Nowadays, white people are rarely as openly racist as we once were toward indigenous people. In fact, we have many ways of claiming that much to the contrary, we like, respect, and "honor" them -- from romantically grasping for supposed Native American blood in our ancestry, to decorating our bodies and homes with Native American objects, to claiming that cartoonish sports-team mascots are somehow respectful, instead of insultingly reductive.
When we're not claiming that we admire Native Americans -- or rather, their forefathers and foremothers, since our romanticized conceptions of them are all frozen in some distant, dreamy past, with next to nothing to do with today's actual Native American people -- when we're not claiming to admire them, we pretty much forget about them. Basically, we continue to more or less erase them.
I was reminded of this invidious erasure when I saw this Canadian ad for Hudson's Bay Clothing Company at boy louie's blog; this ad ran before the Olympics on Canadian TV (which is why I, living in the U.S., had never seen it).
This ad, full of restlessly moving, and then exercising white people, is entitled "We Were Made for This." I find the ad stirring and well produced, with great cinematography and music and so on. But then, like boy louie, I can't help but wonder who this "we" is: "The 'we' this Bay ad refers to is not the inclusion of all Canadian people, it is the exclusive group of white, European people who came to Canada and conquered it as their own."
It doesn't take long at all for me to see this celebratory, triumphant ad as horribly racist. Although it may include one or two non-white people, its depiction of the relentless march of Euro-Canadian progress mostly just erases indigenous people, as well as other kinds of non-white people who now populate Canada. This erasure occurs in the imagery of mostly white people moving across snowy landscapes, but also in the very first line of narration: "We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of ice, rock, and snow."
A rugged landscape indeed, a real challenge for "us." A perfect, and perfectly blank, canvas for the adventures of an ever-restless (white) people. But of course, this geographical canvas can only be imagined as blank before "our" arrival because its original people have been blithely, arrogantly erased from it.
In terms of race, then, this Canadian "we" is a lot like the American "we" -- all too often, it's an unspoken "white" we.
I'm reminded of, of all things, a famous poem by Robert Frost. When he was a white-haired octogenarian, Frost read this poem from memory, on a blustery winter day (oh, the snowy white irony, yet again!) at President Kennedy's inauguration.*
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Once again, stirring words, inspirational even, until I get to thinking about who Frost's "we" is. The "colonials" were primarily British, and as they created a country, these people came to identify as "Anglo-Saxons," the "real" or "most" white people in an ever-morphing hierarchy of whiteness. And once again, Frost speaks of "the land" as if it was empty -- still unstoried, artless, unenhanced -- before white people came along to claim it as a gift. Maybe indigenous people are included in that line about "deeds of war"? But even then, they're cordoned off from the real story, the story about "us" and the formation of "our" country, by parentheses.
I've often wondered -- how did Native Americans hear this poem when Frost read it aloud to the nation, in 1961? And how did other non-white people hear it, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam to truly challenge and fight back against that great white "we"?
And now, after watching this recent Hudson Bay ad, I also wonder, yet again, nearly fifty years after Robert Frost announced, in front of yet another white president, just who "we" were -- when will white people ever stop assuming that in so many different social arenas, they belong at the absolute, triumphant, dead center of things?
* You can watch "the grand old man," Robert Frost, read his poem at Kennedy's inauguration here, at about 36 minutes. Frost had written a long preface to the poem for the occasion; apparently, the sun was so bright that he couldn't read his type-written pages, so he instead recited "The Gift Outright" from memory, changing "such as she would become" at the end to "such as she will become."