“These people are my tribe!” laughs some well-meaning left-leaning big-hearted person in reference to their friend group… and I cringe. Every fiber of my being has been marinated in more than a decade of identity politics and representation in media studies. My work includes interpreting the history of the relationship between cinema and the Diaspora, the relationship between fantasy as escape and poverty, the history of colonization of the first peoples in North America, the way in which cultural symbols and references are often removed from their origins. My context means that for me, everything has a historical connection; everything is related to a former time, place, and space. I remember interviewing Bear Witness, from the First Nations DJ group A Tribe Called Red, and saying, “No one wants to be called racist.” And him agreeing, “Yes, but what they don’t understand is that everything is racist because we live in a racist context.”
Already that statement is too much for some people. It’s confusing. It might seem accusatory and it puts some folks on guard. What does it mean that we live in a racist context? Even though slavery ended less than two hundred years ago, many people are confident putting its effects into the past tense. That’s an essay all its own, but while many people have heard of the Jim Crow Era, not everyone has heard of the Black Codes. After slavery there were multiple waves of putting racist laws on the books (these things were LEGAL which meant they influenced our culture and the daily movements –I mean not just walking but trying to make investments, vote, own, buy sell etc — of black people). These codes were intended to make sure black people could only make so much progress and that white freedom didn’t feel threatened by full equality. The Black Codes showed up post WWII in Southern States. They intended to keep black freedom as close to a state of slavery as possible and they primarily functioned to punish black people for minor infringements and force them into unpaid labor as punishment, making them “convicts” and therefore taking away their rights. The documentary THE 13TH does an incredible job of explaining this process.
Let’s talk about LOVING (2016), a film which left me in tears because it drove home to me that the outcome of this court case paved the way for my very existence as a biracial American to be “legal.” The film tells the story of the Loving v. The State of Virginia case that fought against the illegality of interracial marriage. This case went to the Supreme Court and won in 1967. The laws, “anti-miscegenation” laws from 1924, were part of the Black Codes. They regulated who you could love and ultimately punished the children of “miscegenation.” Other laws during this time, for example, prohibited “Negros” and “mulattos” from settling in a new state. In some cases if a black person stayed more than ten days in a state they had recently entered, they could be arrested. Illinois is one example. If you don’t know the history of redlining and housing discrimination in Chicago, The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a must read.
Back to Loving, it became legal to be married as an interracial couple in 1967. Because of the court case. My father was four years old. However, when he married my mother in 1985, her parents disowned her. So twenty years later, the residue of this law and other laws reminiscent of the black codes was still alive and well. I have known this my whole life; my identity forces me to be aware of the existing residue of our racist history. Coates points this out in his article, that the residue of these laws creates the still-existing climate of poverty and inequality. This residue is the context that I grew up in: people looking at my parents and whispering in the grocery store, on the train, or not visiting certain relatives and not knowing exactly why. Yes, we have come far, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a context of racism that has affected the laws in our country for a LONG time.
The residential school system that took Native American children from the reservations they had been forced onto and then put them into schools where their hair was cut and traditional language, names, and clothing were outlawed began AFTER the civil war. The well-known motto associated with the schools was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” This tragic erasure of Native culture was residual from the work of Andrew Jackson one hundred years earlier. This is the same Andrew Jackson whose portrait now hangs beside the desk of our 45th elected president. Jackson was nicknamed “The Indian Killer” and passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which resulted in the Trail of Tears (the forced removal of 16000 Cherokee from ancestral lands and at least 4000 deaths throughout the forced march), in addition to multiple other actions leading to Indian Removal and the termination of tribes, both physically and legally. His legacy is being lauded by our current administration.
Our historical legal context says that Native American traditions were unacceptable in mainstream society. The practice of children being taken from reservations to schools where they were “Americanized” gained in popularity and continued into the 1960s, despite a 1928 report called The Meriam Report commissioned by the government which recommended the decentralization of these schools. However it was not until years later, in1975, when the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act passed and US government began to make treaties directly with federally recognized tribes. This act was a result of American Indian Movement, which worked alongside the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950’s members of congress were still passing laws to have tribes assimilate and the US government was officially terminating tribes, erasing them on paper. This is the context our parents grew up in. Whether they were conscious of it or not, in the 1950’s-1970s tribes were fighting to keep their tribal membership. There were protests and marches, people were imprisoned, others were killed, Alcatraz was occupied. A great resource for learning more about this time period is Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior.
