“I know I already sent home the announcement about Native American day,” Soph’s teacher told me, leaning in my car window during pick-up, “But I wanted to ask you: Do you mind?”
Back in October, trying to pre-empt the unreflexive racism of so many elementary-school Thanksgiving traditions (and inspired by this Exploding Historian blog post by my friend and fellow mom professor, April Merleaux), I had mentioned to the teacher that I find it offensive to dress up as any race, and we generally don’t ask kids to dress up likes blacks or Asians, so why is it that some schools still encourage dressing as Indians? I mentioned that it’s especially odd to freeze a whole race into the ceremonial dress of one small group in the nineteenth century.
Soph’s teacher told me: “Every year, we usually dress up, and make beads and feather-headbands, and the kids really love it, it’s so much fun! But I wanted to ask you, is it okay with you?”
How would you answer?
I guess it probably is fun, but, I also think it’s racist. As this nice Head Start article explains, the feathers-and-headbands thing can be especially hurtful to some contemporary Native children, who know that they don’t live in tipis or wear feathers, and wrongly assume that maybe they’re not Indian after all. I think it’s hurtful to us all, actually. Soph told me that she really wants to meet an Indian someday, unaware of how many Indians she has already met.
I think Dress up Like Natives Day is wrong, but I also think censorship is wrong. All I am comfortable doing is explaining my point of view, then letting the teacher make up her own opinion.
She invited me to participate in the day, to help improve it.
I asked my facebook friends what to do. Wear a sari or Punjabi suit, several said, since that’s what people wear in India. “Go Inuit. Think ski clothing,” wrote another. My favorite suggestion: Dress as Elizabeth Warren.
But I hadn’t been thinking of wearing anything but regular street clothes. What I need to think through is what to do with the kindergarteners. They move around classroom stations, in groups of 8, staying at each station for 15 minutes. At one station they make clay pots. At another they string beads. At another they make those feathered headdresses. Then they come to my station.
I could ask them questions. “What does an Indian look like? How do you know?” I could show them pictures like this one, ask “Who is Indian,” and then guide them to realize that everyone in the picture is Indian, because there are lots of different ways that Indians look. What I think I’m going to do — thanks to the suggestion of another blogging friend — is read them a book of photos of various Native American children today.
I like this idea, but I’m afraid it won’t be as effective a station as the bead-making, headdress-creating, other options.
Any other suggestions for me?