Casual Racism is Not My Spirit Animal

You don’t have a problem, because it's not Real Racism -- it's caaaaasual. Not a big deal. Certainly not worth analyzing or pointing out, lest we make anyone uncomfortable.

Aug 9, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

On this past Monday’s Today show, during a bizarre exchange in which Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer bickered over a pair of women’s drawers, Lauer said to Vieira, “Don’t be an Indian giver.” 

An “Indian giver,” for those who didn’t grow up in the US or who were homeschooled or otherwise insulated from a lot of the stupid shit kids say to each other, is a person who gives you something as a gift and then takes it back. It’s kind of like being a liar, only with property involved.

The idea of an “Indian gift” was in use as early as 1765, and the specific term “Indian giver” was formally documented in Bartlett’s 1860 “Dictionary of Americanisms.” These days, the origins of the concept are generally explained by a gap in cultural understanding between Native American peoples and the white Europeans (whom we could rightly call invaders or conquerors, given how things turned out) suddenly appearing on American shores.

Because American Indians did not use currency in the same way that Europeans did, “gifts” were typically trades of goods of equal value. Thus, when the Indians gave something to the white folk, they expected a gift of similar worth in return.  It is also possible that what the whites thought were gifts were actually intended as loans, to be retrieved later. Rather than attempt to understand a different way of perceiving property and relationships, the practice was condemned by the Europeans as inexplicable and dishonorable, hence the evolution of the popular term.

(Of course, the continuing use of “Indian giver” is especially galling given the number of treaties made and subsequently broken not by the Native Americans, but by the invading whites, over literal hundreds of years. History is written by those who win, I guess.)

Why is it offensive? “Indian giver” both willfully misrepresents the valid culture of the original Americans and portrays them as untrustworthy and devious -- to be an “Indian giver” is to trick a person into accepting a gift and then to unfairly take it back. 

See, now that you know that, I’ve probably gone and made you feel badly for using it. Hang in there, because I’ll do the same again for a bunch of other stuff in a bit.

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I'm scowling because of Aunt Jemima's icky "Mammy" stereotype, not because artificial pancake syrup is gross. Although I think it kind of is.

Given the reaction most folks have to it, these days you’d think calling something someone did racist is as horrible, if not more so, as actually being racist. We really don’t stand well to being told we’ve said or done something offensive; we tend to trip out a little bit, because we’re not like that. We’re good people! We probably have friends of races different than our own!

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking only serves to perpetuate racism further. By making the calling out of racism into something people are afraid to do, and equally afraid to be on the receiving end of, we’re far less likely to have the necessary conversations about it for things to positively change.  

If I call Matt Lauer a racist, we’re all going to stiffen a bit, sit up a little straighter, flinch like someone’s feigned a punch to our faces. The reaction is one of anger, guilt and/or fear, which prevents us actually talking about the origins of the problematic phrase he used, and coming to rational conclusions about the impact its unquestioned use has on all of us.

Some would even argue that sure, maybe it was a dumb thing to say, but it doesn’t make Matt Lauer capital-R racist, right? He just wasn’t thinking when he spoke, something we’re all occasionally guilty of, though most of us don’t have the misfortune to be on national television when it happens.

But the fact remains that terms like this are, indeed, racist -- they’re just casual racism. Racism in a tattered old pair of jeans and a hoodie on laundry day. Racism that you’re not exactly dating, you just call it up sometimes when you’re drunk and sort of lonely on a Friday night, and ask if it’s busy and wants to come over. Racism that you indulge in socially but you’re sure you can quit anytime you want. You don’t have a problem, because it's not Real Racism -- it's caaaaasual. Not a big deal. Certainly not worth analyzing or pointing out, lest we make anyone uncomfortable. 

It would be awesome if racism was one of those things -- like the hiccups, or an Internet troll -- that eventually goes away if you ignore it long enough. But this is not so.

This past Sunday, a white dude named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and murdered six people. Page is the very picture of what we imagine a Real Racist to look like, with a history of involvement in white power groups, his body fairly covered in neo-Nazi tattoos. Even in light of this information, the media coverage still thinks it appropriate to ask whether Page’s actions could have been a hate crime. We don’t want to make assumptions about the motivations of a man decorated ankle to wrist with permanent evidence of his ultra-racist political positions. After all, he may have had a change of heart, if not for the damning complication that he had recently walked into a religious space filled with non-white worshippers, and killed some of them.

