“9 Questions Natives have for White People” and White fragility: That time I was in Buzzfeed videos

In Uncategorized by Adrienne K.13 Comments

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(That’s me! I’m a gif! I’ve made it!)

You might have noticed lately that Buzzfeed has been putting out a lot more race and social justice themed content, and even has included a series of videos featuring Native folks: “Native Americans Try on Indian Costumes,” “Native Americans react to Indian mascots,” “If Native Americans said the things white people say,” and a few others. They’re largely the result of some very hard work by Chris Lam, one of the staffers at Buzzfeed Video, in collaboration with local Los Angeles-based Native folks (who you see featured in the videos). Chris is a great example of allyship–prior to working on these videos he had little experience with Native communities, and has really taken a role of learner in the process, defaulting to the Native voices and keeps challenging himself to learn more and push Buzzfeed to feature more Native pieces. I love it.

So when I was home in Southern California for winter break, I headed over to the Buzzfeed studios in LA to meet up with Chris and some of the Native team for a brainstorming session and to film a couple of videos, both of which have now been posted: “9 Questions Native Americans Have for White People” and “I’m Native but I’m Not…”. Here’s 9 Questions:

“9 Questions” has gotten over 400k views on youtube, and 1.2 million on Facebook, so it’s getting a fair amount of attention–which is awesome. As I’ve said over and over, Native peoples are so incredibly invisible, that for many of those people, this is probably the first time they’re seeing contemporary Native people (who don’t necessarily look like their deep seated stereotypes) speak to them directly. That’s huge.

But, of course, this is the internet, and this is a conversation about race and identity, so naturally the comments are out of control. In perusing the thousands and thousands of them, it’s easy to see the responses are incredibly stereotypical for this type of thing, nothing new or groundbreaking. Which is both good and bad. More on that in a minute.

The responses, by my quick visual coding, fall into these categories (a few screenshots included):

[feel free to peruse at your leisure the Buzzfeed post, Facebook post, and the youtube comments…or don’t, because we all know internet comments are trash.]

“OMG THIS IS SO RACIST TO WHITE PEOPLE!”

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.48.32 AM

“NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE!”

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 5.03.24 PM

“NATIVE AMERICANS ARE SO SENSITIVE STOP WHINING!”

“WHAT IF WE HAD WHITE PEOPLE ASK NATIVE AMERICANS QUESTIONS?!”

“LET ME ANSWER ALL OF THESE QUESTIONS AS A WHITE PERSON SO YOU SEE I’M NOT RACIST!”

“OTHER RACES DO THESE THINGS TOO!”

“I AGREE WITH YOU BUT YOUR TONE IS TOO MEAN!”

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 5.05.31 PM

“I’M PART INDIAN AND I DON’T CARE!”

“I (MY FAMILY) WASN’T EVEN HERE WHEN ALL THAT HAPPENED!”

and finally:

“ANOTHER RACE VIDEO, BUZZFEED?!”

 

Which brings us to “I’m Native but I’m Not…”

The comment chains on that one are much more from Natives agreeing, adding, and claiming that we are not “Native Natives” or “Real Indians,” but as we know, that’s par for the course. For both videos we shot a ton of footage, but they’re out of necessity edited down into quick 1.5-3 minute clips. So, yes, we know there are many more questions and stereotypes that aren’t represented.

So as far as analysis, I don’t really know what to say. The comments are so stereotypical and ridiculous it’s almost comical, but when you see the sheer volume and the sheer vitrol of many of them, it becomes hard to comprehend. I saw the videos shared a bunch of times by my Native friends and colleagues, and the reaction was largely positive, and what I always think about when I receive hate mail, we got to them. Somewhere deep within themselves, these commenters were unsettled by something in one of the videos. Whether it was a memory of the one time they asked a Native person one of those questions, or the realization that they’ve literally never met a Native person, or stirrings of guilt realizing that, yes, the land they occupy is Indigenous land–these settlers are angry because they don’t know how to deal with their privilege, power, and guilt.

