone else.

I picked up this local magazine (I might even call it a zine) in a Chinese restaurant while waiting for my order. It was a collection of jokes, riddles, and funny stories, most of which I'd heard before. Included in this 20-page magazine were three jokes/comments about illegal immigrants ("why can't the government support our troops instead of lavishing social services on illegal Mexicans?"), one horrific "story" about a white man yelling at a burqa-clad Iraqi woman in America who dared to question the Iraqi war, telling her that he'd buy her plane ticket home (all who heard this, of course, cheered for the white man), and one morality tale about Communism which is AT LEAST ten years old and substituted "Obama's socialism" for communism.

You know, the quickest way to convince me that you have no idea what you're talking about is to blindly equate socialism and communism. The second way is to call Obama a socialist. I'm a socialist. Obama is not a socialist.

Anyway, this little magazine was stuffed full of local advertising. Every page was ringed with ads, and some pages were entirely ads. So this was by no means someone acting in isolation - the magazine had the support of local business.

I spent some time being very depressed by this. As most of you probably know, combating racism often feels like repeatedly throwing yourself against an immovable wall. But then I got angry - really angry. And I began to think again about the role history plays in our understanding of race.

So how do we educate children to have a complete, nuanced, and compassionate view on race? I have four suggestions.

1. Expose children to alternative viewpoints

Unless the student is a dynamic learner with a good teacher, often students are passively taking in information without questioning it. This leads to a singular viewpoint on any subject, provided by the teacher's authoritative voice. Usually, this singular viewpoint is the conventional one, eliminating the contributions and experiences of POC, among others.

To combat this, it's ok to give students contradicting sources. A lot of teachers shy away from introducing alternative views because they don't want students to become confused. And, to be honest, when children are small they have a limited capacity to see grays - everything for small children is black and white. Small children can be distressed when there is not one singular answer to a question.

But even small children can understand that different people see things in different ways. By gradually introducing more and more grays into their world, as they grow and become more capable of considering these grays, we can prepare them for the realization that alternative viewpoints exist and are valid.*

For example, take my own education. I grew up in an upper-middle class majority white first-ring suburb of a major urban area in the Midwest. The area I lived in was quite liberal - often people are shocked to find out how liberal. I was definitely exposed to alternative views in my education.

In second grade, on Columbus Day, I was given a coloring book about Columbus landing in America. This is probably a pretty common occurrence. However, this coloring book was a little different - it was told from the perspective of the Taino Indians who lived on Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived. It was not flattering to Columbus. It included descriptions of how Columbus' arrival destroyed the native way of life, and how Columbus exacted tribute from the Tainos by forcing them to bring gold or cotton. If they failed, their hands were cut off and they bled to death.

The book was only the story, with big blank areas for students to draw their own pictures. I clearly remember drawing a big pile of cut off hands, with someone standing by, his arms ending in bloody stumps.

At the time, I certainly didn't think that this was over my head or age-inappropriate. Children are capable of more nuanced understanding than they are often given credit for, and I definitely got the message that there were two different viewpoints to this historically documented occurrence - Columbus', and the Taino's.

I'm not sure I want my own children exposed to so much violence at that age. But neither do I want them to be fed the standard story of the hero Columbus "discovering" America. We must at least tell children that there are two sides to the Columbus story, as well as to all of history.

2. Put children in the shoes of others

Because children - and adults - are inherently pretty self-centered, putting children in the shoes of others is a very effective way to nurture a sense of compassion. I believe that compassion is essential in creating an anti-racist. Without compassion, I don't care that my race is the one on the top. I don't care that others are disadvantaged. I don't care that the world is more fair for me than for other people.

I have another story from my own childhood about being put in the shoes of others. Along with the above story, it probably explains a lot about my adult self. When I was in fifth grade, we did a unit in Social Studies about Central and South America. We spent a lot of time talking about the Caribbean, and the unit culminated in a project where we worked in groups to design our own Caribbean island communities. On huge pieces of white paper we drew our islands, drew the people who lived there, the streams and forests, the animals, the homes and villages. We spent at least a week on this project, which is a long time when you're 11. We even came in before school to work on this.

