Jay Silverheels (1919–1980)
Silverheels was an elite athlete competing in high-level wrestling, lacrosse, and boxing events, playing on Canada’s national lacrosse team before he developed an interest in acting. Like many Indigenous actors, early in his career he was credited in bit parts simply as “Indian.” But many of us remember him in the role that made him famous, playing the Lone Ranger’s companion, Tonto. Silverheels himself recognized the difficulty of portraying a character that was described by some as the Uncle Tom of Indigenous peoples. However, with this role Silverheels would be the first Native American actor to star in a leading role on a television show.
Like many minoritized actors, Silverheels found it difficult to break out of the stereotypical characters he was asked to play. He was also an activist for improving the portrayal of Native American peoples in media. He was very aware of the problems of Hollywood’s representation of Indigenous peoples but felt that working Indigenous actors could influence the films and shows in which they appeared. In 1966 he helped found the Indian Actors Workshop to offer free classes to aspiring Native American actors to work in film, theater, and television.
In addition to a wide range of film roles, Whites see their own images reflected back in virtually any situation or location deemed valuable in dominant society (e.g., academia, politics, management, art events, popular magazines, the Academy Awards). Indeed, it is a rare event for most Whites to experience a sense of not belonging racially, and these situations are usually temporary and easily avoidable. Thus racial belonging and “rightness” become deeply internalized and taken for
granted. A key dynamic of the relationship between dominant and minoritized
groups is to name the minoritized group as different, while the dominant group remains unnamed. For example, when we say “American” we do not mean “any and all-Americans,” we mean White Americans but are not naming White because it is assumed unless otherwise noted. Just as when we say “soccer game” we do not mean “any and all-soccer game,” we mean men’s soccer game but are not naming men because it is already assumed unless otherwise noted. We would have to make the point that it was a Chinese American or women’s soccer game that we are referring to. We are comfortable with this pattern because we are socialized to name the minoritized groups (Chinese American, women’s soccer) and assign a universal neutrality to dominant groups.
This naming/not-naming dynamic sets race up as something they have, not us. Whites tend to see race only when peoples of Color are present, but see all-White spaces as neutral and nonracial. Because racial segregation for most Whites is normal and unremarkable, we rarely, if ever, have to think about race and racism. Conversely, peoples of Color must always bear the mark of race as they move about their daily lives. The psychic burden that peoples of Color must carry to get through a day is often exhausting, while Whites are freed from carrying this racial burden. Race becomes something for peoples of Color to think about—it is what happens to them. This allows Whites much more energy to devote to other issues and prevents us from developing the stamina to sustain attention on an issue as charged and uncomfortable for us as race.