Healing the Healers

This past winter, a train in Chicago derailed because the conductor suffered sleep deprivation. One of my colleagues at the Chicago Medical School (part of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science) stated that this should not be frowned upon: “Physicians and medical students work with no sleep. But you still want them to save your life.” I paused for a second. “You are really going to make that argument?” I asked. “Of course,” she responded, “you expect the healer to treat themselves as if they don’t matter…as if their lives aren’t important.”

The conductor of the Chicago train did not simply have little sleep. For example, she may have been working three jobs to pay enormous debt and care for a sick mother. Similarly, derailments in medicine aren’t simply caused by miscommunication in a particular situation or other transitory social factors. Incidents, tragedies, and insufficiencies in medicine are often part of deep histories and complicated cultural conditions.

In the last decade, the concept of “Social Medicine” has gained traction. Within the standard model of “Social Medicine,” healthcare professionals are asked to interact with patients and healthcare subjects in a way that allows the healthcare professional to “assimilate” these interactions into the worldview of the healthcare professional.[1] In other words, doctors, nurses, and most everyone else in healthcare are asked to be culturally competent, sensitive to a patient’s social context, and open to alternative ways of thinking about the health of a human being.

It strikes me, however, that there is very little conversation within “Social Medicine” about who these healthcare professionals are. Where do they come from? What makes them tick? How are they made unhealthy within their journeys into medicine?

Medical schools continue to be places of status and privilege. Certain students have certain resources, connections, and privileges that other students do not. These resources, connections, and privileges are often generated through particular communities, clubs, and racial affinity groups that other students are not members of. Students who lack relationships within these communities, clubs, and racial affinity groups often endure alienation before and during medical school. Additionally, medical schools tend to emphasize certain learning skills, often as a means to prepare students for standardized testing, which do not usually align with medical students’ personal learning styles. Their personal learning styles are often products of cultures and heritages that are otherwise applauded by administrators at many medical schools as “diverse.”

Medical schools praise a small cohort of “diverse” students who make it through numerous obstacles on their ways to becoming physicians. The presence of these students in medical schools is supposed to illustrate a changed political and social climate where the best physicians are being trained. But why is this diversity important?

I strongly believe that the contemporary call for diversity is a passive response to urgency for authentic communication in healthcare. At Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFUMS), my home university, I advise and mentor students who are at the beginning of medical school. In this role, I recognize that students coming into medical school from various backgrounds often prepare for their roles as future physicians as if they are neutral positions from which they may begin to decipher the peculiarities of the lives of their patients. But I find that I must consistently persuade my students that their care of patients takes place within highly social contexts. It’s not as if social conditions stop affecting the health of the patient once they enter a hospital or physician’s office. It’s not as if the physician somehow turns off their biases and intuition. Who and what stands before a patient – in the form of a physician or other healthcare provider – helps determine a patient’s health.

Recognition of these truths is empowering. It makes it OK for a physician to be able to speak from their wealth of experiences and not be silenced by an unwarranted objectivity that places biases, non-medical intuition, and general senses of heritage on the periphery of medical care. But to be comfortable speaking in these ways as physicians, students must begin their medical training in the midst of difference and debate that only comes from bringing students from different vantage points and learning styles into medical school.

In that context, medical school admissions becomes a critical point of reflection in the medical educational process. When I first arrived at RFUMS in 2013, I attended a meeting about a Supreme Court case related to university admissions. One of our university administrators stated that use of any racial quota had become illegal. I told this person that I would never suggest a racial quota. Rather, I suggested, we ought to emphasize a connection between certain communities that are defined by certain healthcare disparities and the students who are most likely to research, treat, and eliminate these disparities. To make these changes means that we have to reconsider how medicine is kept alive in its current formations.

I lived in North Carolina for much of my life. My home community – the Lumbee Indian Tribe – prides itself on a long history of creating doctors. As a youngster, I knew that there were two medical schools that “we” attended if we wanted to go to medical school: UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. Other medical schools were off limits, it seemed, because “we” weren’t educated at these schools. Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston Salem, North Carolina, is a great example. This university was well known for its history of admitting and educating several generations of physicians (sometimes 4 or 5 generations!) within White families in North Carolina. Years later, when some of my undergraduate classmates from MIT began reporting on their experiences applying to and attending various medical schools, it became very obvious that Wake Forest School of Medicine is not alone in its affinity for students who come from families of physicians.

Medical universities such as Wake Forest understand that they will not have to extend extra resources to students from these “legacy” families because there are mechanisms built within these families that guarantee success in medical school. Historically, “legacy”- which might be described as familial and community propulsion into and through a particular situation – has overwhelmingly helped White students. In recent decades, the “legacy” system is mirrored in a small number of American Black families and in some South Asian communities.