At the end of the project, we all laid our lovingly created paper islands in a circle on the floor of the classroom. We were going to have a feast - we were so excited! In the center of each island was a pile of Jolly Ranchers, and we waited for our teacher to give the word that we could eat them. The teacher stepped out of the room...

And returned dressed as a Spanish Conquistador. Yelling at us in Spanish, she stomped across our islands, literally ripping them apart. She demanded that we give her all our Jolly Ranchers. We sat in stunned silence amidst the wreckage of our torn, crumpled, stained islands, our feast and happiness destroyed. I remember at least one kid crying. The teacher left, and returned in her normal clothes to sit with us and talk about what had happened. She explained that this was what had happened to the Native Americans - their societies and families demolished by the arrival of Europeans.

The teacher did this every year, swearing each class to secrecy so they wouldn't ruin the surprise for the next class.

This certainly ripped me from my complacent little world and gave me compassion for the suffering of others. It was an incomplete compassion - a week spent drawing an island and a handful of Jolly Ranchers is nothing like having your family and world brutally taken from you - but it was a compassion that my 11 year old mind could comprehend. I never thought of the European conquest of America as a peaceful or just process, and it was all because of those two teachers and their bravery in showing us an alternative perspective.

Without compassion, without anger at injustice, there is no anti-racism.

3. Include alternative voices in class

Instead of ghettoizing POC by relegating their history to specific months, why not put their history where it belongs? In our history, in all of our histories, because there is no such thing as a history of POC that is separate from white history. Segregating Black history, Hispanic history, women's history, just reinforces the idea that there is History, and then there is Other History. That's crap.

In addition to this, POC within each class should be invited to speak about their experience and their background if they wish. As a white teacher, it's ridiculous for me to speak about living on a reservation while there are people in my class who have actually lived on a reservation. This is a delicate balance. It is not the job of POC to educate everyone else. However, as a teacher I shouldn't silence POC by ignoring their presence in the class.

In the past, I've privately spoken with students that I know have particular experiences - for example, I knew a student had lived on a reservation, and so I spoke with her privately before we reached that topic in class. I told her that I would give her as must of a platform to talk about her experiences as she wanted - if she wanted to keep that entirely private and not speak, that was fine, if she wanted to get up in front of the class and speak, that was fine, if she merely wanted to contribute to the discussion as normal, that was fine. It was her decision.

Incorporating student perspective doesn't mean always calling on the black kid when we're talking about the Civil Rights movement. It is far more delicate than that - allowing the student to take the lead in speaking up or remaining silent, giving them as much of a voice as they feel comfortable in sharing. I love it when students do choose to speak out and share, but that choice is their own.

Remaining blind to student experience - or worse, speaking over these students and silencing them - is foolish. Often it is these students who imbue compassion in and impart knowledge to their classmates more effectively that I can, because it means a lot when a peer looks at you and says, "yes, this is true, and I know it because I lived it".

4. Tie the past to the present

A lot of American history classes dead-end somewhere around World War II. Many don't even get to Vietnam, and most certainly don't get to Desert Storm. Because students are stranded in 1945, there are no connections made between past and present conditions.

History teachers need to bring students up to the present and make implicit the connections between the past and the present. For example, we can trace the oppression of Black Americans from slavery, through Jim Crow, right to the present - pointing to the racism that first brought Africans here in bondage and then trapped them in a system that is biased against them. The rise of the modern ghetto is based in the deplorable sharecropping system which emerged following the Civil War. Make that connection.

Nothing in the present happens in a vacuum - history has shaped us and directed us.

*For the record, I support this even for ideas that I don't agree with. For example, I think that in a biology class which learns about evolution, a day of class time should be given to a discussion of alternative viewpoints like Intelligent Design. To not discuss this is to ignore a major issue in modern America. Now, the teacher should inform students that this is not a theory supported by the majority of scientists, and expose the ways in which ID doesn't match up with scientific research - but ID should be mentioned, and in a non-judgmental way.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Teaching History

In honor of America's birthday we looked last time at the way that the past is whitewashed - that is, how history is skewed to eliminate or suppress the contributions or the struggles of POC. In Part Two of this series, we will examine the way that history is taught. Part One is here.

What Is History?

