The Myth of the Post-Racial Society

Red Earth, White Lies

Occasionally I receive mail or messages from readers who take issue with some of the ideas and concepts I write about. Often they are people with no indigenous ancestry (thus “non-Native”), and are offended by what they see as a divisive, race-based ideology. One particular reader recently lamented that “it is unclear to me if you grasp or care to understand the biases, discrimination and racial division your ideas create.” He went on: “any person born in North America is a native North American not just the Northern Siberian peoples that migrated to the Americas or Turtle Island, so-called, some 15,000 years ago, [sic]” thus faithfully regurgitating the increasingly shaky Bering Strait theory like good, unquestioning American citizens trained to perpetuate the theory as scientific fact. Finally, my unhappy reader concluded that “your insistent categorizing of human beings by race is the essence and scourge of cultural racism. Dividing one another by race is always, always meant to oppress or negate the ‘other.'” Not sure which “other” he is talking about (me as an indigenous colonized other somehow intent on oppressing my own people, or him as “other” in the convoluted conservative logic of reverse racism), but the message is clear: I am a divisive racist, bent on oppressing…..mmmmm, someone. I am also by implication someone who is not smart enough to understand the Bering Strait theory and that all Indians were at one time Asian (or in this case Siberian) “migrants,” a rhetorical tactic that always subtly implies less of a legitimate claim to land, couched in pseudo-scientific language.

At any rate, unhappy reader wants me to understand that we live in a post-racial society (just ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri if we live in a post-racial society), and that talking about race automatically means we are being divisive, and presumably anti-American. Naturally, this topic deserves more than a few hundred word blogpost, and I’ll leave that to the capable research of cultural studies scholars that unhappy reader(s) can find themselves. But I want to make one particular point unhappy reader fails to comprehend. When American Indians (and yes, I mean true NATIVE Americans, as in “have always been here”) talk about their heritage and history, they aren’t classifying themselves based on racial difference. It was the United States government that inflicted (and continues to inflict) this socially constructed ideology on Indians as a way to reinforce their difference, and ultimately claim their lands. A good example of this is the Burke Act of 1906 which made it easier for Indians with more European ancestry to sell their lands (invariably to whites) because they were seen as more “competent” than Indians with more “Indian blood.”

The distinction American Indians are talking about when they talk about their heritage is a political distinction, not a racial distinction. Native Americans as members and citizens of Native nations today fight for a “degree of measured separatism” in order to preserve their lands and cultures, and prevent against the assimilation that has been forced on them, formally and informally, by the United States. It is a conscious resistance to the universalizing melting pot theory of Americanism. And if that is what people like my unhappy reader considers divisive and un-American, so be it. As Americans, they are entitled to their opinions, however misinformed they may be.

About Dina

Dina is Policy Director and Senior Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies, and teaches American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos. A descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington, she holds a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies and a master's degree in American Studies with a research focus on indigenous studies, both from the University of New Mexico. She is a veteran Indian artist, and dancer in the Native American powwow tradition. Along with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, she is co-author of "'All the Real Indians Died Off' and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans" (Beacon Press). As a freelance writer, she writes for KCET Link TV, was a long-time contributor to Indian Country Media Network, Native People's Magazine and numerous other outlets.
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