Sometimes the best response to racism is to ignore it and walk away, declining to give oxygen to the fires of hate. Sometimes the best response is to try to calm the situation; that’s what Native American elder Nathan Phillips did when he tried to intervene in a racially charged situation between Black Hebrew Israelites and a group of Catholic high school teens near the Lincoln Memorial. (For background, see Indian Country Today’s news roundup).
And sometimes the best response is to speak difficult truths about what you see.
The question came to me recently in a group email where people where sharing their anger over an ugly political cartoon that mocked Phillips and Native Americans in general.
The cartoon had the title “Political Fakery.” It shows Phillips and Sen. Elizabeth Warren standing side by side. Phillips is holding his drum; above him is the caption “I’m a Victim.” Warren is drawn with a Native headband and feathers in her hair and holds a beer. The caption reads “I’m an Indian… Have a Beer.” (For those that want to see it, click here.)
A little research showed that cartoonist Michael Ramirez is a Pulitzer Prize winner, the highest journalistic honor. I chose to write the Pulitzer Prize Committee and ask them to speak out against the cartoon. I figure if they can give out awards for outstanding work, they should call out deplorable work, too. And their comments would carry weight.
Here’s an edited version of the email I sent. If you feel moved to write something, send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Friends at the Pulitzer Prize,
I write you today about a racist cartoon published by one of your Pulitzer prize winning cartoonists, Michael P. Ramirez. The cartoon concerns Nathan Phillips and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. I believe Ramirez and various publications that carry his work have every right to publish what they see fit and join the marketplace of ideas. But that does free them from public criticism.
Your organization honored Ramirez with your award in 2008: “For his provocative cartoons that rely on originality, humor and detailed artistry.” Your organization lifts up professional excellence, do you ever call out the worst? If you do, this cartoon needs to be called out.
I learned about the cartoon through an indigenous friend who included me on an email chain. People on the email chain expressed shock and disgust. Speaking for myself, I find the cartoon offensive, racist, and I believe for some indigenous people, retraumatizing.
Phillips is an activist, has entered the public fray, and is not above criticism, but this cartoon is classless and ugly. While indigenous people have been very resilient, there is no question they have been — and continue to be — victims of racism, greed and lies. As it relates to the Phillips incident, the cartoon caption “I’m a Victim” is a racist dog whistle, a code word. I don’t recall Philips ever calling himself a “victim.” He simply spoke to his own intentions and experience. More broadly, the caption “I’m a Victim” is a device to cast all indigenous people in the category of chronic complainers, undermining their legitimate grievances. The caption accompanying Sen. Warren, “I’m an Indian … Have a Beer” plays into the stereotype of indigenous people as alcoholics.
This cartoon is provocative, but appeals to readers’ worst instincts. It’s not courageous, original, or humorous. It simply uses old stereotypes to take a shot at people who have been at the receiving end of such shots for too long.
Please speak up. Thank you for your consideration.