(If only we were so quick to give the benefit of the doubt to every “suspicious looking” brown-skinned person. Can you imagine?)

Part of the reason why people like Page and communities to support him can continue to exist is because of this artificial line we’ve drawn between Real Racism and casual, joking-around, everything’s-cool racism. One is an unknowable other, a horrifying fringe group most of us can claim a certain amount of distance from -- the other is just, y’know, people not being oversensitive. The resistance to talk about the latter only feeds the former; racism, no matter how quiet or good-natured, is a pervasive thing, and if we give casual racism a pass, that leaves room for more overt and violent racism to keep on happening.

Other examples of casual racism you might be familiar with (and do see the excellent Microaggressions for more): Saying we got “gypped” or “jewed.” Telling a black person that they’re “articulate” or “well spoken.” Asking people who look at all racially ambiguous, “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” Attempting to touch a black person’s hair without their permission. Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, the Land O Lakes lady and “flesh” colored Band-Aids. Speaking in a “funny” fake Chinese or Japanese accent. Calling things “ghetto.”

Referring to anything as our “spirit animal.” OH NO, LESLEY, PLEASE DON’T RUIN “SPIRIT ANIMAL,” TOO! I know, I’m sorry, guys. It’s a bummer to find out stuff we once thought was just silly and funny may in fact be harmful and mocking. It sucks because once we know the potential hurt they can cause, we can’t un-know it -- we have to walk around with that information and understand that if we continue to use these terms, we may be willfully contributing to a lot of crap and misery in the world. 

Are all people of color universally offended by all this stuff? Of course not. Everyone is different and has different levels of patience and indulgence for this sort of thing. The point is not that these “casual” racisms are offensive to individual people (although yeah, that’s worth considering too) -- the point is that they contribute to systematic cultural racism as a whole. By just swallowing this stuff as no big deal, we’re saying these stereotypes are OK. And they’re not.

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My dumb husband takes any request for picture taking as a challenge to make me laugh, even when I am trying to look disapproving.

I’m not perfect on this account. Far from it. I kind of suck. I recently called something “ghetto” in casual conversation and got really mad at myself, because I’m supposed to know better. I still have to check myself from making “Chinese fire drill” jokes. It’s so easy to say these things without thinking -- that’s what makes them casual. It takes effort to build awareness of them.

They don’t have the same shock value as walking up to a person of color and calling them a racial slur. It’s not like being stung; it’s like being slowly burned, by a heat so gradual you barely notice it’s happening. Participating in most of these more casual things in social situations is unlikely to result in anyone going into full-on rage mode all over you.

(Quite the opposite: If you point out casual racism on a regular basis, you’re going to get a lot of people whining that you’re too “politically correct,” which is not a phrase that actually means anything anymore, besides saying of its speaker, “I am nostalgic for a time when I could be as racist as I wanted and nobody bugged me about it and thus I would like you to just shut up now you dumb person with your stupid thinky brain thoughts trying to infiltrate the hostile and unmovable lump of granite I replaced my mind with.”) (Uh, I may be embellishing a bit, there.)

I’m not going to call Matt Lauer a racist, although he did use a racist term. I’m not even going to call him a jerk, because name calling doesn’t exactly promote thoughtful conversation about “Indian giver” and why it’s a gross and really inappropriate thing to say. Occasional slips into casual racism do not necessarily make you a terrible person. They do, however, make you a person who is participating in some terrible things. (The always superb Jay Smooth says this way better.) The bright side is, we can always stop doing them.

Once a person has been made aware of the consequences of casual racisms, does she have a responsibility to change her language, and her perspective? That’s up to the individual. I’m not here to tell anyone not to say certain words; I’m here to assert that we should know the meaning, background, and possible consequences of the words you use -- even terms as seemingly childish and innocuous as "Indian giver." Whether we continue to use them after that is a moral decision we have to arrive at on our own. 

I probably don't have to tell you where I stand.