This presses us to consider a very important anthropological concept: recognition. I often think about how a baby stares at a human face. From a very young age, they look at faces in order to establish trust. They do not lose that mechanism for building trust on their journey to adulthood. Humans see faces. Humans learn to trust people in particular moments of identification. And to think that this somehow stops within medicine is absurd.

Thus, we must prepare our students as if they will be recognized beyond the authority of their white coats.[2] There is an assumption within medical education that physicians are people who are legitimate simply because they have finished the academic work necessary to claim an identity as MD or DO. No, healing, like any human action, is context specific. It is culturally situated. It depends on the person being healed, and the person healing. Therefore, medical universities must create educational programs aimed at placing patients with particular cultural needs in contact with healthcare providers who possess particular cultural backgrounds.[3] To create these new programs, however, medical schools must identify and equitably address gaps in status and wealth between students.

This brings us back to economics. The people who likely have the most affinity for particularly underserved populations tend to be the most vulnerable students in medical school classes. Some medical students (usually those described as “diverse”) move through their education against the grain of a historic trend of students advancing into important social positions who are connected to a wealth of resources. If you listen to students who are not “connected,” their stories are often similar. Not only are they often not wealthy, they often possess educational backgrounds that were not supportive of their long-term achievements. Their families and communities care for them, but these families and communities tend to understand very little about the conditions of a medical student’s life. As a result, we should not be surprised if these same students are torn between medical specialties that allow them to practice with their communities and other possibly more lucrative, possibly more alienating medical specialties. Pressure is placed on medical students by other members of the medical community (including their classmates) to seek out the most profitable specialty as a demonstration of machismo and prestige. Still other students begin to look at their careers in medicine as a mechanism to truly deal with a legacy of poverty and disenfranchisement.

On that note, it is saddening to see that some of our students are educated in poverty. How does this poverty look? Many “diverse” students must pay attention to families and communities that pull at them for help in the midst of heavy medical school course loads. Additionally, the $20,000/year stipend from their gargantuan medical school loan does not make up for deep, historic poverty. As a result, they may not be able to afford the study aids necessary for successful completion of medical school practicums.

These are frightening propositions. There is an economic force – which helps energize the “legacy” that I mentioned earlier – that creates a scenario in which simply matriculating into medical school isn’t enough. The medical school of the future must incorporate a new type of community in which future physicians are valued, protected, listened to, and enabled to educate one another on the truths that come from the collaboration of different peoples within the university.

Very simply, a future with “Social Medicine” means that the healers must be healed. We must address the social conditions of medical professionals before they can adequately address the social conditions of their patients. We must be honest about how particular parts of medical education in the United States are diseased. We must use “Social Medicine” as a harsh light that reveals and heals in the selection and creation of the physician

[1] Kothari, K. The Case for Social Medicine. JAMA. 24 June 2014

[2] Over the past decade I have worked in pharmacy as a “pharmacy technician.” I

once heard an executive for Walmart’s Wellness division tell a pharmacy student

(at the store for a volunteer health day) that she should have confidence by saying:

“You wear the White coat, not that person you are helping. You are the authority.

You are the expert. Act like it.”

[3] Some notable exceptions include The University of Minnesota’s Medical School at

Duluth and East Carolina University, both of which have shown a major

commitment to educating Native American physicians.

Protecting Tobacco Road

UNC football

There are four major universities in North Carolina: N.C. State, UNC, Duke, and Wake Forest. These universities make up “Tobacco Road.” However, I think “Tobacco Road” extends beyond these four schools to include those universities that have constructed sports powerhouses on top of legacies of racial subjugation. In many ways, the “masters” or “planters” of the old plantation have been replaced by university administrators.

I began thinking about this in recent weeks in the aftermath of the UNC reading scandal. At the center of this story is a certain conversation about race. Most of the athletes implicated are Black. The Black Studies Department at UNC was a major part of the miseducation of UNC athletes. Additionally, surrounding UNC athletics, there is an oligarchy that will not give up power over the racialized body.

Let’s talk about how this system is protected.

I loved attending UNC basketball games as a graduate student between 2007 and 2012. However, I realized that social and racial hierarchy defined the Dean Smith Center (where the UNC basketball team plays). After standing in line for 2 hours to get a decent seat in the student section of the Center, and upon taking my seat in the student section, I observed the “wine and cheese” club. The members of this club walk out onto the floor minutes before tip off.  The rumor is that they enjoy wine and cheese before home basketball games. These “wine and cheese” members are special donors who have a special relationship with UNC athletics. They are overwhelmingly White (I think I saw a Black person one time). Most are over 40 of age. Yet, on this floor and on the football field, Black athletes formed the nucleus of the game. Black bodies were, overwhelmingly, the objects of sports spectacle.