Throughout our lives - particularly through our childhood - we receive information on history through many sources, and are often encouraged to be passive receptacles of this information. It may not be until college (or not at all) that an alternate view of history is put forward, or even the idea that there are alternate views of history. Instead, we are taught (indirectly, through the actions of our teachers) that history is static, a list of known facts to fit on a timeline.

The truth, of course, couldn't be farther from that idea.

There are, of course, some "facts" in history. The Battle of Gettysburg (to continue our American theme) was fought July 1-3 in 1863 in the vicinity of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Facts such as these are, of course, neither important nor interesting, they just are. In order for this fact to be meaningful, it has to be hung on a larger context. Who fought? Why were they fighting? What, exactly, happened? And, then, naturally - who won?

The context is the non-static. Imagine having a conversation about a past event in your life with a friend who was there. How many times have you remembered differing, or even entirely contradictory details about that event? (Daily, if you live with my husband.) So what really happened? Your version, or your friend's version? There may in fact be some concrete, non-static, ultimate TRUTH of what happened (always the way my husband remembers it, naturally).*

But that ultimate truth, if it ever existed, isn't accessible to us any more. Our own perspective and bias has created individual narratives of the event. History is - or should be - the attempt to bind those narratives together to create a meaningful account of the event. Historians spend a lot of time arguing about which facts support which narratives.

And I believe that it is good for us to be exposed to alternative perspectives. If we want to boil down history to WHAT HAPPENED, I MEAN THE FINAL, ULTIMATE TRUTH, we will just end up with a boring list of dates and titles.

Even those are difficult to come by. Do we call it "The Battle of the Little Bighorn", or "Custer's Last Stand", or "The Battle of Greasy Grass Creek"?** Each name suggests a different interpretation and a different explanation of the forces surrounding this clash between the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army.

Do we call it "The Civil War" or "The War of Northern Aggression", or "The War Between the States", or "The War of the Rebellion", or "The War for Southern Independence"? Do we have to call it "The American Civil War?" What perspective are we working from?

History cannot access one final, ultimate, singular truth. All we have to work from are the artifacts and narratives and memories of people. Not only are these memories faulty, but they were and are colored by individual experience, perspective, and bias. We need context to make our facts significant, but we must rely on the fallible human remnants to provide that context.

This drives some historians and archaeologists nuts. Some will even deny it and claim that they are able somehow to access real truth. Too bad for them they're wrong.

How Do We Learn History?

Because history is more than just a list of facts, hopefully I've convinced you that how we learn history and who teaches it makes a huge difference. Many people seem to believe that teaching history is bounded, somehow, by the classroom, and that the only time we learn history is in history class. That couldn't be farther from the truth. We do learn history in the classroom, and that the the obvious place to begin, but we also learn history from our media, our leaders, and our peers.

In the Classroom

How official history is taught in the classroom is fiercely contested, and for good reason. The first stories that children hear about history will build a foundation on which other things are hung - how we view America and its history will inform our views on race, gender, the labor movement, immigration, politics - you name it. A version of history constructed on the idea that racism has been eliminated will look very different from a version which points to continued oppression and disadvantage for POC.

You may have heard of the controversy over proposed changes to the Texas textbook curriculum. Briefly, the Texas Board of Education has outlined a list of new guidelines that must be applied to all social studies textbooks used in the state of Texas. Many non-conservative people are upset about these changes, which purport to eliminate the "liberal bias" from the history books.

"These [existing] standards are rife with leftist political periods and events: the populists, the progressives, the New Deal and the Great Society," [Texas Board of Education member Don] McLeroy wrote. "Including material about the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s provides some political balance to the document." (from here)

Oh no, not the New Deal! Quick, better teach children that the notorious communist witch hunt of McCarthyism has been "vindicated by history", and that women and POC should be "grateful" to those white men for giving us our rights!

These changes represent a big deal because Texas is a major textbook market (it's big, y'all), and major textbook distributors wouldn't want to spend money to produce textbooks that won't be used in Texas. Therefore, the argument goes, only textbooks that meet the new standards will be published even for states without a boatload of nuts on the Board of Education.

McLeroy and co. use what is currently a very popular approach to teaching a skewed historical perspective - they argue that they are providing the truth that others don't want you (and your kids) to know. Both liberal and conservative historians use this same argument - Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, by James W. Loewen, and A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (both biased to the left), use this rhetoric just like (ugh) A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus' Great Discovery to the War on Terror, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.

