The Common Good

Michael Steele and Racially Insensitive or Racist Comments

I am writing to educate Michael Steele and those whose understanding of Native Americans are as superficial as his. On Jan. 4, 2010, Steele, the leader of the Republican Party, held up his hand in the old Indian parody style of "how," and he accompanied the gesture with the words, "honest Injun." This gaffe occurred on Sean Hannity's Fox News interview.

A few days later on Fox Sunday, Chris Wallace confronted Steele with the implication the incident that occurred on Hannity was racially insensitive. Steele responded by saying, "If it is, I apologize. It wasn't intended to be a racial slur." The words of any apology that begin with "if it is" are a good indication that the offender has no idea if the offense is offensive or not. It means the offender has not thought through the implications of the words. In other words, it's a cover up and a non-apology, apology. This became even more evident as Steele went on to defend his statement as not being the same as the recent Harry Reid gaffe. Michael Steele is right. His statement is not the same -- it is worse.

While some Native Americans may disagree about the level of racism the word "Injun" incites, it is racist language nonetheless. This language is even more offensive when accompanied by the "how" gesture, made famous in the old Western movies and old cartoons. It amazes me that Steele, as an African-American man, could not see the depth of his boondoggle.

In my own estimation, "Injun" is at the same level of offense that many African Americans might take to the term "darkie." These terms have the historic context of dehumanizing Native Americans and African Americans to the point of cultural genocide, slavery, and worse. Both these terms have a history of use intended to maintain the racial superiority and privilege of White people in America.

Steele, and many of those who have addressed the issue (from the Right and the Left) have conceded that his was just the use of an "old colloquialism." This sweeping gesture of unconcern is insulting to Native Americans, but perhaps it should be of no surprise given that it is coming from those who live in a city whose major sports team is named the "Redskins," (a term tantamount to the word "nigger"). Steele's comments and the resultant dismissal of them should point out that we all have a long way to go toward attaining the kind of country that affords the same level of freedom and respect for humanity to all its citizens.

The point is not to cause anguish to Michael Steele, although I hope he has a better grasp of other Native American issues than this one. But Steele is simply the point-man in a long history of those in leadership who see Native Americans as caricatures, in the same way much of America used view African Americans. In the meantime, I, with many other Native Americans (and hopefully all Americans), am still waiting to hear a sincere apology from Mr. Steele.

Randy WoodleyRev. Dr. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendant and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He teaches history, theology, and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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