UNC, like all of the universities on Tobacco Road, is part of a ‘crib to professional sports’ pipeline where Black athletes are often not expected to achieve core competencies in the University. I have to admit that N.C. State and Duke seem to not fit this mold so much. They push their students to take legitimate classes and some of them graduate in 3 or 3.5 years. Nevertheless, mostly Black players in most of these universities go from playing under the control of White university administrators to being the property – literally, the “property” – of White owners in the NBA or NFL. (Have you ever watched an NFL combine? They resemble slave markets.)

It is important for us to consider how this economy of athletics in American universities is aided in quite substantial ways by the racial segregation that still defines life in the U.S. South.  In past decades, UNC students have begged university administrators to remove the secrecy about the conditions of racial servitude at UNC. The University proudly displays two statues very close to one another in the main courtyard beside Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. One statue is a confederate soldier: “Silent Sam.” Another statue, titled the “Unsung Founders Memorial,” incorporates tiny figures of Black people holding a slab of granite. It supposedly pays homage to the history of the work that Black folks (slaves and non-slaves) did to make the university. But it is 10% the height of Silent Sam. It is relatively invisible.

This secrecy and invisibility doesn’t just define UNC. I interviewed for a faculty job at University of South Carolina a year or so ago. I was overcome by the fact that the campus is an old Southern plantation. The University President stays in a house in the middle of the campus that is akin to a plantation “big house.” A local hotel – where interviewees stay during their interviews – proudly displays a diagram of the plantation farms that surrounded the University of South Carolina over 150 years ago. When I asked faculty and Administrators at the University of South Carolina about this proud display of the plantation landscape, they dismissed me entirely.

In conversations with barbers in Winston Salem, North Carolina, I heard many stories about how police around Wake Forest University protected a line between poor Black communities and the overwhelmingly White student population of Wake Forest. Speaking about growing up around Wake Forest University, a local barber told me that “they would patrol that intersection at Cherry Street…if you went left…(onto what is now University Parkway)…you would be stopped…no questions asked.”


He and his fellow Black barbers grew up in a particular type of segregation. They could go practically anywhere they wanted to…but just not there.

The “patrolling” of these universities is a significant area of inquiry, especially in the aftermath of several murders in and around UNC. After the murder of UNC student Eve Carson in March 2008, the UNC community reacted with feelings of great fear. News specials showcased Eve Carson, a White female, as an angelic figure. UNC community, in particular, emphasized her role as student body president and lost gift to society. Even after police discovered that one of the men who murdered Carson (both men were Black) was responsible for murdering Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato, a citizen of India, it was Eve’s image that defined a culture of fear, vigilance, and healing in central North Carolina.

I returned to these quagmires after the murder of Faith Hedgepeth in Chapel Hill in 2012. Hedgepeth’s murder did not drum up the same sense of concern as Carson’s death did in earlier years. Hedgepeth – a UNC undergrad, a Native American, and a future doctor – still lies in limbo. Her murderer has not been found. Some people question if justice was sought for Faith Hedgepeth like it was sought for Eve Carson.

All of these issues point us toward a serious conversation about our different human values within American society. We often don’t want the things that pull at our heart strings and our senses of pride to be challenged. We don’t want to think that our universities are running modern day plantations. We don’t want to consider how the UNC community did not bemoan the death of Hedgepeth like it bemoaned the death of Carson.

In recent weeks, Mary Willingham, the tutor who broke the story of UNC’s unwillingness to ensure the educational standards of mostly Black athletes, has come out and stated that she will accept the backlash for speaking out about the conditions of oppression that defines UNC athletics. However, we must think beyond this particular story. We must attempt to define the powerful fist that came down on Willingham’s head. And we must ask several questions:

- How does this fist mirror the silence around the murders of particular people?

- How does this fist uphold the image of others?

- And, maybe more importantly, why and for whom is Tobacco Road protected?

Now Available at Walmart

A recent article in the Indian Country Today discusses the fact that Walmart will sell Native Threads clothing. One quote from this article sticks out like a sore thumb. It comes from the CEO, Randy Bardwell:

Native Threads is different because we aren’t a tribally operated business and we don’t have financial backing from tribes…We are a true entrepreneurship and went out to find money from the private sector as most entrepreneurs would.

As a Lumbee Indian, I always second guess my use of the word “tribe” in describing my membership to a Native American community. Back home (in the Lumbee community), when people say “tribe”, they reference some political/governmental entity that does not encompass the experiences of everyday life. I’ll be writing more on that in my upcoming book on Lumbee healing. However, for now, let’s start with the principle that the notion of tribe is very unsustainable as scholars of Native American envision it.