Columbus' great discovery, huh? I guess you already know what my bias is without me having to tell you that you can read A People's History for free here.

And yes, a liberal perspective is skewed just like a conservative perspective. Neither tells the whole story, but I would argue that the "official" version of events most kids absorb is far closer to the one told in A Patriot's History than A People's History.

The classroom is a battleground because it is authoritative. An authority figure (the teacher, the textbook) provides an account that is all too often accepted uncritically. Unless the teacher encourages critical thinking and debate (as good teachers do, and we all know that those can be hard to find), and unless a student is actually plugged in and paying attention, they will absorb the text or lesson without questioning its message.

with a good teacher, the message will be biased in whatever direction the teacher leans. This is inevitable. It is impossible for us to eliminate bias, and (as a teacher I know this), it can be very difficult to allow free discussion without abusing one's authority. There have been many times when I think a student is wrong in their opinion, but I need to be careful in how I add my view to a conversation.

The major problem in classroom history education is when a single viewpoint is uncritically presented and uncritically absorbed.

In the Media

The media (gasp) is also biased! That may come as no big surprise to anyone who wonders how any Fox News personality is able to say "Fair and Balanced" without choking on the words. Yet most media programs (liberal and conservative) pretend that THEY are the unbiased ones, the ones providing the UNVARNISHED TRUTH. Remember, there is no truth, not when we're talking about history, and that includes the current events that are a part of history by the time the media gets around to talking about them.

History comprises the context by which we view the modern world, and so the media refers to history - directly or obliquely - constantly. Just to give one tiny example, think of the bickering inspired by any mention of the Founding Fathers. Which Father of America would support your right to have guns? To burn the flag? To separate church and state? Each side co-opts quotations from various Fathers to support their claims.

Who the hell CARES what the founding fathers thought? Who CARES if Jefferson would have disagreed with me about how we should regulate gun control? Just because it's Jefferson doesn't mean that he was RIGHT.

But, of course, that viewpoint never gets promoted. We continually lean on the authority of history to give weight to our position. Like the Tea Party and their idiotic YouTube videos using the names and likenesses of famous Patriots (if you can stomach it, you can watch this one where Thomas Paine argues against Multiculturalism).

(Oh, they're not racist. But I digress.)

Even if Paine would have agreed with that conclusion, so what? Why should we be enslaved to the dictums and viewpoints of a notoriously racist and sexist society? Why do we get so angry when Palin can't name a Founding Father (she's not THAT dumb, surely)?

American history is the foundation of our Myth of America. Each media outlet wants to privilege their own perspective within the niche they've carved for themselves, and even though it's nonsensical, He Who Can Prove The Founding Fathers Agreed With Him has a strong claim to have won the argument.

History in the media is often presented with an opposing viewpoint... edited like a Daily Show segment to make the other side look foolish. Even more than in the classroom, the media have a vested interest in proving that they have the TRUTH. In the melee, the voices of POC are often silenced, twisted, or absent. We're too busy arguing about what Madison would have thought (impossible to know). When the history of POC or other marginalized groups is presented, we make a big deal of it. (it's Black History Month***! Let's talk about Rosa Parks.)

From our Leaders and Peers

Just as history is the context through which the media presents their perspectives, so it is the context through which we live our daily lives. Every American knows the standard pantheon of historical figures (Franklin, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Hitler, etc). This does include some POC, women, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups (Rosa Parks, Pocahontas, Helen Keller, Sacajawea, Malcolm X).

(The media plays on this familiarity - see Glenn Beck giving a speech on the National Mall on the anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech.)

We receive daily information on how we should view non-white, non-male dominated history in the way our leaders and peers use these people. For example, take the Helen Keller jokes. (Why can't Helen Keller drive a car? Because she's a woman! Yar har tee har har. There are many more of these.)

Helen Keller was a badass. Helen Keller was deaf, blind, and a woman, and lived in a time when the disabled were considered largely useless, with women not really that much better. Yet she learned to speak, read, and write. She was a committed author and lecturer and far more literate than many people I know who are both hearing and sighted. Her disability has nothing to do with her accomplishments, of course, but it means that she had to fight that much more stubbornly, work that much harder, in order to be taken seriously at all.

