Senate race interrupted by war chants

Politics reveals the ugly truth about stereotypes

A couple weeks ago, a national headline made many of us wonder if we hadn’t all been transported back 100-plus years.

By Eva-Jeanette Rawlins

Politics reveals the ugly truth about stereotypes

A couple weeks ago, a national headline made many of us wonder if we hadn’t all been transported back 100-plus years.

Miles Sanguinetti/VANGUARD STAFF

Staffers for Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts were captured on video making “‘tomahawk gestures’ and chanting Indian war whoops,” at a campaign rally, according to CBS News.

This was an intended mockery of the senator’s Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, and her claim to Native American roots.

Just when we think we’re making some progress.

This was the icing on the cake. In this particular race, Warren’s claim to Native American heritage has been front and center—a heritage Brown consistently accuses her of falsely claiming in order to benefit her career. She has been routinely asked to provide proof of her ancestry even though there’s no indication it bears any relevance to her professional or educational success.

The fact that a candidate’s heritage has become the main talking point of a senatorial campaign reveals we’ve hit a new low. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, though, since calls for the president to prove his citizenship still echo loudly in many parts of the U.S.

However, in Warren’s case, when we’d expect a universal outcry against such explicit displays of racism, it seems even that is too much to ask for.

A few days after the story broke, National Public Radio broadcasted a segment with a panel discussing the incident. One of the guests, Neil Minkoff, an apparently educated man—health care consultant and contributor to National Review—offered his wisdom on the matter.

In response to a question about whether the staffers’ actions were racist, he argued, “They weren’t trying to demean Indians. It wasn’t racist; it was just stupid.” He then said that imitating the war cry has been such a common practice at sports events over the years that it doesn’t hold much meaning any more.

So glad he enlightened us.

A fellow panelist then asked him: If the situation were slightly different—if Warren had instead claimed African American descent and members of Brown’s staff had arrived to a rally in blackface, would he consider that racist? There was a pregnant pause before Minkoff hastily rethought his position.

The sad thing is that his immediate reaction was to suggest that as long as they didn’t “mean” to be offensive, they weren’t. And he’s not alone in his opinion.

Perhaps the words of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Bill John Baker can put things in perspective. He said of the staffers’ mockery, “[It is] offensive and downright racist. It is those types of actions that perpetuate negative stereotypes and continue to minimize and degrade all native peoples.”

This is one more example of how the systemic nature of racism creeps into every part of our society—politics, sports, entertainment, schools, everywhere—and subsequently makes it almost imperceptible. We live in a society that accepts this as the norm and continually perpetuates a one-dimensional representation of Native Americans and then suggests it’s not offensive.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,a Nigerian author, said it best: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Our country is a land of millions and millions of stories—full, rich, diverse and ultimately human stories. The longer we allow and retell a single narrative of any group of people, in the political arena or otherwise, the poorer and less dignified we remain.

There is room for infinitely more commendatory expressions of who we are as a nation, and it’s in pursuing those that we will find our riches.