Last week I was sorting through boxes and albums of old photographs looking for pictures to use in a friend’s 50th birthday card. She is the last of us to turn 50, and we affectionately call her the caboose. So, having been tasked with the job of creating a card to present to her, I was searching for images of the 9 friends who inhabit the train cars ahead of our newest passenger on Track 50.
It was during this pursuit of friend photos that I came across this, a photo of young me, wearing a construction paper headband and feather, draped in a woven blanket, and posed with one hand above and one hand below my face. A year ago, I may have found this image and thought, “oh I remember being a camp counselor, wow I look so young.” In today’s America I simply thought, “Oh Shit. I’m racist.”
So, I’m doing the math, and I’m racking my brain to give context to this photo. When did I own that t-shirt? When was my hair that length? My plain suntanned face looks sweeter and prettier than I ever gave myself credit for – where the hell was this taken? Congressional School Day Camp in ’87? Camp Susquehannock in ’91 or ’94? I don’t remember.
Is this really me? Could I have donned this get-up and done these actions? Absolutely. There is no disputing it, and why bother? Cover my face with shoe polish and I could still tell you those were my hands, my t-shirt, and that is something I would definitely have done as a camp counselor. Do I need to unearth the photo of me in a line of counselors with white t-shirts and pegged jeans, lollipop sticks pinched between our lips, hair slicked back in ponytails and arms gesturing in unison to Go Greased Lightning to prove it? No. I was definitely a joiner, an active and willing participant, in all things fun and silly to entertain our campers.
I can’t remember this photo being taken or the context that caused me to dress like this, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do it. I know it was in me to do this because I grew up knowing a song that explains why my hands are positioned just so around my face.
“Indians are – high minded,
Bless my soul they’re – double jointed,
They climb hills and – don’t mind it,
All day long.”
I loved this song as a kid. I don’t know where I learned it, probably Girl Scouts or RHOA Day Camp, but I knew the words and sang them enough to easily recall them in my 50s. What I loved about the song was the hand movements and the repetition of the song over and over. Each time we sang the verse, a phrase was replaced by humming, and the lyrics became a rhythm of humming and hand gestures. I have a physical memory of a circle of girls sitting and humming, and moving, and having eye contact as we sang and hummed and moved within this song. That memory makes me smile. For a shy awkward kid who didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere, membership in that song circle made me feel happy and connected.
And that is how it must happen. That is how a set of racist ideals, the subtle undertones of a stupid song – or the manifesto of an angry mob, can appeal to vulnerable people. That is how racism spreads. Connections. That is why it continues to live, and grow in our nation and world. Connections feel good.
What bothers me now is that I am sure I taught this song to kids. I passed along this nonsensical song to another generation of open, naïve, impressionable minds. I taught kids a racist song. Shit, I’m part of the problem, or at least I was. I can’t imagine doing this now – or can I?
As a history teacher, I taught many lessons to try and bring alive the realities of different time periods. Now, I look back at those many lessons and wonder if I crossed any lines or sent any unintended messages to my kids. I hope I didn’t, but I’m not sure. I am still the person who sang that song.
I sang that Indian song as a kid and taught it to others as a teenager. I own that. I also know that I would not do it today except as an example of how racism can quietly infiltrate our cultural norms. Like Oprah says, “when we know better we do better.” I know better and examining this photo and the implicit racism that it could reveal was my opportunity to check myself. I am okay with that.
What I’m not okay with is the many examples in our culture of people denying their racism. I think that helps foster the racist undertones that continue today. I’m okay with calling out racist acts of violence. I’m okay with calling out racist jokes and comments. But, maybe, instead of pointing the finger at others, we should start with ourselves. I don’t think it is just a PC thing. Actually, I think anyone who says our culture has become too PC is just fishing for comrades who will accept their bigoted views. Think about it. I bet you can name a handful of people in your professional world who know better than to tell you a joke about Jews or Blacks. If not, maybe it’s because you are still singing your Indian song.