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.
I think I want to start a blog where I watch CNBC and take some of their analysts’ phrases out of context, so these people seem less like fear-mongering capitalist automatons and more like deep thinking poets. Here would be the first one: “Touch is always more meaningful than not.” - COO of Amazon.
*this idea brought to you buy my husband who for some reason sometimes watches this godforsaken channel before work, after he watches john stewart and colbert.
When he walked into my office, I was surprised to see how tall he was. He wore a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, his hair slicked back in a ponytail. He had headphones on, and the music was loud enough that I could hear it – heavy metal, full blast. I had read his application that he had filled out in the waiting room, so I knew he was only 23 years old, that he had lived his whole life on the Tohono O’odham reservation until he went to prison at age 19, time served for possession with intent to sell. Yet these were the only things I gleaned from his application, because the lines under the questions I had crafted to get a sense of what I could help him with, What hobbies do you have? What were your favorite subjects in school? If you could describe an ideal Saturday, what would it be?, were filled in with just one word, over and over again: No. No. No.
I was only a few years older than he was, but his height and demeanor belied his young age. I asked him to remove his headphones, which he did, begrudgingly. What unfolded afterwards was, at the time, what I considered my first failure at my job. I had worked as a Mentoring Associate for over a year, matching volunteer mentors with individuals who had just been released from prison – some re-entering after a year, some after two decades. Yet after dozens of clients, he was the first I felt helpless about, the first I couldn’t imagine a positive future for. In contrast to him, most of the men and women I met in my office were excited. Our introductions came within 24 hours of their release, and they spent our first meetings revealing their enthusiasm about starting over, staying clean, changing for good this time. I supported this self-affirming ritual. As they explained their job prospects, the support of their sponsors, and their general optimism about starting anew, I responded with “What you did was in the past, you did your time. This felony isn’t your identity. It’s just an obstacle that you can overcome.”
But with him, the young man with the heavy metal music, there was none of this unbridled self-motivation. Monosyllabism was his forte, until I became frustrated enough that I finally broke my thus-strained professionalism.
I spewed, “Do you even want to do this program? It’s not required, you know.”
“I just want to go back to prison,” he said, his first multi-word sentence since his arrival.
Less than a day after he got out, this was what he wanted. He had no hopes of a better future in Tucson, no dreams about picking himself up by his bootstraps. He wanted back in. I asked him why, and silence filled the room. I shifted in my seat. I didn’t want to fill the pregnant pause with my motivational interviewing techniques. I only wanted to begin to understand.
Finally, he muttered, “I want to go back because I know people in there. I don’t know shit out here. I sat at the bus stop to come to this appointment and a lady didn’t want to sit next to me. I don’t want to be outside. People are mean to me out here.”
He picked up his earbuds and pressed play on his cd player, as if our time together was over. And it was. I let him go.
things about grad school that i haven't yet figured out that i hope to figure out soon, in order to hold onto my last remaining shreds of sanity and dignity:
1) when you have a job that requires you to work 10 hours a week, try to split this time into, say, 2 hours a day 5 days a week. this is better than not doing it at all for 2 weeks and then feeling guilty and working 2 consecutive 10 hour days in a row to appease your conscience.
2) drinking coffee for breakfast and lunch every day seems like a great idea most of the time, and can lead to others’ false impressions about how much you exercise or maybe how much you don’t eat donuts, but it can also be a fast track towards having paranoid delusions regarding how your dog keeps staring at you like that and what does he KNOW?!
3) every week, try to do at least 5% of your required readings. lindsey. 5%. come on. seriously.
4) do not, under any circumstances, mutter “that’s what she said” when a professor says something to you that includes the word ‘rough’ or ‘long.’ because then your professor WILL ask you what you just said, and you WILL have to pretend you are not a 15 year old boy.
5) if at all possible, try to squeeze in at least an hour a week to play mortal kombat on your sega genesis with someone who will let you transfer all of your suppressed rage and disillusionment onto Kano or Scorpion. tears will be shed. dropkicks will be administered. your playing partner must understand this.
on the way to the soup kitchen this morning, i saw a homeless man begin to cross the street at a very large intersection where i was stopped. when he was about 3 steps off the sidewalk, the light turned red. i gave a slight chuckle when he kept walking, impressed with his utter disregard of the do-not-walk sign. but then my chuckle turned into amazement when he walked so slowly that it took him not one, not two, but three entire light cycles to cross the road. people in their cars were honking, red in the face despite being cool in their air-conditioned cocoons. they were outraged. i couldn’t do anything but laugh and hope this wasn’t just a result of a man’s lack of mobility and consciousness, but an intentional bit of guerrilla movement as the 120 degree asphalt sizzled under his feet.
