Thank you so much for initiating and organizing the boycott of the organizations that were responsible for the racist CBS/Grammy broadcast Sunday night. I was very shocked by the performance when I saw it, but did not feel capable of expressing in words how I felt. You have helped me find my voice. Also, I had a helpful phone conversation with one of your volunteers today. Many of the concepts we discussed may be helpful for others (including Outkast) who perhaps do not understand why this was so offensive. As a school teacher I want to be able to share with my students what was wrong with Outkast’s performance. So I have summarized the concepts below. I will be using these in class, so please feel free to share these with other educators.
Why this performance was racist:
Making caricatures of any racial group for your own benefit is by definition racist. Popular white entertainers last century did the same thing when they appropriated what were to them the characteristics of African American song and dance in the infamous ‘black face’ vaudeville type performances. Those performances used stereotypes to demean African American entertainers. That was racist, and so is this.
Why this performance was exploitative:
Appropriating the symbols and culture of any racial group for your own commercial benefit is exploitative. Colonialists have been doing the same to many racial groups for centuries. Using someone else’s symbols and culture in a commercialized setting (network television) for financial gain (record sales) is reprehensible. Had the dancers been wearing Hassidic Jewish, Catholic, or Muslim symbols, they would not have been allowed to perform. CBS and the Grammy Awards and Arista Records obviously did not think clearly enough to prevent the airing on a public network of an exploitative performance.
Not only did Outkast exploit racial symbols for their own benefit, they apparently stole the Navajo song that was used in the beginning of the performance. Songs are handed down from one family to another in many tribes, and cannot be sung by anyone from outside that family. They certainly are not to be stolen for use on a national telecast. This is not the first time Outkast has stolen something for commercial gain (see the online information about Rosa Park’s lawsuit against Outkast).
What symbols were offensive?
•Feathers: Native Americans consider these sacred symbols; they are only worn in religious or ceremonial settings. Eagle feathers in particular represent the sun– the life giving force– in many First American tribes. They are not worn to be mocked, or as ‘entertainment.’
•Feather headdresses: These are only worn by venerated people who have earned the honor. Exploiting others is not a way to earn this honor. Headdresses in many cultures represent something spiritual, religious, or ceremonial.
•War paint: Paint is another sacred symbol for Native Americans. People traveled many miles to special mines and quarries to obtain minerals for the paint. It was only worn in extreme situations, and only after much fasting and prayer. A person was ‘dressed’ in paint prior to burial or cremation as just one example of the importance of body paint to many tribes.
•War ‘whoop’: this yell was used as a racial epithet against many Native American elders when they attended public schools in the 1950s and 60s. It is still used today in offensive sports situations. It represents a ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ or ‘uncivilized’ view of First Americans that is repugnant and false.
•Leather fringe: used by Outkast for hot pants and bras for dancers who are bumping and grinding; this is an offensive way to ‘honor’ First Americans.
The history of stereotyping Native Americans
This is a long and complex topic, but several observations are clear from the Grammy incident.
•Americans have for many years stereotyped our indigenous people in an unchallenged manner. One could almost say that as a nation we are so used to it, we do not even question it. Old western movies, romance novels, Disney films, Buffalo Bill shows—all have contributed to the pervasiveness of these stereotypes.
•Americans overall are in denial about First Americans. Genocide and ethnic cleansing on our own lands, by our own leaders, are uncomfortable topics in mainstream culture, and this creates a void that allows broadcasts like CBS’ to go unchallenged.
•Public broadcast regulations may be skewed. The huge outcry over the Super Bowl incident on CBS the week before versus the Grammy broadcast is indicative. Is a body part more offensive than racism against an entire class of people in our society, when both are broadcast on public airwaves? Reasonable people can differ on this, but the weak responses of CBS, Arista, NARAS, etc., indicate that a breast is more important than the racial stereotyping of Native Americans on air.
There are other issues in this controversy that are interesting to me, including the connection between indigenous communities and the African American community. As an African American woman with Choctaw heritage, I am interested to hear more about this. Perhaps you can share with the public some thoughts on this topic from those who are more thoughtful on it than I am.
Thank you again for your good work,