Jay Silverheels (1919–1980)

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.

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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.

Dynamics of Internalized Racial Oppression

All of the messages that White people receive about their value, both explicitly and implicitly, are also received by peoples of Color (Mullaly, 2002; Tatum, 1997). In other words, peoples of Color are also told, in myriad ways, that to be White is better than to be a person of Color. And similar to the mixed messages that White parents send to their children by saying that everyone is equal while simultaneously living in segregation, children of Color also get mixed messages. Their parents may tell them that they are good, strong, and beautiful, but the society around them is still conveying that they are of lesser value.

Internalized racial oppression occurs when a person of Color, consciously and subconsciously, accepts the negative representation or invisibility of peoples of Color in media, education, medicine, science, and all other aspects of society. Over time, the person comes to believe that




they are less valuable and may act this out through self-defeating behaviors and sometimes by distancing themselves from others of their own or other non-White racial groups. Although there are important differences in how various racialized groups experience internalized racial oppression, groups of Color are collectively shaped by the following:

Historical violence and the ongoing threat of violence Destruction, colonization, dilution, and exoticization of their cultures Division, separation, and isolation from one another and from dominant culture Forced changes in behaviors to ensure psychological and physical safety and to gain access to resources Having individual behaviors redefined as group norms Denied individuality and held up as representative of (or occasionally as exceptions to) their group Being blamed for the effects of long-term oppression by the dominant group, and having the effects of that oppression used to rationalize further oppression

The internalization of and adaptation to dominant culture’s messages can cause a kind of self-defeating cycle. Carter Woodson, writing in 1933, powerfully captures the dynamics of internalized racial oppression when he writes:

If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks, you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told, and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own, and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one. (p. xiii)

Woodson is speaking to one of the more profound and painful dynamics of oppression; once people believe that they deserve their position in society, external force is not needed. As can be seen in several important studies discussed below, this internalization occurs at a very early age. It is important to note, however, that peoples of Color have always resisted internalized racial oppression, but this resistance has costs and can be very dangerous; resistance has historically been used to further rationalize violence against peoples of Color.

Claude Steele’s (1997) work on stereotype threat demonstrates the




impact of internalized racial oppression. Stereotype threat refers to a concern that you will be evaluated negatively due to stereotypes about your racial group, and that concern causes you to perform poorly, thereby reinforcing the stereotype. Because there is a powerful stereotype in mainstream culture that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites and other racial groups, Steele and his colleagues examined the effects of this stereotype on test performance. They found that the mere threat of the stereotype can diminish the performance of Black students. Their research shows that when Black students are told that their racial group tends to do poorly on a test, they score lower when taking that test. When the stereotype is not raised, they perform better.

In light of Steele’s work, consider how much attention is given in schools to the so-called achievement gap and other disparities in outcome between Whites and some groups of Color (Black, Latino, and Indigenous students in particular), and how often these disparities are formally and informally explained as a function of genetics or inferior cultural morals that do not value education. Concerns and assumptions about their abilities constantly surround students of Color. It is important to remember that these stereotypes are not just “in their heads”; Whites do hold these stereotypes and they do affect the way Whites evaluate peoples of Color (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Picca & Feagin, 2007). White teachers, for example, who comprise over 90% of K–12 teachers (Picower, 2009), are in a particularly powerful position to evaluate students of Color. Thus, Steele’s research captures the relationship between internalized oppression and internalized superiority.

Another powerful illustration of internalized racial oppression was demonstrated through the work of psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark (1950). The Clarks used dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. The Clarks testified as expert witnesses in Briggs v. Elliott, one of the cases connected to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in the United States, which ruled that enforced racial segregation in schools was illegal. The Clarks found that Black children often preferred to play with White dolls over Black dolls and that when asked to fill in a human figure with the color of their own skin, they frequently chose a shade lighter than their skin actually was. Black children also described the White doll as good and pretty, but the Black doll as bad and ugly. The Clarks offered their results as evidence that the children had internalized racism. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion of the Court: “To separate [some children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way




unlikely ever to be undone” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). This is an important quote to remember as we watch schools in the United States return to pre-civil-rights-era levels of racial segregation.