I think often about the idea of “white fragility,” a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, to describe the way that white folks often crumble during discussions of race and racial inequality. “A state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” I wish I could just paste the entire article here (you can read it in full here, or read a Q&A with DiAngelo here).

The rhetorical moves in these comment chains are classic moves of white fragility: deflection, tone policing, claims of racism being multi-directional (ha), disassociation from whiteness as a collective identity, etc. DiAngelo points out that white folks are raised to believe that racism is an individual act, not a structure, and racists are bad people. Therefore, any hint of an accusation of racism causes a crisis of “omg I’m not a bad person!”, and challenges our moral beliefs of good/bad.

So how do we fix it? Good question. I believe we have to keep unsettling, keep questioning, and keep starting conversations. Many of the commenters accuse these videos of doing more harm than good, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. For Native millennials who read buzzfeed religiously, they got to see themselves represented for a few minutes. For everyone else, they got to see faces of real Native people (Urban Native people, mixed Native people, LA Native people!), and perhaps start the process of realizing the depth of their ignorance on Native issues. Is the format perfect? of course not. But little in the world of anti-racist work is. It’s messy, complicated, imperfect, constantly evolving and constantly debated and contested. And that’s why it’s so needed.

Also, on a only tangentially related and much more positive representations front, I realized I never talked about being on Another Round, the best podcast in the history of podcasts (not because I was on it, just because it is), and since it’s also a Buzzfeed production, why not put a plug in now?

I was (and am) so honored to be on the show, it was one of my favorite podcasts prior to getting the invite (I actually audibly squealed when I got the email from Eleanor the producer), and the space that Heben and Tracy create each week with Another Round is incredible. It’s a combination of cry-laugh-out-loud-in-public-spaces moments with deep and thoughtful interview questions, and I look forward to it popping up in my podcast app every time. When I was there with them, it was so amazing to hear my words from social media reflected back to me, and to have a chance to explore and explain and be affirmed, and to feel that they had really done their research and understood my cause and mission and wanted to bring others into that place as well. For those of us who write about race and inequality on the internet, it can sometimes feel like throwing words into a swirling windstorm, so to feel affirmed and listened to was so powerful for me. It made me feel like I am actually impacting things, and I’m happy their audience was exposed to Native issues as well. They’ve skyrocketed with their guest famousness, two episodes after me was Hillary Clinton (!), and they continue to have amazing folks on that teach me new things all the time.

These experiences with Buzzfeed show me the power of new media to create dialogue, and that when Native peoples are invited into spaces and into collaborative relationships, great things can happen. I hope through these examples that when other media outlets are thinking through their race-themed content, or how to write and report about issues of “diversity,” they can look to Chris, Heben, and Tracy to see the importance of including Native voice. Our perspectives are important, and begin to push the racism conversations into conversations about racism and colonialism. Because we truly can’t have one without the other.

  • Ellie

    As you said, there is a significant shift in comments between the question video and the “I’m Native, but I’m not” video. While there are angry and outright racist comments in response to both, the second one addresses stereotypes and represents Native people in a positive way while the first one passes judgement on white people as a whole rather than the ones who actually do the things mentioned in the video. While it’s easy to say that “if you don’t do these things, it’s not about you”, getting angry and defensive is a completely natural response to being generalized in this way (even if it is true on the whole or deserved or insignificant compared to the generalizations that people of other races face).

    The problem with approaching racism against Native people in this way is that 1) it accuses a whole race of people, whether that be a descendant of a plantation owner or a Bosnian or Ukrainian refugee, of thinking in the same way and doing the same racist things, 2) partly due to the erasure of Native people in our society, it is all too common for non-White people to also not know much about Native cultures or dress up like an Indian without giving it a second thought (this is not meant to be an excuse for white people doing these things but rather to point out that it might be better to address the people who are actually doing these things, regardless of race 3) it ends with glibly implying that only white people are occupying indigenous territory when the majority of immigrants coming into the United States every year do not come from white countries. To be honest, I don’t see what is so “ridiculous” about pointing these things out in comments—fragility and a desire to not see oneself stereotyped or accused of something that they haven’t done is not the same thing.

