The student at Polson High School who precipitated a social media frenzy when photographs of her wearing a white t-shirt with “White Pride” hand lettered on the front and “White Power” on the back said she didn’t associate the slogans with white supremists or with the KKK. Since each class at school was assigned a color to wear as part of a homecoming “spirit week,” and her class was assigned white, she thought it would be funny to add “white pride” to the shirt as a response to the “Native Pride” slogan that is common on the reservation.
The administrators did the right thing by asking her to change the shirt so the slogans weren’t visible, in accordance with the school’s policy. I take innocence on the part of a young person as a believable explanation, and I think some punishment is an appropriate educational method.
But confusion about the issue isn’t limited to one young girl. Several people commented on the apparent “double standard” that allows Indians to proclaim a sort of pride that seems to be prohibited for whites. But of course on the other hand, many people pointed out that the assertion of “white power” has an ugly history that can’t simply be willed away or ignored. For several centuries, and especially during the 19th Century when Social Darwinism was all the rage, the assertion was frequently made that the “white race” had emerged as superior during an evolutionary struggle for dominance that whites had won. Endless atrocities were committed using that racist idea as a rationale. Colonialism and slavery were global in their reach.
Both points of view have some merit, and disagreements over which should be enforced by authority tend to go on as long as someone wants it to go on.
Some of the confusion has to do with ambiguity in what “Native” means in the phrase “Native Pride.” Does it refer to race or to culture? The fact that those two overlap to such an extent makes separating the two tricky, but they do nonetheless refer to different things. I think that when people assert “Native Pride” they usually have in mind the particular history of native people here, including a shared story of endurance and survival that is mingled with an appreciation for many human goods that were and are embedded in traditions and beliefs and practices that it seems important to remember and to continue. “Native” in this sense refers to a culture and a way of life, and if the phrase is understood in this way it has little to do with race, though naturally it can’t readily be disentangled from the biology of families.
But “whiteness” is hardly an ethnicity. That’s why saying “Irish Pride” is less offensive than saying “white pride.” Who’s bothered by Irish people feeling attached to their history and family and culture? But “whiteness” amounts to little more than a racial affiliation–something the white supremacy people don’t disguise.
This can create problems for people thinking in a “rule of law” frame of mind (which modern institutions, including schools, try to do). One basic idea of rule of law is that we craft language that expresses a universal principle by which all people will live. We can be unified, it has been hoped, if we can create a body of law which can be applied to all of us equally. So if we try to craft a rule to ban wearing “white pride” shirts, we don’t want to single out just one group. We try to make a general rule. We might ban shirts which celebrate any particular race as a violation of our equal protection commitments. But phrasing the rule in some such fashion leads us to ban “Native Pride” because “native” is understood racially as well as culturally.
I have no technical solution to any of this. I like rule of law–I think it’s one of the great and unfinished accomplishments of western civilization (which I also like)–but I also think a great deal of daily life goes on quite far below its lofty aspiration. In daily life, we do the best we can amid situations that put various principles into conflict. If people want to be offended, they will be. And it is a real human pleasure to be offended. Being the one who has been wronged makes us feel all righteous. In this culture of late modernity where we all find ourselves, being offended can be a quick route to power.
Thankfully, most adults have learned to prefer peace and understanding to the thinner pleasure of being offended. To live with others, we need to overlook some things and forgive others. This can be hard to teach our young, especially through the often clunky mechanism of a due-process bureaucracy such as a public school. But one needs only look at any one of the many regions on earth where ethnic or religious fighting has been going on for centuries to know that we want to avoid such trouble. In such places, both sides can cite harms committed by the other, often going back centuries. All parties can think of times they’ve been insulted or hurt. And so like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the fighting goes on forever–even after noone remembers the original incitement. Having enemies can become a habit, a source of meaning in our lives.
That hasn’t been the main story on the Flathead Reservation. Mostly we are friends and neighbors. It’s true there are particular issues, maybe water or game laws or taxes, where different parties disagree and need to pursue their rights in various legal forums. We can do that without letting those limited disagreements turn people into enemies and ruin the larger game, which is making a good life together. There will always be some people in any group who are touchy and ready to quarrel, but most of us don’t want to be organized into those contests. We have better things to do.