As is the case with the Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement has had a context of bloodshed. In the case of AIM, this struggle has been partially over the ability for Native Americans to call themselves tribes and claim their heritage, practice their traditions, access their Native Lands, speak their language, have their treaties honored. So what does it do when we casually refer to our friends as our tribe? In my opinion, it undercuts the reality of what it means to be a tribal member. Tribe has a context of blood, a relationship with a history of unequal power dynamics, of legal discrimination and legal disenfranchisement.
It’s heavy, but for people of color our daily existence is colored by the residue of laws that regulated the daily lives of our parents, I’m not even talking about our grandparents. We see these things in our daily life, grow up with stories about racism, are warned about how we have to behave in public and how we are going to be interpreted. Newer research into epigenetics (amazing background here in this interview with Rachel Yehuda on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett) shows that we may even be biologically affected because of generational inheritance of trauma. That is our context.
How do we begin conversations with this as the context? Yes, it is 2018, but we live in a society where a context of bloodshed, a context of racism, a context of legal discrimination informs our society. Whether or not we’ve previously recognized it.
I think we begin with language. We allow people of color to explain why saying, “I don’t see color,” is a good effort because it’s an attempt at equality, but it basically says cc: nayirrah waheed, I don’t see you. We stop telling black people they are too angry cc: Solange Knowles and instead recognize our right to be mad about the continued discrimination and inequality that we legally face, cc: the black lives matters movement, at the hands of police. We stop saying we’ve found our “tribe” because tribal people have fought long and hard and still face discrimination because of their tribal affiliation. We can’t decide we want tribal aesthetic but do nothing for tribal people, yet that is what our country has done for a long time. We get to a point where we as a people, as a society, understand that saying, “support black business” could not possibly be racist because the idea is that we still need to support black entrepreneurs because their hopes and dreams were illegal and could be met by threat of violence less than fifty years ago (please read up on Black Wall Street if you need an example), and depending on where you go in this country could still be met by violence now. We do not all live in bastions of liberty. We as a country have to recognize this as the context in order to speak to each other and come away with common understanding.
In grad school I wrote a script about an incident of racism my sister had in kindergarten and my professor told me it wasn’t realistic in a modern context. “Where is this happening,” I was asked. This happened, I explained, in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t realistic to him? Why is that? Was he unaware of the context? Or hoping that if he chose not to see it, it wouldn’t exist? Was he uninformed or blind, or willfully blind? I don’t know, but I do know the feedback I received in that classroom was that I should consider changing the time period to make my story more realistic for him. Rather than try to understand my reality, he wanted to deny its legitimacy. What I do know is that we need to understand our context and how power dynamics play into our conversations before we can have conversations about things like privilege and fragility without people freaking out and feeling attacked.
Since I began writing this essay, I had the opportunity to ask a panel of Indigenous activists in the outdoors a question about the casual use of the word tribe at Outdoor Retailer. Before I asked the question, I was shaking. I was scared to ask the question poorly, to use this controversial language myself. I had only ever had this conversation with close friends or thought about it myself. I was afraid of having people in the audience feel offended and worried and therefore lash out against me. In the varied answers from Len Necefer, Jolie Varela, Aaron Mike, Jaylyn Gough and Ernest House Jr., there was a mix of anger and of tears. Jaylyn Gough shared another context that I had not considered, the fact that she grew up away from her tribe and was adopted into a non-native family that she loves and is proud to call her own. Yet, as an adult she has been literally finding her tribe, finding her way back to her heritage. To hear others talking about “finding your tribe” with glee and then maybe going on a run with this supposed found tribe is wildly offensive if you look at it from another context.
Life is heavy. We live in a country with a history and context of bloody power dynamics. Recognition of this fact is a step forward. Recognition of this fact does not point fingers, is not meant to invoke guilt. It is meant to add context to our patriotism and to create a full and honest picture of who we are. It is meant to help us all better understand where we are coming from so that we can identify the best ways to move forward together with a common language to get to where we are going.