Recently, a tanning salon advertisement touted that Indians not only brought corn to the first Thanksgiving, they brought “sexy color.” After complaints (one of which was mine), the ad was taken down from Club Sun’s Facebook page and an apology of sorts was given. And herein lies the problem. Ads like these and society’s inadequate understanding of their inappropriateness show the depth of microaggressions, normalized racism, and internalized oppression that American Indians struggle with on a daily basis.
Larry Andrews, the VP of Sales for Club Sun, gives a glaring example of microaggression mentality. Andrews complained to the local TV station about people becoming offended and accused people of just looking for things to “stir the pot.” Andrews argues that people should look for more positive things so that the holiday season will be better. In other words, people are just overly sensitive and looking for things to be negative about.
Andrews dismisses our feelings or experiences by claiming the company’s actions were innocent. When Natives speak out or speak up against innuendos and slights or mascots, we're often told we're being too sensitive or it was just a joke. In other words, we're always trying to make some big deal out of nothing. Microaggressions are often unintentional, but they still have real consequences.
David Arnett, the marketing director for Club Sun, explained to a local TV station that he’s “Native American” and “proud of my heritage and skin tone.” The ad was meant to be “simply a play” on Arnett’s own sexy color. But the picture was not of Arnett or even a man. Instead, it was the typical “Pocahottie”—a stereotype of a sexualized Indian maiden. Normalized racism comes in the form of stereotypes about hyper-sexualized Native women. Arnett might not know that this image originated with Columbus’s Second Voyage and how dangerous it continues to be for Native women.
Consider the current propensity for physical violence and sexual assault against Native women. The U.S. Justice Department reports that more than 80% of rapes on Indian Homelands are committed by non-Native men. Indigenous women are victims of violent crime at 3.5 times the national average and one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. The Justice Department also believes these numbers are severely underreported, estimating that 70 percent of sexual assaults are never reported due to a distrust of police. I don’t think we need to portray any women as easily victimized or as “whores who really want it.” But there’s a greater burden of responsibility when it comes to Native women.
Finally, internalized oppression among Native Peoples is heavily documented due to the overwhelming effects of colonization and intergenerational trauma—alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide, drug abuse, etc. But internalized oppression also manifests as a colonized mind—one that sees no issue in cultural appropriation or using stereotypical caricatures that denigrate our cultures, and therefore, has assimilated into a mindset of individualism and dishonor for traditional ways and lack of community.
Americans (that includes American Indians) have been socialized to “play Indian” since they could walk. Consequently, acts of racial and gender microaggressions, internalized oppression, and normalized racism will continue to raise their ugly heads until we decide to stop participating. We have to decolonize our hearts and minds, and then stand against the perpetuation of denigrating stereotypes. We have to quit making excuses for their existence. It matters for our future generations.
Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist. Her article, “A Necessary Evil: Framing an American Indian Legal Identity” will be published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in December 2013.