The last thing I want to do is offend the African-American students, faculty or staff on this campus by invoking a stereotype. I know how painful it is to see images that mainstream culture pokes fun at while simultaneously indicating that the image represents my culture, my ancestors, my identity. I know that stereotypes promote lies that, at once, dehumanize and deny the ability of subordinate groups in America to define their own identities. I know the frustration of trying to convince those who don’t understand that those images and characterizations are offensive and hurtful. I know that stereotypes are dangerous.
It is, therefore, with the utmost respect and empathy towards my African-American colleagues, professors and friends that I call on our Yale community to consider the hideous cartoons of the 1930s and 40s. Called “coons,” “pickaninnies” and “jigaboos” these cartoon characters had black faces, googly eyes, and enormous lips surrounding big white teeth. They starred in cartoon shows like “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.” They were dehumanized, looking more like monkeys than men, and these characterizations were recalled in countless live minstrel shows in which white actors in blackface acted like buffoons.
Thankfully, these images were banned from TV in the 1940s. Sadly, the mainstream continues to dehumanize racial and ethnic minorities. Sadly, many do not even see it.
I ask you now to consider the face of the Cleveland Indian. I ask you to consider the chopping motion and the “war cry” that Atlanta Braves fans are famous for as they cheer on their baseball team. I ask you to consider the habit of wearing stereotyped copies of traditional outfits to parties and on Halloween. I ask you to consider what individuals and groups who promote these images are robbing from Native American peoples.
Many may take for granted the right to self-determination. Many may have come to expect that they have a right to be treated with respect. But the reality is that these privileges are only guaranteed to the dominant group in America.
Ethnic and racial minorities have spent much of their history in this country fighting for those rights, and it has become evident that many members of the dominant group, even those who are well-meaning, often do not understand exactly what we are fighting for. About Indian mascots some will say: “It’s about honoring the bravery of Native American warriors.” About Indian-themed parties, some will say: “We were dressing traditionally; it wasn’t a stereotype.”
I wish to respond to these claims. I hold back all hostility, hoping that those of you who disagree may open your minds to what I have to say and consider that Indian peoples are offended by your stereotypes. But not only are they offended, they are robbed of the opportunity to define their cultures for the mainstream on their own terms. They are robbed of respect without being given it first.
I am a member of the Dine (Navajo people), and nothing about the Atlanta Brave, the Washington Redskin, the Dartmouth Indian or the character Pocahontas speaks to me about my people, past or present. American Indians are peoples of many sovereign nations. We speak many languages, practice many religions and eat many different foods.
Today, for the most part, we wear normal street clothes and business clothes to attend meetings and interviews. We attend all denominations of churches and engage in entrepreneurship. We maintain many of our traditional life ways despite the assault of colonialism and forced assimilation. But we are not only historical peoples. We have histories, yes, but we are living, breathing communities. Stereotypical images that define Indians as something of the past go a long way to deny this.
Therefore, I invite the Yale community to speak to the many Native American students we have on campus. I invite you to learn from us about who we are today, in this 21st century world. I invite you to learn that we wear our traditional outfits to pray and to celebrate our living cultures, not to party.
We invite you to learn about who we are so that these stereotypes may fade away from popular culture and cease to confine our peoples to images we do not accept and that others do not respect. I ask you to refrain from dressing up as “Indians” on Halloween and for your parties. I ask you to sincerely ask yourselves what stereotypes mean for the people who become their focus. I ask you, humbly, for your respect.
Allison Neswood is the vice president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale. She is a junior in Trumbull College.