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A couple weeks ago, African American boxer Floyd Mayweather posted a video rant full of ignorant, racist stereotypes against Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino boxer.  Mayweather posted a fake apology (“I don’t have a racist bone in my body”) in response to criticism of these comments, along with another video intended to show his, ahem, “acceptance” of Asian people which is, unsurprisingly, full of even more racist nonsense (Racialicious).

Mayweather’s comments have been largely overlooked by mainstream news outlets, and the response even from anti-racist organizations has been tepid.  Last week an Asian American friend of mine shared a column by ESPN’s Floyd Granderson, who is African American, questioning why there has been so little outcry over this, and specifically calling out the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson for what he calls their “muted response,” suggesting that they are judging Mayweather ‘by the color of his skin” rather than by the content of his comments.

The truth is Mayweather’s being given a pass because he’s black . . . . he is being treated differently because he’s black.

Period.

And if he were being treated honestly, black man or not, we would be hearing denunciations from Jackson, Sharpton and the NAACP . . . I’m not playing devil’s advocate; I’m advocating for equality — but in the true sense of the word. Whites don’t hold the patent on being racially insensitive, just as blacks are not the only group of people to be discriminated against in this country . . . .

If we truly believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then it is only fair that the boxing world punish Mayweather. I understand he’s the industry’s cash cow. But this kind of hypocrisy only fertilizes racial tension while simultaneously lining the pockets of people who make their living manipulating that tension [I’m not clear on who Granderson is talking about here. Does he mean Jackson and Sharpton?  If so, FAIL.].

My reaction to Granderson’s argument was that it’s hugely problematic in a number of ways, not least because it’s an argument from total silence.  And I found it unfortunate that Granderson chose Mayweather’s blackness as the angle for his article rather than the reality that anti-Asian bigotry is still widely accepted as “humor” in our society.  It’s seriously problematic to argue that black leaders or the NAACP are required to comment on the situation just because Mayweather is black.

I left a comment to this effect on my friend’s post sharing this article; this started a discussion about the article and the degree to which the NAACP, etc., are obligated to comment on a situation like this.  In my opinion, the way Granderson made his argument was racist, and actually detrimental to anti-racist work.  My friend, on the other hand, saw the article as holding anti-racist activists accountable to do a better job, and thought Granderson was identifying a potential blind spot in the NAACP, Jackson, and Sharpton.

I emailed Nikki to get her thoughts on the situation and ask if my reaction to the article was off-base.  We ended up having a really productive discussion about anti-Asian racism and what it means for anti-racist activists to be good allies to Asian-Americans.  Parts of our conversation are posted below the jump, edited and cleaned up to make it easier to follow dialogue. (more…)

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When other kids visited Cherokee, North Carolina, their parents bought them rubber tomahawks and leather moccasins. Their day’s activities included getting a photo made with the “chief” standing next to a teepee on a street corner. When I visited Cherokee, my parents would have none of this. That so-called chief wasn’t wearing Cherokee clothing, and Cherokees didn’t live in teepees. We went to the Oconaluftee living history village or the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, followed by a trip to Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual. My parents showed me newspapers still being printed in the Cherokee language. On special occasions, we went to see President Andrew Jackson betray treaties in the “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama. My parents made a real effort, however imperfect, to show me a real, living people with their own history, language, cultural heritage, government, lives, and hopes.

They were resisting a powerful current. American culture is brimming with mish-mashed, two-dimensional, demeaning, and offensive portrayals of Native Americans, and sports mascots are among the worst.

Regardless what they might say, non-Indian schools and other sports teams are not honoring Indian peoples and cultures by turning them into crude caricatures. We cannot pretend that whooping mascots with absurdly red skin waving tomahawks are holistic and realistic representations of Native Americans. These schools, sports teams, and their fans (not to mention the media and advertisers) are not respecting Indians as living, self-defining, and self-determining persons. Even when they do not employ repulsive epithets like “redskins” they are objectifying and dehumanizing Indians, appropriating and exploiting cultural and often sacred images for their own entertainment, propagating and perpetuating misinformed and humiliating stereotypes that damage both the way other people view Indians and the way Indians see themselves. (Studies have shown that Indian mascots are especially damaging to the self-esteem of Native American children.)

(Can you imagine? Is this OK? White friends, be honest, how might you feel if images like this were the most common portrayals of white people in our culture?)

It is simply absurd for white people to insist that these images are not offensive while ignoring, dismissing, and overruling the majority of actual Native Americans. Even in those rare cases where a tribe has granted permission to use a name, plenty of tribal members and related tribes disagree with the permission.

No appeal to longstanding tradition and pretense of respect can be used to defend this practice. This 2002 article by Suzan Shown Harjo illustrates the point well:

On Crossfire, [Illinois alum Robert] Novak echoed other Illinois fans when he claimed, “There was no intention to have these Indian nicknames offensive. We have a tremendous war dance by Chief Illiniwek. Isn’t this part of the deep American tradition of respect for the fighting qualities of the Indians who gave the white people such a hard time on the battlefield?”
That “respect” came about as Native Peoples were being subjected to the slow torture of confinement, starvation and deculturization. That period exactly brackets the emergence of the Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek at the Illinois University.

The Illini showed up in 1874 as the name of the school paper, which is a dignified and respectful way to use a name. It gradually became the name of the team, which subjects a name to indignities and disrespect, at the very least from the opposing fans. At that same time in history, Army officers and Smithsonian “scientists” were collecting Indian heads from graves and massacre sites, and otherwise showing “respect” for Indian people.

Chief Illiniwek started dancing at half-time in 1926, when federal Indian agents were punishing Indians for dancing on reservations. The federal government specifically banned the Sun Dance “and all other similar dances and so-called religious ceremonies” from 1880 to 1936. Interior secretaries and Indian commissioners ordered federal Indian agents to undertake a “careful propaganda” to “educate public opinion against the dance.”

Federal notices were posted prominently on reservations, warning that Indians would be treated as “hostiles” if they danced.

One [of these notices], in 1921, reiterated the prohibitions and penalties regarding “any dance which involves … the reckless giving away of property … frequent or prolonged periods of celebration … in fact any disorderly or plainly excessive performance that promotes superstitious cruelty, licentiousness, idleness, danger to health, and shiftless indifference to family welfare.”

…While Indian people were outlaws for the federal crime of Indian dancing, white guys in educational and professional sports arenas were dressing up like Halloween “Indians” and dancing the fool.

Chief Illiniwek has since been retired, but racist mascots have not.

I invite readers to watch this video at RetireTheChief.Org.

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