She was also a leftist, a Socialist, and a suffragist who fought for worker's rights. Her writing is passionate, intelligent, and devastatingly witty. Of voting, she said in 1911, "We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats, we choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

When the editor of the Brooklyn newspaper the Eagle argued that her socialism was a mistake, springing from "the manifest limitations of her development" (referring to her disability), she replied "It is not fair fighting or good argument to remind me and others that I cannot see or hear. I can read. I can read all the socialist books I have time for in English, German, and French. If the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle should read some of them, he might be a wiser man, and make a better newspaper."

I like Helen Keller quite a bit.

When was the last time you heard about Helen Keller as a socialist activist and leader? What do we hear about Helen Keller? We hear about her initial struggle to gain language, as if the story stopped there and she accomplished nothing more. Or we hear jokes that reduce her to a punchline. Who would suspect that Keller was anything but a blind and deaf woman who could speak, notable in the same way a trained monkey was notable? In this way, her history is whitewashed, and our history as a nation is made that much poorer.

Perhaps more than in any other medium, the history we absorb from our peers serves to reinforce the standard, whitewashed viewpoint. Firstly, because most people have a superficial viewpoint of most historical figures (like Helen Keller), and so when we access that cultural context we're merely trading ignorance with each other. Secondly, because we trade on our subconscious stereotypes and preconceptions of history, so that even when we learn something outside of that boundary, we treat it as an aberration.

Just the other day, I heard someone express surprise that a woman invented a piece of machinery that is now common in lumber mills. Yes, a woman! As it was explained, she was watching her husband work and wondered why he was getting so dirty, and she looked at her sewing machine to come up with a better system! Is that how it really happened, or is that the cutesy story we have invented to support our view of women's roles, and to suppress the idea that this woman had a serious (and probably untrained) talent for engineering?

Ok, so we absorb biased history from everywhere. How should we learn and teach history? This is getting a bit long, so I think we'll have to leave that for Part 3... soon to come.

*"I don't remember it." He wants you to know. "That's the way it was."

**Last time I chastised the Parks Service for their elimination of the Native American perspective from Mount Rushmore. They do MUCH better at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, both at the actual park and on their website. If you're ever in the area (it is in the middle of nowhere, closest town is Crow Agency, Montana, but still), it's worth a stop.

*** Black History Month. It's better than no black history at all, but it separates and segregates black history from regular history, that is, white history. If we lived in a non-racist society, we wouldn't have to have Black History Month.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Whitewashing History

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

This is a holiday when history is on everyone's mind (well, that and fireworks), so I thought to celebrate I would discuss the whitewashing of American history. And as you may have guessed, I chose that term very deliberately.

I am almost done with A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which also inspires this post. It is a great book and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in exploring an alternative viewpoint on American history, but man it is a project. I've been reading it since April (and I am a very fast reader).

This is the first part of a two-part series. In this post, I'll explain what I mean when I say that American history is generally whitewashed, we'll look at some examples of this phenomenon, and then the effects that this has on our perceptions of our own country. In the second part of the series, I'll explore a subject which is very dear to my heart - how do we teach American history so that we avoid this problem?

(See, students? This is what I mean when I ask you to write an introduction providing an outline for your audience to follow. Below, note how I use bold headings to separate the different topics of my essay!)

What is Whitewashing?

As many of you may have already guessed, I'm using the term "whitewash" to denote a history that has been written so as to eliminate, minimize, distort, or infantilize the contributions of POC.
This term is often used for films that use white actors to play "ethnic" roles. As Latoya Peterson of Racialicious writes in a post about using POC in historical movies: "[N]on white people often find that their contributions to history are whitewashed, relegated to footnotes, or omitted completely." That is, a white actor is used to play the part of a POC - the white actor is expected to either be somewhat dubiously interpreted as non-white, or the race of the character is altered from the original, be it book, play, or real-life historical figure.

