Part of becoming aware of this racist lens requires us to look at the effect of white privilege on access to society’s benefits, particularly societal power, wealth, and prestige. Frances Kendall, in her book Understanding White Privilege, defines “white privilege” as “an institutional, rather than personal, set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who hold the power positions in our institutions” and explains that “one of the primary privileges is having greater access to power and resources than people of color do” (63). Along with greater access comes a belief system to rationalize this unequal distribution: racism. A racist perspective is bolstered by stereotypes and prejudices. Those of us who are white must attempt to emerge from the clouded vision of white privilege, to look through a “race neutral” lens, for it is this lens which will help us decipher the past.
For most of our lives, the media, text books, popular songs, and product logos have fed us a steady diet of romanticized and stereotyped American Indians: caricatured team mascots; scalping savages; proud war bonneted chiefs; beautiful Indian princesses; blanket-wrapped, vacant-eyed, trading post Indians; militant Red Power Indians of the sixties and seventies; and throughout all, a continuous undercurrent of washed-up, alcoholic, reservation Indians. To see beyond these Indian stereotypes, non-Natives need to develop awareness of their own racism and the pervasiveness of white privilege in American society, both in the present and in the past.
If you are white, your own race is probably something that you are not aware of, or you do not consider yourself “of a race.” However, if you are a person of color, you know that notions of race are always prevalent. Speaking as a white woman, Frances Kendall insists, “[T]he freedom not to notice our lack of knowledge about people of color is another privilege that is afforded only to [whites]” (64). Professor Zendejas expressed frustration about this issue when he emphasized that most students today mistakenly think they know about Indians; they are not aware of their own ignorance (Interview). The 2006–2007 Walking a Mile study, in which Public Agenda asked non-Indian university students what they knew about Indians, found that “non-Indians know very little about Indians. What they know, or think they know, is based on generalizations and stereotypes” (qtd. in Zendejas 24).
This lack of knowledge resulted from the skewed ways our shared history is presented in textbooks and popular culture. History is told from the perspective of the victor with justifications for the white dominant culture’s racist actions assumed and perpetuated. Kendall insists, “We must be aware of how the power holders oppressed all people of color to shape the country as they wanted it” (63). In other words, as whites, we must begin to notice the things we are conditioned not to notice. The Walking a Mile study also found that even though it does not negate the oppression of Natives, many colonizers’ ignorance does not preclude remorse: “Most non-Indians generally feel regret about what happened to Indians prior to the twentieth century, but most had little understanding of Indian history, including efforts to forcibly assimilate Indians” (qtd. in Zendejas 26). However, as Dr. Barbara Robins, a current professor of Native American studies at UNO, pointed out, there is not enough remorse to bring forth public apology for broken treaties and land theft, as any confession of guilt might then require compensation in land or dollars (Interview). To begin to understand Native Americans’ experiences of subjugation and oppression at the hands of the dominant white culture, it is essential to look at history from the Indian’s perspective.
Native and non-Native writers are beginning to retell American history from the perspective of the oppressed peoples (usually minority ethnic groups), rather than the victors (usually whites). In these versions, Americans are reminded that “as this nation was born and expanded, the result was the decimation and genocide of a people [the Indians] and their way of life” (Zendejas vii). When Columbus arrived in the New World and mistakenly named the inhabitants “Indians,” he and his crew began the long process of “slaughtering” the Natives in the name of colonization (Kendall 64). Rather than the brave hero Columbus is presented as in American schools and on Columbus Day, Native Americans see him as “a savage despoiler who brought slavery, disease, and genocide” (Worsnop 1).
The genocide was literal. Howard Zinn confirms in A People’s History of the United States, a re-telling