Why am I talking about this now? Well, along with the recent article on Native Threads, I found out that Mike Green, a highly regarded White historian of Native America, died recently. During graduate school at UNC, I encountered Professor Green many times. I remember one of my most troublesome encounters was after a presentation before a colloquium of Native American Studies scholars at UNC. I don’t remember what I was presenting (this was in the middle of my graduate career, which is always a place where you are constantly developing your argument), but I had made a statement to the effect that we must stop regarding Native Americans as simply tribes. Green, who walked in late, heard this statement. He raised his hand immediately after I was finished and said “If Natives don’t exist in tribes, how do they exist?” I smiled – I could feel my teeth gleaming – and I answered in a way that historians probably hate: “Historians started this tribal paradigm, now someone else must clean it up.” Yes, I know anthropologists love tribes – we study them all over the world – but ask a historian to explain Native America and they are always searching for a tribe. It’s almost as if, within history, all of these tribes are the actors.

You miss the individuals. You miss agency.

Whether in academia or outside academia, everyone identifies Native America through a tribal context. And I can understand how this is empowering. To keep the wannabes out, you have to set up particular barricades. I do it myself. I get people all the time who email me with inquiries about my take on Lumbee history and genealogy, and I am aware that I cannot fully open up to them. Why? Because there are things that only we know, and there are things that I share. I have to be careful about how I share.

But it should be no secret that for years Native American people have been traveling in and out of Native American communities, and the impetus within academia and U.S. society has been placed on preserving the tribe from which they come or within which they find a community. But what happens when Native Americans leave? Seriously, does the tribe somehow still own them? Or, maybe more accurately, does the tribe sit as the indefinite originator of authenticity?

For many, many Native Americans, the “tribe” isn’t the world. It’s an important component of the Native American world, but it isn’t the Native American world.

One of the most troublesome parts of the U.S. past is the fact that the Trail of Tears left many Native Americans while it took away so many other Native Americans. The Cherokee Tribe, as a massive economical force, carried a federal target on their backs because they stood in the way of American expansion and utilization of land in the U.S. South. On the other hand, from Georgia to Virginia, Native Americans thrived until the Civil War. Out West, tribes became codified by the Federal Government. Choctaw, Cherokee, Osage – – they all became these cartoonish elements through which the U.S. Federal Government and everyday citizens could put Indian people in their place. Back East, Lumbee people continued to regard Cherokees and other removed tribes as pitiful and in need of help. There is a long history of Lumbee aid to Native Americans out West (which I am writing about in my upcoming book).

But as we witness the political debacle that is tribal politics in the Lumbee community and beyond, we must remember and appreciate how Native American people have been the ultimate hustlers (to use a term commonly used in the United States today). Name an industry – from early colonial carpentry, to alcohol distribution, to healthcare in the 21st century – Lumbee people and members of other Native American communities have been highly agentive in these industries. They have been major players in these economies in these particular historical periods. They were and are entrepreneurs. They haven’t had tribal backing. Why would they want it today?

Now, this isn’t to say that they don’t want the Native community to support them. No, much of their success has been within Native communities. However, the “tribe” hasn’t been a central component in their success. Native Threads has amassed a great clientele at Native American conventions like the Gathering of Nations. Spaces and places like this are where Native American entrepreneurs bloom and showcase the power of Native American community that isn’t tribally centered.

However, I think that this approach to appreciating Native American agency doesn’t only provide a nice sound bite, it bucks against the “nation building” and anti-colonial rhetoric that defines the center of Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous studies today. It allows the Native American physician to see themselves as credible and abled caretakers of communities beyond their own. It sets up a scenario for a TV show in the future about Native American housewives (I’m just saying!!).

This is the beginning of an important conversation that breaks us from impoverished pictures of Native people. It demystifies Native American conditions, especially within the tribe. It makes Walmart a much more interesting space of inquiry.

You’re a Medicine…

In the midst of all the hype over “The Butler”, we must be reminded of how history is created for and managed within particular visions of our contemporary world. This hit movie, which opens today, is something that I want to see this weekend. It is the story of Cecil Gaines, a Black man who served as butler to several US presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to the Ronald Reagan. I love these stories…emotionally laden tales of Black men who are propped as center pieces in the emergence of American society into the great racial cornucopia that we live in today. Another popular movie that came out recently is “42”, the story of baseball player Jackie Robinson. What I find extremely interesting is how the breaking of “color barriers” by Black men has often overshadowed the ways that Native Americans infiltrated White social spaces since the 19th century. Major League Baseball published an article in 2011 describing how important Native Americans have been in Major League Baseball. Of central importance in this article is an inability for the author (or anyone) to contextualize these Native Americans next to the image of the Black citizen within Jim Crow America.

How do we explain Jackie Robinson transcending Jim Crow baseball when Native Americans were struggling just as much to be able to show their high level of skill 50 years before Robinson?

Today’s story of the Black butler and the Black baseball player provides a bit of joy based in the American metanarrative that at these particular moments all of the U.S. overcame the great racist divide. But this joy makes no sense, in the wider scheme of things, when we consider the images that define our everyday lives. For example, I’ve often considered how Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben differ from the Land-o-lakes Indian maiden. There are numerous food items that use Native American fictive images as their mascots…but not in the same way Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are used. The Native American images are void of agency…docile…without matching humans in “real life.” On the other hand, human equivalents of aunt jemima and uncle ben existed and to a large degree still exist in American society. “The Butler” is testament to this. No one can name a Native American equivalent to the Land-o-Lakes maiden. She epitomizes Indian non existence within American society (not simply segregation).