White people are often cast in non-white roles - particularly in Asian roles, as you can see for yourself in this excellent post from Sociological Images. Recently, the internet has exploded in controversy over the casting of The Last Airbender movie, which is based on an anime set in an Asian world. As Nojojojo explains at Alas, a blog:
"[B]ecause the whole world [of Airbender] is Asian, [stereotypes are] lost in a sea of non-stereotypical, non-exoticized, perfectly normal human beings. How amazing is that? Not only that, but Avatar actually depicts different Asian ethnicities. Though this is a fantasy world, there are clear allusions to the Inuit, Koreans, Mongols, Tibetans, several flavors of southeast Asian, various Indians, and more."
So naturally, the actors all cast in the main roles are white. Except for the bad guy, who is played by Dev Patel, an Indian.

Looking at historical figures, I could give you the example of Gerard Depardieu, the white Frenchman, playing the part of the French writer Alexandre Dumas (creator of the Three Musketeers). Problem? Dumas' grandmother was a black Haitian slave, and Dumas had clearly non-white features.

Now, how many people even knew that Dumas was a POC? I certainly didn't.

Hollywood alters both their fiction and non-fiction stories in order to minimize POC, and popular ideas of history do exactly the same thing. We receive our understanding of history in many ways - from our parents, political leaders, teachers, and media - but we often hear the same basic story. This story is incomplete.

Six Grandfathers / Mount Rushmore

Let me give you an example* of how a big part of the story of Mount Rushmore has been left out of our national dialog.

Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills region of South Dakota - or, to give it the Lakota Sioux name, Six Grandfathers is in the Paha Sapa. As the Native American activist, scholar, and writer Russell Means explains,
"The sacred Black Hills have two descriptions in the Lakotah language. Paha Sapa and Kȟe Sapa. The white man says that Paha Sapa means ‘Black Hills’. I will attempt to correct their interpretation of my language. The word ‘Pa-ha’ is broken up into two meanings: Pa describes the mountains emerging from the earth. Paha Sapa all together gives you a picture and a description of our sacred mountains as seen from a distance. The Ponderosa Pine gives the illusion of black from a distance and the mountains emerging from the earth. Paha Sapa. Therefore, what you see is holy. The words ‘Kȟe Sapa’ also gives you a description of what the sacred mountains look like close up, with the white stone cliffs, the meadows and the trees and the valleys. Therefore, you know it is holy."
Originally, this region was purchased by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a massive land acquisition from the French government of 828,800 square miles in the center of the American continent. The Black Hills were (and are) in rugged, formidable country, and for a long time the original inhabitants of the land were left largely in peace. Soldiers and explorers came through the area, as did a handful of settlers, but for the most part white people had little interest in such a desolate (to them) part of the country.

The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, and Lakota nations lived in this part of the world, and by the late 1800s tensions between the native groups and the US government, particularly over the construction of the Bozeman Trail as a route to the goldfields of Montana, had erupted into Red Cloud's War. And believe it or not, the native groups won. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed in 1868 and guaranteed that the Lakota would hold the Black Hills, as well as land rights across areas of South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, in perpetuity.

Let me reiterate. The government promised the Lakota that they would be the owners of the Black Hills for the rest of time.

Guess how long that lasted? Six years. In 1874 the Custer Expedition found gold in the Black Hills. And suddenly, the US Government was vastly more interested in this sacred land than they were before.

The story of how the Lakota had their land stolen is long, complex, and infuriating, but to simplify matters let me just say that current tribal lands represent not even a quarter of their original promised allotment, as you can clearly see on this map. Furthermore, within current tribal holdings many actual plots of land are owned by non-natives, and this region of the country contains the many of the poorest counties in America, including the poorest on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

(click to make larger)

If you want the entire story, as well as the stories of many other tribes, check out Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, by Charles F. Wilkinson.

Six Grandfathers was a sacred mountain to the Lakota within the Paha Sapa. The mountain got the name "Rushmore" when the young lawyer Charles Rushmore, out west checking land titles for a mining company, asked a guide what the mountain's name was. "Mount Rushmore" joked the guide.

Naturally, this is the name that we now know the mountain as. Sacred Indian name? Out the window. Stupid joke name? It's a white man's name, isn't it? Let's call it that on all the maps.

Fast-forward to 1924, when all of the Lakota were good and oppressed on the heart-breakingly poor reservations, and after hundreds of their children had been shipped off by the American government to boarding schools intended to strip them of any memory of their cultural heritage - much less pride in it. A white guy named Doane Robinson wanted to build an American monument in the Black Hills.

