Challenging stereotypes and defensiveness regarding the Geronimo codename and the Paper Tiger
Seven-year-old Little Brother came home recently wearing a spiffy new Cleveland Indians baseball cap with a bright red Chief Wahoo embroidered on it. A gift.
He was so happy to have this special gift from special friends.
But Chief Wahoo? Seriously? Still?
I did not want to criticize the friends who gave it to him — nice, well-meaning folks who know nothing about the controversy surrounding the use of Native American caricatures as mascots.
Caught between the conflicting desires to honor this friendship and not perpetuate harmful stereotypes, I let Little Brother wear the cap around the house for a few days until the newness wore off and then let nature take its course — the cap got swallowed up and disappeared somewhere in the mess that is our house.
Then we went to the library and read about real Native Americans to gently supplant that stereotype in his young mind.
A week later, the message that Osama bin Laden had been killed came across the news, “Geronimo E-KIA” (“Enemy-Killed in Action”).
Native American reaction was swift and pained, describing the association of the most well-known Native American leader with America’s most-hated enemy as “a bomb in Indian Country” and “FAIL,” especially in light of Native American contributions to the U.S. military.
The Fort Sill Apache Tribe asked for an apology, gently noting that the codename must have been a cultural and historical misunderstanding, but “right now Native American children all over this country are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and murderer of thousands of innocent Americans. Think about how they feel at this point.”
Native American writer Susan Power writes how defending her point of view to those who try to convince her that the codename is not offensive sent her spiraling straight back to childhood:
“I could viscerally recall being the only Native student in my elementary school class, squirming as teachers described my people in ways I didn’t recognize, couldn’t honor. And, when I timidly raised my hand, wishing to sink through the floor because I was so shy, near-whispering a comment that in my family and my tribe this was my experience and what I’d been taught, the teacher would smile in a smug way, and tell me how wrong and misguided I was. This is how a child learns that she is invisible in America. This is how a child learns that her voice doesn’t count, her experience is invalid and not to be trusted. This is how a child sometimes wonders if she’s crazy since her truth never matches the one the mainstream tells her is The Truth.”
I have been surprised at the defensiveness with which many have tried to justify the codename.
Asian American writer Gil Asakawa nails it when he writes, “The fact is, if something is offensive to someone, it’s offensive. Period. It’s not about the motivation, or the intent. It’s about the impact.”
The Asian American blogosphere has been locked in its own fierce debate this week over the impact of Asian American writer Wesley Yang’s overly long, angst-ridden and stereotype-reinforcing article for New York Magazine, “Paper Tigers — What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?”
Ostensibly about the bamboo ceiling, the article rehashes many old issues and tired stereotypes, including the difficulty of Asian American men to get white women to go out with them. Yang blames Asian culture (ala Amy Chua Tiger Mother) and protests a bit too much about how cool he is (because he is the opposite of stereotype). A painful read.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com and a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches “Asian Pacific American History and the Law” at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.