While “The Butler” gives a brief glimpse into a very troublesome American history defined by Black oppression, it also confirms how important Black folks have been in the politics of American society where others (importantly Native Americans) have been unimportant. My family and various older folks in the Lumbee Indian community told me numerous stories about life in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. Chief among their complaints was the ability for Black women to obtain roles serving as aids or housekeepers in hospitals when Native American women could not.

At some point, post Civil War, post Obama presidency, we must change this perpetual struggle to rectify Black and White relationships – to educate our children through the prism of Black and White segregation – in an effort to illustrate how struggles for civil and human rights begin by addressing the death, disfigurement, and absence of Native Americans in history and in contemporary society. This means removing ourselves from the Black-White racial paradigm that defines the hoopla over “The Butler.”

How about we think up a new story of American progress. How about, for example, we make movies examining how Iroquois men were called upon to finish the top of the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis because Black and White men couldn’t finish it? (There is a small line in this article about the Gateway Arch that says Mohawks were among those who finished the Arch. They were THE ONES who finished it.) How about we have a steadfast conversation about how we have yet to acknowledge how Native Americans preside as the original entrepreneurs in the United States (I mean, President Jackson did not remove Native Americans from the South because they were merely squatting. They were making money! And lots of it!)

The heralding of Black Americans in the shadow of White oppression is great. Nevertheless, it must be matched by the dedication of our story telling ability to the other parts of the American landscape that remains so ripe. There is a scene in “42” where Branch Rickey looks at Jackie Robinson and says “You’re a medicine Jack.” This statement is meant to make us all feel better about the progress our nation has made. But I ask, what would it mean for Native Americans to have a medicine? That is, what would it mean for Native American images to be central components of stories that are stuck in the mire of American life….not in feathers and on horses, but in metalworking outfits and holding baseball bats?

If you ask folks back in North Carolina, out in Oklahoma, and up in New York, there were quite a number of Native American baseball players whose ability to be a medicine to Native American youth was razed…not by a segregated baseball environment but by complete invisibility. Begin discussing Native American people as the truth…as the temples of success and achievement. Show Native American children how our heritage of extraordinary ability has been oppressed and muddled to degrees that are unimaginable.

Then place the real stories in feature films. Use my idea about the Mohawks. It would make for an awesome film.

But back to the Rickey statement to Jackie…

What does disease do after a long time without medicine to combat it?

Our New Crucifix (the legacy of Trayvon)


I’ve never understood the importance of the crucifix in theological or symbolic terms. Why must we keep the tortured and the dead hanging up to be fetishized?

Crucifixion as key social symbol is not limited to Christianity.

The recent announcement of the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial has left many of us more confused about what race means as we move forward in the 21st century. Zimmerman, who is the product of one Latino parent and one White parent, was accused of murdering a young Black man, Trayvon Martin. I can’t go a whole day without a message flashing across my iPhone with something related to the jurors or an impending investigation by the Department of Justice into whether Martin’s civil rights were impeded. Just today, CNN flashed a message across my phone about the President Obama’s declaration that Martin could have been him “35 years ago.”

Fellow anthropologist Orin Starn wrote a book titled The Passion of Tiger Woods in which he tackles the volatility of race in the American media. Among his major points is that Tiger Woods morphed from the symbol of a “post racial” American society in the early 2000s to a hip hop gangster, Tupac-esque image after his very public break up with his wife about a decade later. Like Woods, and Tupac before him, the images of Trayvon (and Zimmerman) constantly morphed as the media busily attempted to capture the truth behind what happened the night Martin was killed. Was Zimmerman “a white man” who killed “a black man.” Do we somehow make Zimmerman a “Latino” for the sake of justifying his claims of self-defense?

Reading comments on websites over the last year left me quite aware of the ways that the dead Martin and the alive Zimmerman coexisted in our imaginations. As Martin became a young Black thug, Zimmerman became a racially ambiguous person who successfully and legitimately defended himself. However, as Martin became an innocent young American teenager who was simply walking back from a gas station with Skittles and iced tea, Zimmerman became a biracial oddity who couldn’t become a legitimate police officer.

Whatever the case, whoever these men were, certain images of them are forever captured within a social apparatus that has morphed peoples into particular commodifiable mascots that are fought over and projected as powerful symbols in their death. Powered by Facebook, website forums, and other social mediating tools, our 21st century conversations about race illustrate how race (and, by extension, “racism”) is no longer a set of experiences in private lives that are matched by a powerful social conversation about overcoming (i.e. Civil Rights). No, racism is made public by particular crucifixion symbols. From Emmett Till, to Crazy Horse, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Trayvon Martin. We hang them up to speak indefinitely about a large sense of sacrifice and salvation that ushers us into the future where race may not be such a big deal. But race continues to be a very big deal.