“‘Peace, pot, microdot. It’s just a phrase old hippies use.’
'How are you doing?' 'Good, except I just found out the world was going to end in 2012.'
Now that I know I’m leaving this job, I feel compelled to write again. I feel ashamed I haven’t written down the things that have and haven’t mattered. After you immerse yourself in a world for a while, it seems normal. These people I’ve talked to day in and day out seem like people I’ve known for a while. Stories I’ve heard before. Will I ever forget how to talk to the recently released? They are still in prison, some of them. Prisons in their minds. Many of those that have sat across my desk are not memorable, maybe because they think they don’t need to be remembered. Monosyllabism is the quickest way to freedom - freedom from connection, others. I am the other, and have never pretended not to be. I have to google ‘peace pot and microdot’ because of my lack of experience with LSD, with prison jargon. Maybe because I’ve been here long enough, I have heard enough stories of Hep C and running the yard and write ups for not wanting to work in the kitchen (dish soap is harsh, and you can’t sneak salt into the food) - maybe all these things turn into just another day on the job. But how about the people that tell me these stories? Some of them recount prison stories with pride, some with shame, some with marked indifference. Some refuse to share these stories all together. And here I am, the benevolent voyeur, trying to pry betterness out of them. I tell them that this was their past, not their identity, that they have changed. Most of them agree, repeating it. But those who agree, and then up in prison again, how about them? Do they remember lessons they’ve learned, out here, in there? In there, out here. Again, again. The rat race, the safe place. The cycle. It all seems obvious, that they should never have been inside. Is that the final lesson I will learn? That no matter what people say to get out and stay out, it is what we as society does to them to get them there in the first place?”
—Written March of 2010, the day after I found out I was going to grad school, after a few week hiatus from writing at the job.
One day, my husband decided to build a new fence between us and our neighbor, the baptist church. As he was working in the summer heat, a man approached him and asked if he needed help digging holes and pouring concrete for the metal posts. My husband’s answer was an unequivocal yes, as it was over 100 degrees outside at 10 am that morning and the faster it could get done, the better.
This man, who said his name was Terry, was on his way to the church for their weekly ‘church relief,’ in which congregation members lined up to provide homeless individuals with food, toiletries, etc. Terry had been going to the relief for years, and as he walked there from wherever he was staying the previous night, he would keep his eyes open for odd jobs, day labor, to get some cash in his pocket.
The fence between us and the church took three weekends to build. Terry was there each Saturday and Sunday at 8 am, the agreed time. Our friends would come over to help too, and I would hear occasional laughter and a lot of banter between the two, three, or four gentlemen outside, over the pounding of sledgehammers into the dirt or the welding of metal to metal.
I didn’t spend a lot of time talking to Terry, as I wasn’t helping out with the fence too much, but my husband and his friends did. It was a strange sort of impromptu friendship between them, centered around backbreaking work. When the fence was completed, Terry told my husband that if he ever needed him, all he needed to do was ask for “Shirtless Terry.” He picked up this name, I guess, because he never really wore clothing on his torso, as his leathery skin attested to. I just thought that was interesting, the notion that we could ‘just ask’ for him in the homeless community of Tucson. It made me think, who else could I ask for? Who else could I find? What other names have been adopted, and what do they mean?
I woke up this morning to the aching creaks of a tree stump being excavated. I looked outside and saw the usual suspects, this time working on a front gate for our yard. It was my husband, wielding a chainsaw, his two best friends, squaring metal stock and pouring concrete, and Shirtless Terry, hacking away at the roots of the once mighty salt ceder whose demise was inevitable. I guess he had made his way to the church relief again and saw that there was more work to be done, and dug right in. He’ll be back again next week and maybe the week after that, as long as there was something to be constructed, to be made.
Thanks for your continuing help, Shirtless Terry.
B Rabbit, the fictional white rapper portrayed by the real-life white rapper Eminem in the movie 8 Mile, implored the crowd at the dingy, dimly lit club to put its hands in the air, a non-verbal sign of encouragement, belief. The crowd swayed and chanted to the pulse of the beat, seemingly entranced by the freestyle rap battle taking place on stage. B Rabbit, who had just withstood 45 seconds of racially degrading lyrics in spitting range from a black rapper named The Lotto, had taken the microphone and begun to rap. In the last seconds of his turn in the battle, he faced the engrossed audience and boastfully delivered the final lines:
You see how far them white jokes get you,
Boy’s like, “How’s Vanilla Ice gonna diss you?”
My motto? Fuck Lotto.
I’ll get them digits from your mother for a dollar tomorrow!