In order to do this Robinson hired the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants. Robinson originally had in mind a sculpture celebrating local history, but Borglum was thinking on a larger scale. After a lot of messing around in federal and state congress, the carving was under way.

The project faced opposition from many sources - naturalists weren't too excited about Borglum destroying the beauty of the mountain and the bill to establish the memorial was defeated twice in the South Dakota state senate, narrowly passing on the third try. As the official Mount Rushmore National Memorial website for the National Parks Service states:

"Receiving permission to do the carving, finding funding and managing personalities were all a part of the challenge to establish Mount Rushmore National Memorial. At times it seemed harder to keep the project going than it was to do the colossal carving of the four presidents."

You know what the official website does not mention? That the Lakota were pissed. It was bad enough for the government to steal the land, but now they had defaced this sacred mountain. The four presidents chosen - Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and T. Roosevelt - were all in office during the acquisition of Indian lands, and all are particularly hated by many Native groups for the damage caused specifically by the actions of these men. I think that only Jackson may have a worse record when it comes to Indian Affairs.

I've been trying to think up an analogy, but I'm not sure this needs one. Imagine that someone steals something that is holy to you and permanently alters it in a way that is both offensive and profane. And then imagine that everyone else thinks that this destruction is perfectly fine and that you're over-reacting to something that isn't that big of a deal.

Also, the evidence is fairly strong that Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (spelling corrected per Anonymous). Yes, really.

Mount Rushmore continues to be a focal point of Lakota anger towards the US government. In 1971, the American Indian Movement, an activist group, occupied the monument to draw attention to the US' disregard for its treaties. Technically, due to the Fort Laramie Treaty the Lakota still own the Black Hills. In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sioux Nation** in the case of United States V. Sioux Nation of Indians (448 U.S. 371). The court found that:

"A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history."

The Supreme Court ordered a reparation payment of $120 million, but ruled that due to the passage of time the Black Hills could not be given back to the Lakota. The Sioux Nation refused the money. The Black Hills are not for sale.

Members of the Sioux Nation are some of the most economically disadvantaged people in America. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the 8th largest in the country, but the poorest. 80% unemployment rates. 45% live below the official poverty line. 47 year life expectancy for men, 52 years for women. Infant mortality rates 5 times higher than the national average, adolescent suicide rates four times higher than the national average.

The reparation money still sits in a bank account - untouched and accruing interest. It's up to $570 million. 80% of tribal members polled don't want the money. They want the Black Hills.

So What?

The official Parks Service website briefly mentions Native Americans - in the "Guided Tours" section it lists a program on the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota groups (all part of the larger Sioux nation). If this is the same "tour" I remember from visiting the monument several years ago, it's a row of signboards with a few pictures and a brief history of the tribes. The story of how the land was stolen, and the groups who still are desperately trying to reclaim it today, is largely absent.

I first heard this story in college, in a course on Native North American religions. Most people don't know this history at all, or know only fragments of it. There are, of course, omissions in historical sites across the country - see Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong, by James W. Loewen, for more. But Mount Rushmore is, after all, the most American of monuments. It's the secret hidden base of Team America!

It is sadly ironic (and grimly appropriate) that one of our country's most iconic sites represents centuries of racism and oppression. The NPS website trumpets: "Mount Rushmore has grown in fame as a symbol of America - a symbol of freedom and a hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds."

And Mount Rushmore is a symbol of America, but not exactly as the NPS seems to hope.

The 4th of July is often perceived as a day when it's un-American to remember the bad parts of our history. That's nonsense. When we ignore the contributions of POC - when we erase their stories from our monuments - we're lying to ourselves and to our nation. If we want to make this country great, we can't ignore its problems present and past. We can't make things right if we don't know that they're wrong in the first place. And if we get swept up in the jingoistic nationalism that appears to be so popular nowadays, we will do nothing but perpetuate a system of lies, a massive paean to a reality that never was. This 4th, celebrate America by telling her true story.

Comments are fixed - so have at it.

*My examples are often related to Native Americans because I have a particular interest - professionally and personally - in this area. If you have other examples (and there are probably thousands), feel free to mention them in the comments. I'm always excited to learn and to gather new examples for teaching.

**The Lakota are a part of the Sioux nation.