The flexibility of golfer Tiger Woods’ identity within popular culture showcases how his image – his body – is used to express larger societal concerns. For Tiger Woods, supreme success allowed extreme public depictions of racial pedigree as his body and reputation blended together in stories in major publications from Vanity Fair to Time Magazine. “Good” Tiger was depicted through pictures of his multi-phenotype family. However, in his fall, Tiger was made into the sacrificed one. “Bad” Tiger was alone, and his body illustrated (for certain people) a certain fear of Tiger that we ought to have. Nevertheless, Tiger was our guy. The media and the public wanted him to make a come back. We wouldn’t allow segregation to happen anymore. And Tiger was the symbol of that.

But Tiger as crucifix might be hard to understand unless you remember who enjoys the power of his image. He is not the vulnerable young Black man who died. He is the symbol of changes in how a multi-cultural American public expects race to work. However, in many ways, those little boys who look like Tiger but don’t have Tiger fame occupy a perpetually segregated golf course…full of briers and unkempt…one that Tiger doesn’t play on. It contains extra police and very few second chances. It is perceived by everyone (including those playing on it) as disorderly and up for grabs. It is a site where there is very little chance for redemption. It is not part of the positivist multicultural future.

Trayvon Martin was walking on this golf course the night of his murder. His image after his death was not alive and vibrant like that of Tiger Woods…it was bound in ambiguity and skepticism. Dead Trayvon Martin will forever be seen in his hoodie. We have very few images of Trayvon besides those where he is throwing up two middle fingers. Like Native Americans, he is left stoic and at the mercy of very coercive, manipulative suggestions concerning his intentions on the night he died.

I remarked to my good friend (a Black man) recently that you can begin to see how Native American people feel when you consider how the murdered Trayvon is left hanging as token for all to ponder. Narratives of racism in Trayvon’s death are overshadowed by the multiple stories of what Trayvon means to others who are living.  The Black Church has one interpretation. The liberal media has another. The conservative media has another. Trayvon’s image was shown to exist in multiple forms, as a crucifix interpreted by many people in many ways.

I am concerned about the make up of the jury at Zimmerman’s trial. In the early 20th century, courts in the U.S. South provided verdicts that were obviously biased against non-White people.  Does it make sense that Zimmerman’s jury was all White (with one Latino)? Not really. But we must understand that dead men tell no tales, and we live in a society strongly defined by Black, Latino, and Native American dead men.

Why is this important? Look at our crucifixes.  I noticed two young Black boys (each around 17 or 18 years of age) in Washington DC. One of them wore a Washington Redskins shirt. The other wore a shirt with a picture of Trayvon in a hoodie. The symbols, for me, carried equal weight. Each image – each mascot – was a rallying call in one way or another. One used the image of a racist caricature to unite a community around a team. The other used the image of Trayvon in his hoodie to rally a nation.  Each spoke to justice unfulfilled. Each was silenced by institutions of finality. Trayvon sits stoic as his justice was determined by Zimmerman’s trial. The “redskin” sits stoic as the focal point for a nation that murdered or committed genocide against most of Native America. 

(In Oregon, in the continued national debate over Native American mascots, a state representative made an argument against the changing of Indian mascots in high schools by saying that we shouldn’t have to change so much to appease so few. Supposedly, it would take around $600,000 to change the Indian mascots in a certain school district to something else. If this line of logic was used more widely, we wouldn’t spend money seeking justice for individuals who are murdered. We would simply say that one dead person (and their family) does not require the efforts and resources of local governments.

But we don’t say that.)

So as you see the emergence of Tiger Woods in his post-divorce golf career, and as you compare this with the remembrance of Trayvon, consider how race and racism are contained within symbols floating through our everyday lives that we buy into. In not having the power to speak of the importance of the dead, we wear them like two boys in Washington DC. But why? Maybe we should ask why these two boys were not wearing Tiger Woods tshirts. Can two black boys in the middle of crime ridden DC rally around Woods’ image? No, the dead seem to tell the truth…the whole truth. They are better symbols. They are a better crucifix. The tortured and the murdered are highly valuable within a larger societal context where the crucifix (in its various forms) helps us speak.

If Trayvon is our new crucifix, what happened the night he died is indicative of the sin that haunts our human experience. Our search to find justice for Trayvon (if that is what we are searching for) must be attached to an equally important search to understand why we remember our martyrs like we do.

Trayvon is remembered in many ways, and we would be wise to ask ourselves how the image of Trayvon is in the league of other great crucifixes. He isn’t Jesus, but he is important in this moment. Like Jesus, his story can be told in thousands of ways. We may not know the conditions of his death. Zimmerman may be exonerated. Nevertheless, we must listen to the many different ways that Trayvon helps different people explain their varying circumstances and positions within the United States.