The crowd that had, beside the occasional release of smoke, held their collective breath as B Rabbit vied to win the rap battle, erupted. For the audience watching this final scene in 8 Mile, the message seemed clear: against all odds, the lower-class white male who had been discriminated against was able to persevere and succeed in, or even assimilate into, an arena of non-whiteness. In this club in south Detroit, it seems like colorblindness, or at least the defiance of racial categorization, had been achieved.
As this movie’s trajectory closely follows Eminem’s own, one might be satisfied with viewing his life history within the rubric described above. Eminem, who has been crowned the most talented rapper of his generation by a myriad of sources, seems to have achieved an untouchable level of success in a genre dominated by non-white performers and consumers. However, focusing on his monetary success gained from selling over eighty million albums since his debut in 1999 (CNN, Online) provides us with an incomplete image of a white body in a non-white zone. Eminem’s habitual contact with non-white practices and bodies, conveyed in the movie 8 Mile and in his live performances and lyrics, makes him both a success and an exemplar of “failed whiteness,” or a white body that has transgressed enough times to be ridiculed, shunned, and hated by many. Through the analysis of Eminem’s non-white practices, this paper aims to debunk the wide-held notion that he has risen above racial categorization to achieve success, instead arguing that Eminem demonstrates that white bodies who transgress can succeed, but only if they are made to be an example of what whiteness should not be.
"I had rented a truck when a previous ranch road dented the undercarriage of my small sedan. I hadn’t requested a truck, per se, but when I drove to my destination for the oral history I had scheduled, I was thankful for the vehicle I was equipped with. The monsoons had started, creating ditches in the eight mile dirt road that would have been impossible to cross otherwise. On the drive, I saw a group of cows wading in one of the larger puddles. The creatures seemed to not come across vehicles often – even creeping by at 5 miles per hour startled them, and they stared at me with wide, brown eyes as I drove past. After crossing a high ridge that provided a view south to the Mexico border and west to Baboquivari peak, I crossed one last cattle guard to find a small bunkhouse nestled in a bank of mesquite trees. When I pulled up to Buck’s house, he had just pulled up in an old pick up truck from the opposite direction. I stepped out of my car to introduce myself, but introductions proved unnecessary. Buck immediately informed me that he had thought about calling and cancelling our interview, but because he had initially agreed, he couldn’t go back on his word. He opened the door to his house and directed me towards the kitchen. The table was set with four place settings, and in the middle of the table sat a big bowl of ruby red apples. There was some sort of chili or stew simmering on the stove, but despite the aroma of the stew and the table prepared to dine, nothing was offered to me except a brief period of time to talk, before Buck had to be back out on the range. As we took our seats across the table from each other, I explained my project with him and gained his consent, only after he heard more about the project and confirmed my intentions. Buck’s insistence on not particularly wanting to talk, though he resolved to do it, was striking if not somewhat refreshing. His reticence belied his vast knowledge of the desert, and the ins and outs of ranching more broadly. He had determined, though, that his role on this ranch was not as a talker but as a worker – a ‘cowboy wrangler’ who took his job seriously, and took it alone."
- An example of the introduction to my little short stories on each of the ranchers and cowboys I interviewed this summer. After this opening paragraph setting the scene, the rest of the story essentially sums up the interview I did with whichever informant, focusing on the aspects they described as making up their daily work and what I consider the making of their social status - how they do things, and what that means for their self worth and value in the ranching community. After I do each of these stories (I picked 13 of the best), I will lay them out in front of me and start making connections. Who mentioned solitude as a key aspect of ranching? Who got what technology (helicopter roundups, ATVs) first, or who eschews technology all together? Who breaks horses, and who does paperwork? How does each aspect of ranch work break down standard notions of class (wealth, education, mobility), or reinforce them? How do these individuals see themselves as workers, as community members, as Arizonans?
ok. this is hard to process. first of all, whoever was the creative director behind this photo shoot needs to understand that not all prisoners have scabies, nor are they locked in a rat infested cell in a boat’s dungeon in the 18th century. secondly, drunk driving is a terrible thing, but i agree with previous comments about racist, prisonist (my new made up word), fear-driven, disgustingly insensitive ‘awareness’ campaigns like this one.
3 populations come to mind when i try to say what i need to say about this image, all populations of which i have had some contact with at their most vulnerable, and who i assume would be hurt by this advertisement: 1) sexual assault survivors, whose trauma should never be marginalized into a billboard, 2) former prisoners, who, i repeat, DO NOT LOOK LIKE THIS (nor usually act like the ad suggests), and perhaps most importantly, 3) the aware, conscious public who has been mentally degraded by assuming it would buy into this not-even-stereotypical fear mongering campaign and this terrible, terrible attempt at public health.
i am now researching the makers of this advertisement and writing a letter. it will have big words, this letter, but not so big of words as to guarantee that the reader understands how mistaken they were in thinking they could get away with this, this great assault on all sorts of human dignity.