derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo
As a Southern woman, I am familiar with the painful heritage of my homeland. One of the most grievous seasons in our terrible history was when the Cherokee nation was forced by the U.S. government to surrender its lands and march westward. This horrific expulsion is remembered as The Trail of Tears.
Because the Cherokee nation was one of the last Indian nations compelled to leave their homes, for many years the Cherokee flourished, amassing property and wealth, in some ways assimilating (ex: slave ownership) and in some ways resisting assimilation into the white culture of the day (leveraging their political connections to retain possession of property and sovereignty rights).
Because interracial marriage was not wholly uncommon between whites and Cherokees, many Southerners can trace their ancestry back to the Cherokee nation. Still many others cannot, but hypothesize and even believe that there are Indians in their family. And that’s where we come to today’s derailment: “But, I’m 1/48th Cherokee.”
I’ve had many conversations on race where a person’s self-examination was averted by the defense that somehow, they, too, were part of a marginalized group. This derailment can be used for a number of reasons, but I usually hear it used with the following meanings:
- I’m not really white, I just look it. By being one of the “club,” a white person can deny responsibility to change their own attitude or challenge the attitudes of others. As Paul Kivel points out:
When the subject is racism nobody wants to be white, because being white has been
labeled “bad” and brings up feelings of guilt, shame, complicity and hopelessness.
- I’m unique and interesting because of the mysterious and cool Indians in my family. White Americans often have an exoticised view of Native Americans (read: Daniel Day-Lewis), and claiming your great-grandma was a Cherokee princess (as if there were such a thing) might make you seem more interesting than telling people you’re just from Georgia.
- I’m allowed to use certain pejorative terms because I, too, am a person of color. Again, because one is in the “club,” one is free to insult any other person of color, particularly one’s “own” race (a misapprehension Kate explained in her derailment a couple weeks ago).
Now, you may be one of those Americans with honest-to-goodness Native American relatives. God bless you. And God bless those of us who can’t find any Indians in our immediate ancestry. Empathizing with the struggles of others and combating injustice doesn’t mean we have to feign our genealogy, in fact, doing so is an insult to those we’re claiming as our relatives. While healthy pride in one’s [confirmed] heritage is appropriate, there is nothing romantic about being a part of an oppressed group.