Guns, Violence, and Cultures of Displacement

Two days ago, President Obama gave a speech about guns, gun violence, and gun safety. As a prelude to this speech, Dr. Michael Jeffries, who teaches about race at Wellesley University, wrote in the Atlantic that:

Of course, smart choices and the cultivation of a love ethic are vital to improving our lives, no matter where we live. But the findings are clear and unambiguous: The violence will not cease unless we dismantle American apartheid, mass incarceration, and a labor market with no place for the black and Hispanic working class.

Jeffries argued that this is how Obama must describe the conditions in Chicago. And Obama did…to some extent.

Like Jeffries, I teach about race and racism. However, in teaching students about the power of racism within U.S. society, I push my students to examine the infrastructures that support the racialized person. I ask my students to see the big picture. Basically, as we critique race and identify that “race matters” (to use the title of Cornell West’s book), we try to look slightly beyond race.

The fact is, gun violence is much more than racial conditions as pundits of race in America frame them. For example, Chicago’s murder problem (and the larger national “gun problem” attached to it) is also part of the regionalism that defines the United States as a colonial infrastructure. It is about political binaries that have long plagued the U.S. (North vs. South as much as Black vs. White, for example).  It is also about gun violence as often un-locatable until it makes headlines.

To answer Jeffries, gun violence doesn’t just fester in “apartheid” conditions with certain peoples inclined to suffer because of the pathology of violence. Gun violence is also what makes us safe. Whether through the surrogate cop or your own initiative to carry a “Saturday night special” in your purse, gun violence is ubiquitous. It is both good and evil. It is both a tool of the encroacher and those being encroached upon.

Thus, Chicago is too convenient. The photo-op for Obama is too convenient. Instead of looking romantically on Chicago, how about we consider the ways that gun use in Chicago is part of the same fabric as the paranoia in “red states” that make carrying a gun a part of the American right of passage.  (A business in Virginia is offering 15% off their goods and services for individuals who “practice their 2nd ammendment right.”) To assume that “violence will not cease unless” a “working class” is freed from “American apartheid” is to assume that all of these stories don’t borrow from similar impulses to create spaces that mark one’s agentive place in a nation-state otherwise celebrated for its gun wielding bad boys named Capone, Jesse James, and Bonnie and Clyde. Gun violence defines the yet to be identified figures who killed JFK. Gun violence makes the Hatfields and McCoys comfortable figures for our prime time television.

Nevertheless, discussions of gun violence and race make gun violence locatable and pathological within the United States. It assumes that we don’t need to talk about the international drug cartels that use and abuse urban areas because the conditions of expecting violence allow drug runners to be comfortable using guns to protect turf.  Violence and expectation are hand in glove. Also, if drug running is ‘illegal’, there are many ways that the expectation of violence is patterned in ‘legal’ ways. Gun ranges and gun stores across the U.S. employ many different peoples, many of whom are ex-military members. Quite a few of these former military men (yes, mostly men) hone their military training for a domestic audience. Their work to educate gun owners, like their former work protecting colonized peoples across the world, is geared toward the possible (some would say ‘expected’) violent encounter.

As we think about Chicago “black-on-black” crime as intra-community, we must realize the persistent displacement and mobility that frames the lives of these young Black citizens. We must understand the ways that this displacement is helped by the forces that abuse these urban communities. Working a full time job (to use Jeffries’ and Obama’s idea) won’t necessarily help this displacement.

Maybe Obama should have discussed the ways that Black Americans in Chicago, like many Native Americans in the past and present, battle to find a position to fight politically. Actually, it is no coincidence that gangs are defining Native American communities in extraordinary ways. The violence practiced in Chicago, like the violence of the past and the expected violence by those citizens following their “2nd amendment rights”, is part of the United States facing its colonial demons. It was OK for White patriots to carry their gun (to practice the 2nd amendment) because they could be trusted against Native Americans and in service to slave based economics. Enter an era where brown and black people control life and death…and it becomes an epidemic. It’s a bit ironic. Yet, it’s all the same story, the same fabric, the same song. In their abstract calls for controlling guns, pundits and government officials don’t articulate the very complex ways that guns serve as currency in an economy of displacement…a displacement that is ritualized, commodified, and used to condition and recondition us in our everyday lives.

Undermining the Power of Victoria’s Secret

As an anthropologist I am often placed between intellectual “rocks” and “hard places.” For example, I am often left to defend the very presence of Native American studies discourse even as I attempt to change the game in Native American studies. What do I mean by this?