In 2005 Kiri Davis, an African American teen, repeated the Clarks’ experiment to see what had changed in Black children’s attitudes over the past 50 years. In her documentary film A Girl Like Me, 15 out of the 21 children she interviewed (or 71%) preferred the White dolls for the same reasons as children cited in the 1940s; the White doll was “good” and the Black doll was “bad.” While many people believe that children are innocent and unaware of racial messages, research has shown that children of all races and as young as 3 have internalized the societal message that White is superior to Black (Doyle & Aboud, 1995; VanAusdale & Feagin, 2001). The effect of this on White children is internalized racial superiority; the effect on children of Color is internalized racial inferiority. Internalized racial inferiority has devastating impacts on all aspects of a person’s life.

This brief discussion of some of the dynamics of internalized racial oppression is not meant to blame the victim for the effects of racism. Rather, it is meant to briefly highlight the damaging effects of White racism and White supremacy on peoples of Color.

Racism and Intersectionality

While we have discussed racism in general terms, our other social group memberships, such as class, gender, sexuality, and ability greatly affect how we will experience race. For example, one of the key limitations of Second Wave Feminism was that the movement addressed women as though they were a cohesive group and assumed they had shared experiences and interests. Actually, the women we think of as at the forefront of the women’s movement of the 1960s were White middle-class women (Frankenberg, 1993; Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1981). In many key areas, their interests were not the same as other groups of women. For example, while White middle-class women may have been eager to break their domestic confinement and enter the workplace, women of Color had long been in the workplace. Women of Color’s interests may have been better served by fighting for the economic and social conditions that would allow them to stay home to raise their children without being seen as lazy or bad mothers.

Intersectionality is the term scholars use to acknowledge the reality that we simultaneously occupy both oppressed and privileged positions and that these positions intersect in complex ways (Collins, 2000;




Crenshaw, 1995). For example, poor Whites, while oppressed through classism, are also elevated by race privilege, so that to be poor and Asian, for example, is not the same experience as being poor and White. Further, because of sexism, to be a poor White female will create barriers that a poor White male will not face due to gender privilege. However, while the poor White female will have to deal with sexism, she will not have to deal with the racism that a poor Asian female will face. Indeed, race privilege will help a poor White female cope with poverty, for example, when looking for work or navigating social services such as welfare and health care. Facing oppression in one area of social life does not “cancel out” your privilege in another; these identities will be more or less salient in different situations. The challenge is to identify how our identities play out in shifting social contexts.

We return now to the student quote that opened this chapter: “I was really lucky. I grew up in a good neighborhood and went to good schools There were no problems with racism. I didn’t learn anything about different races. My family taught me that everyone is equal.” This quote is a powerful illustration of how White people make sense of race and the invisibility of racism to us.

First, the term “good neighborhood” is usually code for “predominately White.” To believe that one learned nothing about racism and that there were “no problems” with racism in a White enviroment positions Whites as outside of race; Whites are “just human,” with no racial experience of their own. Race becomes what peoples of Color have. If peoples of Color are not present, race is not present. Further, if peoples of Color are not present, not only is race absent, so is that terrible thing: racism. Ironically, this positions racism as something peoples of Color bring to Whites, rather than a system that Whites control and impose on peoples of Color. To place race and racism on peoples of Color and to see race and racism as absent in an all-White space is to construct Whiteness as neutral and innocent. We need to ask ourselves why a neighborhood is seen as good if it’s segregated.

Second, a predominately White neighborhood is not the product of luck, a natural preference to be with one’s “own,” or a fluke; all-White neighborhoods are the end result of centuries of racist policies, practices, and attitudes that have systematically denied peoples of Color entrance into White neighborhoods (Conley, 1999). In the past this was done legally. Today this is accomplished through mechanisms such as discrimination in lending, real estate practices that steer homebuyers into specific neighborhoods, funding roads but not public transportation that could make suburbs more accessible, and White flight. All-White




neighborhoods and schools don’t just happen. Contrary to her claims, this student learned quite a bit about race in her

White neighborhood and schools. As we noted earlier, there is a contradiction in saying to our children, “Everyone is the same,” while raising them in all-White spaces. Conveying to our children that living in a White neighborhood makes them lucky, rather than conveying to them that they have lost something valuable by not having cross-racial relationships, is to teach them a great deal about race.

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Jay Silverheels (1919–1980)
Jay Silverheels (1919–1980)

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