Monday, April 11, 2011
Indian in a Box
Some time back in the 1960s I had a version of this toy. Mine didn't come with a horse; but I still remember how much I loved this plastic figure. I remember how the joints would creak when you moved them, the cool smoothness of his plastic skin, the slightly sticky touch and rubbery smell of his accessories, and of course the deep mystery of his lack of certain proper anatomical features. Part of me is embarrassed over this toy. How dare I, a little white boy, objectify an entire people and reduce them to a little plaything. Part of me is proud of choosing this toy over the matching cowboy: in my imaginary world the Indians almost always won as though the injustices I was reading about in the history books this toy helped me to love could be made to be unhappened and rewritten away. As much as I flinch, now, as a middle-aged adult, watching children play at killing each other with violent toys as I suppose this one was, I seem not to have indoctrinated myself into a strong urge to kill my fellow humans, join the army, or otherwise lead a life of crime or violence. In the end I think the imaginations of children are probably best left to do what they're supposed to do, stretch and expand little minds.
The thing is, playing with my toy Indian didn't really teach me anything about real Indians. It taught me to spin a narrative about Indians in my head, a narrative wrought from TV shows and old movies and daydreams which had elements of reality mixed altogether with my and other people's fantasies. My playtime did, ultimately, send me on a quest for information about Native Americans, and eventually I set aside the toys in favor of books. And to this day I'm an avid reader of books about Indian history. Which makes me well informed in a certain kind of way but in the end I'm still a (grown up) white boy trying to contextualize information about, well, others, albeit hopefully in a respectful way.
Because of course my Indian in its box had nothing much to do with any actual flesh and blood people. There are people I have come to know who have ancestors who lived here before white people and survived the rapacious thirst of European immigrants for land, just like others I know have ancestors who came here for all sorts of complex reasons, some of whom probably participating in various unspeakable acts of ethnic cleansing. It's ludicrous to even try and say it, but none of us is lifted up or cursed by this ancestry, we're all just regular people: some have values in common with me and some don't. And this brings me to the point I'd actually like to make, which is not about Indians at all.
Today France outlawed the wearing of Islamic face-coverings: either the Afghan-style Burqa bodysuit or the niqab, a veil draped across the face. A couple weeks ago that bigoted American pastor in Florida who had threatened to burn a Holy Q'uran fulfilled his promise; and while the American media took a pass on covering the event it was later used by fundamentalist demagogues across the planet in Afghanistan to whip up a crowd who last week wound up murdering a handful of innocent United Nations workers.
These three events all have in common, I think, a basic failure to recognize ourselves in the faces of others. These are all actions based in fear. Certainly the murder of innocent people is the worst of them. But the other actions are repellent also: societies where religious freedom is allegedly cherished acting in these ways? We should be ashamed. Because just as the fundamentalist demagogues in Afghanistan have put non-Muslims in a box, so fundamentalist demagogues like Pastor Jones or the racist politicians behind France's new law are putting Muslims in a box: the dehumanizing box of otherness and objectification.
Only now, it's not children's playtime. These reactions are not based in reality, they're based in narratives going on in the heads of the perpetrators.