Well, as many of you see in your daily lives, conversations about Native America equate to two questions: (1) what tribe are you from and (2) do you speak a Native language? Who asks a White person if they speak British English vs. French vs. English of the U.S. South. No one. It should be self-evident. But in asking a Native American both where they are from and if they speak a language there is a reinforcement of a very strong power dynamic in the West that makes Native America exist only if Native Americans sit authentically within particular locations and practices where they are perceived to maintain tradition (as illustrated by a language that we should should speak outside the language we do speak).

OK…so why am I bringing this up? Well, it is time that we have a very public and very intimate conversation about the economics that help protect this need to ostracize, alienate, and subvert Native American identity under the rubric of authenticity and tradition. While I understand that a few people are obtaining wealth on several Native American reservations as they serve as the executives of major economies built on Casino profit, this is not all of Native America. Anthropologist Jessica Cattelino, in her study of casinos established by the Seminole tribe of Florida, asks in one of her academic articles why Native American empowerment (or sovereignty) must exist along side the context of need. She states that once Native Americans obtain wealth they are criticized for the power they have ascertained through their wealth making apparatuses. While this is a wise and poignant start to analysis, it assumes (yet again) a localization of Native identity around traditional and contested existences in tribal communities. But what happens when the Native American person attempts to occupy a personal identity? What is the disconnection between the localized, tribal identity and a personal Native American identity that wants to participate in larger national and global markets of representation?

Perhaps the importance of understanding a Native American’s personal identity – how it operates in economies and politics of expertise and representation – is best understood in the contexts of Hollywood. I recently came upon a website owned by two Native American sisters from Canada: The Baker Twins.   These ladies are members of two Native American nations in British Columbia. On their website, they posted this Tyra Banks clip where they discuss the lack of roles for them in Hollywood. One of the most critical portions of this conversation is when they describe their decisions in the past to consider roles that were scripted for Latino or “mixed” characters.

While this may seem innocent to many people – as, possibly, just the nature of changing populations that demands that Hollywood producers and directors represent racialized peoples in particular ways – it is not so innocent when we consider the rampant abuse of Indigenous, Native American, and aboriginal images in the economies of the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Here, I will provide two examples.

The first example is discussed here on ABC news. Essentially, Victoria Secret dressed a white female model in a replica headdress, a leopard skin bikini, and costume turquoise jewelry. Once this fashion show took place, there was a mild outcry against Victoria Secret. Like all organizations that are labeled in the American media as “racist,” they subsequently released an official “apology.”

I asked my students in one of my undergraduate classes why it was so easy for Victoria Secret to both utilize the image of the sexualized Native American vixen and later feel compelled to only issue an apology. One of my students stated with great wisdom that Victoria Secret often uses images of females in racial and regional decoration because these races and regions are perceived to be overtly sexual and scandalous. Essentially, as my students articulated together, you couldn’t put a catholic nun or 16th century pilgrim on the Victoria Secret stage because they aren’t “naughty” enough. You would have to call them the “naughty nun” or the “sex craved pilgrim.” There are no such modifiers given to the image of the Native American female utilized by Victoria Secret. Thus, the Baker Twins found out quickly that if they are going to portray characters that represent typical American life in Hollywood films, they would have to take on the standard identities that Hollywood propagates (e.g. the Latina, the “mixed” girl, etc.). They were dismissed because they had no power to overcome the power of producers and directors to direct what racial and national identities were visualized in their productions. If Native Americans and other alienated racialized individuals were used to represent themselves on a regular basis in the United States, this would undermine the power of the flexible white model to act in buffoonery (contemporary black face, if you will) and the power of billion dollar corporations to flexibly depict the American and global landscape as they choose. Apologies – and no real repercussion – is the privilege of power.

Perhaps this conversation can be continued in the context of the economics of other colonized countries in the Western Hemisphere. In my second example, one of my colleagues recently sent me a video that is an advertisement for the clothing line of international model Gisele. In a fashion similar to the use of images of sexualized Native Americans in North America, the narrative of this video places the more European Gisele in a situation where the Natives are preparing her in makeup and other clothing that is depicted as traditional, authentic, and indigenous. At the end of the video, Gisele looks in a pool of water held by a Native person and sees European beauty.

Like the Victoria Secret model, Gisele is the exemplar of contemporary Indigenous buffoonery. “But what is the Harm?” someone may ask. The harm, in my opinion, is the acceptability that after 400 years of making indigenous peoples invisible – after 400 years of genocide in North and South America – there is no conduit for Native Americans to represent themselves. And I ask, how do we combat this? What do we do within our theoretical analysis that sheds light on the quagmire that Native Americans find themselves in as they attempt to supplant White peoples in contemporary black face (I guess we should call it “red face”)?

I think there is much to be done. While I absolutely agree that we should continue understanding collective senses of Native American empowerment, I also argue that we should understand this dismissal of contemporary Native Americans as individual agents in popular culture. It is in defining these individuals that we have a next realm of Native American and Indigenous studies. This is the beginning of an important conversation.