Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jessica Simpson denies white privilege to defend racist "Indian giver" remark

I'm a big follower of celebrity gossip - one of my summer jobs in college was typing up summaries of Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood for the network honchos. Jessica Simpson has always been a particular irritant, but I've gained sympathy for her since people started piling on her weight and the tabloids began to form her in the image of Jennifer Aniston.

But that sympathy disappeared when she made a rather indefensible remark in response to a question as to whether she would expect an extravagant gift back from her now-ex:
"I'm not an Indian giver!"
"Indian giver" is a racist slur rooted in ignorance of cultural traditions and entitlement:
One theory holds that early European settlers in North America misinterpreted aid and goods they received from Native Americans as "gifts," when in fact they were intended to be offered in trade, as many tribes operated economically by some form of barter system, or a gift economy where reciprocal giving was practiced. It is also theorized that this stereotype may have been coined or exaggerated by the conquering European groups to denigrate the native people as dishonest and thereby justify their conquest.
Simpson has been rightfully called on to repudiate her remarks, and in her defense, she has claimed Native American heritage:
I am Indian, alright?
Aside from the really problematic use of Indian: It's not that she couldn't have Native American blood. She could. I've been told that I do. My partner's claimed it. It's that she's using is as a way to write of the white privilege that she benefits from on a daily basis. More than that, she uses whatever her background is to completely excuse racist remarks that she has made by pretending that she suffers from racial oppression.

She wasn't speaking from a position of oppression when she made that remark. Her privilege blinded her, and she made that remark borne of ignorance of how racially loaded that term is. It happens. I still use the phrase "gyp" once in a while, because I'm privileged and thus somewhat racist. Regardless of her heritage, Simpson benefits from white privilege, and that privilege led her to make that racist remark.

I couldn't help but be reminded of this classic post from stuff white people do: claim they have native american blood:
It's also clear that most white people looking for Native American ancestry are hoping to establish a more romanticized connection to Indian-ness. A connection based in, and stuck in, the past, much more so than the present.

These are the white searchers (sometimes called "pretendians") who hope to fill up a certain emptiness in their bleached-out, whitened identity, but want little part of actual, ongoing Native American struggles. Many of them will never go to a reservation to experience the results of white genocidal practices, even if they do find Native American blood in their DNA. They're rarely willing to fight for treaty rights, nor help with such contemporary problems as compulsory sterilization or substance abuse. Indeed, they're rarely willing to even acknowledge these problems, or do much of anything else that goes beyond vague, sentimental ideas of supposedly authentic Indian-ness.


  1. Genocidal practices hardly scratches the surface of it. More recent research suggests that ninety percent of the twenty million or so people who lived in North and South America before the Europeans started to colonize this 'empty' land were killed by violence or disease. I don't know about other countries, but I know that the United States has a perfect record when it comes to treating with Indian nations: not one of the treaties made with them went unbroken. The oppression against and theft from Indians by the U.S. government continues to this day; the Department of the Interior has lost (their word) hundreds of millions of dollars of mineral royalties and other fees collected on behalf of Indian tribes for activities on tribal lands. And then there's the viciously disgusting de facto decriminalization of the rape of Indian women on tribal land by white men -- tribal police are forbidden from taking action against anyone who doesn't live on the reservation and the FBI which is supposed to enforce the law when it's broken on tribal land by people who live off it doesn't. (Of course rape isn't much of a priority for police anywhere.)

    Maybe Simpson does have some Indian ancestry. So what? If she'd mentioned it before she was catching shit for saying something racist, it might even be relevant.

  2. Thanks for the education Moira; I really appreciate your sharing your knowledge. :)

  3. UGH.

    Now, i've said that before. I've said gyp before too. I think it's hard to not slip when such things are such a part of the language of a country. HOWEVER, I can recognize (since, you know, I'm not stupid) that "Hmm, that doesn't seem like a very kind association" And I have done well in eliminating it from my vocab. The few times I slip, I apologize and then go off on why these phrases are horrible. If she had apologized, I could be okay with it, it could bring some attention to the matter (which i guess it did anyway) but WOW. "I'm Indian" !? Yeah, me too (though i'm relieved to say i do not fit that "pretendian" description) but that would make me more against that saying, if anything. People who run their mouths without being able to think about what they are truly saying make me so angry.

    She needs to grow some brain cells before she talks in public again. Ugh. :p

  4. She is pretty vastly frustrating.

    I actually had a "!" moment today when I was talking about my layout - I said I was trying to work the "kinks" out of it when I realized the racial implications of that, in terms of how black woman's hair is policed. It's in so much of our language that it's impossible to completely root it out, but we've gotta try, esp. when we are called on it.

  5. ya know, I never knew this was a racist slur. I think we all kinda used it when we were kids and I guess I never really thought about what we were saying. That and "kinks". I really do learn something whenever I visit your blog

  6. That's an interesting take on it - I grew up using the word "kink" as in having a pain or stiffness in the neck, a kink in my neck. This was what I learned as a kid in the UK, without any association with black people's hair at all. So I wouldn't have made that connection, though I'm sure you're right it is one for many in the US - thanks for the heads-up. I'd not want to offend inadvertently cross-culturally, since I'm living on this side of the ocean now.

    Shaker CaitieCat, btw, in case it wasn't obvious from the writing. :)

  7. @Mr. O - Yeah, I definitely remember using the phrase in relation to my brother or something. Interesting how those things are normalized, right?

    @Catie: As a white woman, I can't speak authoritatively on what is and isn't racist, of course, but I figured it's best to be safe. Different language is always good anyway.

    There are a LOT of different connotations to that word though - beyond hair and stiffness, I can also think of kinks with relation to cords/wires and of course to sexual kinks. It makes me wonder which was called which first - is kink a way to devalue black women's hair, or does the connotation of black women as problematic lend it to description of these other nouns?

    Thanks for stopping by. Your comments are always thought provoking :)

  8. It'd be a really interesting question to ask someone like WorldWideWords, see if he wants to research it. I'll try and remember to mail that in tomorrow. Meanwhile, it's not needed so much that I'd use it if there's risk of it bothering someone. Nice thing about English: there are always other ways to say things. :)

  9. Well, it appears Ms. Simpson has no regard for any shred of her proclaimed heritage. She also has no knowledge of what it means to belong to a tribal nation, if she did that remark would not so easily have come out of her mouth, in my opinion.

    She definitely needs to go to public speaking training and she needs to also study up on her ancestoral history, she claims she has. Or maybe she just needs to go to her reservation and check out the people there and let them give their opinions on her statement.


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