Hey there. My name is Lindsey, and I’m an anthropologist in Tucson.
At first I thought that it may not be worth it to write an email, because if a school administrator had already made the decision to ignore the voice of a student, he probably secretly feels guilty about doing so, and as a sort of compensation for this unchecked guilt, he would just delete the emails that come to him, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. But then I thought, “you know what? I need to have more faith than that in our educational system.”
So really, my main point isn’t that a “cowboys vs. indians” day is overtly offensive, actually racist, and obviously uncomfortable to at least one student (probably more). That point will be made by others in your inbox, and should be your main takeaway from this unfortunate experience. What I am trying to express, as a fellow expander-of-minds, is that it makes me fear for your school’s integrity, and the integrity of our educational system writ large. In essence, it scares me a little bit.
You’ve received some emails, I imagine, which eloquently state the reasons why essentializing a whole vast assemblage of cultures/real people/histories/experiences into a binary of “cowboy” and “indian” is super ignorant and offensive. I agree with all of what has undoubtedly been said, and will not add to it. I can offer only a quote to support their claims here, which is, “Racism is not in your intent. Your intent is immaterial in how racist your actions are. This isn’t about you BEING a racist. It’s about you DOING A THING that is racist. Your intent doesn’t change it. Your ignorance of its meaning doesn’t change it. It’s got nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with the meaning of your action in the context of sociocultural history.” Read that, think about it. It was written in regards to dressing up as an “indian” for halloween. It’s relevant, I think.
So why are you doing this? Is it that you honestly didn’t even realize the intent of the event, and are guilty of just “doing a thing”? If that’s the case, that freaks me out, big time. You are supposed to think deeper than this. You, and those around you who make decisions as educational leaders, should be thinking about intention AND practice. You should turn your critical lens, which you probably honed in some form of education beyond high school, towards the improvement and betterment of young minds, and through that daily process, yourselves. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect any level of education to be a site of self-awareness, meta-thinking, and knowledge production that makes everyone involved a little bit better citizens of humanity.
I don’t want to be wrong in this. I don’t want to hear that this is just high school, so these performances of structural violence and power can go unchecked. I refuse to believe that. So I ask that you, like, really thinkabout it. Who are “indians?” Who are “cowboys”? What does using “vs” accomplish other than a reiteration of an exclusionary and historically inaccurate oppositional system? What else could you do that would make your students think, rather than just participate in the structures of oppression that bind each of them, all of us?
I wrote my master’s thesis on the modern day work practices of cowboys and ranchers in southern Arizona. As such, I can think of a few different ideas that are way more thought-provoking than what you came up with. Maybe as an alternative to “cowboys vs indians,” you can have a Cowboys vs. the Urban Industrial Complex day, because that’s a) more relevant, b) more historically accurate (if you remember that cowboys are people too, you could talk with them about their long productive history with both native and hispanic ranchers), and c) more educational and less fucking racist, because you’re like, a school. Let me know if you need a guest speaker.
I hope your day was a productive one, filled with a realization, maybe, that as an institution of learning, this event is a good place to start.