    • hereinWA

      Then you missed the point, and don’t realize how, no matter when you arrived, you still benefit from Native genocide. And, of course, your use of the ‘not ALL white people’…sigh.

    • Wondering

      “it ends with glibly implying that only white people are occupying indigenous territory when the majority of immigrants coming into the United States every year do not come from white countries. ”

      They’re “implying” that white people started the land grab and created the system that allowed it and continues it. That’s true. And all white people, like myself, in the US today are living on what was Native land. You are not exempt from that. The skin color of people currently immigrating is irrelevant. What a disingenuous comment.

      • starrystarfish

        Everyone alive today in basically the entire world is probably living in land that did not belong to their ancestors. Many, many, many thousands of wars/battles/etc have been fought all over the world for land over many millenia. Just saying. Basically every country has been conquered at one point or another. I am not saying that war for land is a good thing. But that’s humanity for ya.

  • http://contemporarycontempt.com Rachel S. Reed

    Love this from the second video: “I just am.” Powerful.

  • thisfamilyanderson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for these videos, for your insight, for all you do.

  • Franki Webb

    Hi Adrienne, I love your blog! I just wanted to clarify what do you identify as white? Purely European, mixed, white Hispanic, white-passing, anyone who benefits from white privilege? Interested on your thoughts. I’m also an academic and I’m currently writing a thesis on cultural identity.

  • Meepelous

    Thank you for being willing to face all the hate and negativity. You, and everyone else involved in these videos, are an inspiration.

  • herthoughts

    There are two tribes in the county where I live, with fiercely competing casinos. This makes for news stories fodder. I cringe every time there is a new Native American related article in the county newspaper. Readers are able to comment online about the articles. Every time, every hateful cliche comes out in the comments. As many Anglos that wishfully claim a Cherokee great grandmother, there are just as many that deeply resent today’s tribes. Standing up for Native American dignity is and will be a never ending job.

  • Sultan Abisali

    Ahiga kotori is a cowardly pathetic alcoholic who sits in his obese ogre mother’s basement all day posting on Celeb Jihad.

  • Bobby Franklins

    Is it racist if I pictured you in a denim jacket and then you were wearing a denim jacket.

  • Jeremy Schmitt

    How am I enjoying the land?
    *Jumps up and down*
    Seems pretty solid. Not too wobbly. All in all, an excellent construction job. Who knew you could build something this large on the back of a turtle?

  • Tecumseh SantaAnna

    Dr. Keene, RE: the headdress –

    Is it possible in the future to draw attention to the fact that the DOJ and F&W Services requires Native Americans to petition permission from the Federal government to practice their own religion? Of how little power they have to distribute or possess eagle feathers? “Don’t wear a headdress unless you are so qualified” is definitely a valid statement from a nuanced subject, and as I am sure you are well aware part of the frustration behind it is factors like how humiliating the situation can be for those who want to get eagle feathers for their own practices to have to submit to this process.

    One particular factor — the way that eagle feathers are regulated — could be revisited and you have a voice to talk about this, hence I ask. The headdress discussion is fast becoming a way for people to do the LEAST they can do, that is, police idiots in naugahyde chickenhats and pat themselves on the back while looking no further into any other situations that effect Native Americans and I feel that it’s getting to the point where simultaneous, important issues are being overshadowed.

    Bass Coast Music Festival, for instance: there is more media coverage about banning the headdress there due to respecting the dignity of the aboriginal people, than there is about the whole issue about toxic biosolids poisoning the very same ancestral lands. While I am glad that Bass Coast did this act of solidarity, the situation seems symptomatic of how “don’t wear a headdress” is becoming a way for people to pay lip service, not actually care. I’m not saying to stop talking about the headdress but I am definitely saying to be aware that it seems to be overshadowing other issues, such as the Nicola Valley’s biosolids problem, and they need a boost.