Borrowed Identity

Posted: May 12, 2020 in Culture, Debate, History
Tags: , , , ,

I’m aware of at least two authors who describe American character in less than glowing terms: Alexis de Tocqueville and Morris Berman. Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America (two vols., 1835 and 1840) is among the most cited, least read (by 21st-century Americans, anyway) books about America. (I admit to not having read it.) Berman’s American trilogy (titles unnamed, all of which I’ve read) is better known by contemporary Americans (those who read, anyway) and is unflinching in its denunciation of, among other things, our prideful stupidity. Undoubtedly, others have taken a crack at describing American character.

American identity, OTOH, if such a thing even exists, is somewhat more elusive for a variety of reasons. For instance, Americans lack the formative centuries or millennia of history Europeans and Asians have at their disposal. Moreover, Americans (except for Native Americans — multiple synonyms and euphemisms available) are immigrants (or their descendants) drawn from all around the globe. Accordingly, we lack a coherent unifying narrative about who we are. The American melting pot may come closest but is insufficient in its generality. National identity may well be fraying in other societies as each loses its distinctiveness over time. Nonetheless, two influential factors to formation of a loose American identity are negative identity (defining oneself as against others, e.g., adolescent rebellion rather fitting for a young nation) and borrowed identity (better known as cultural appropriation). The latter has been among the chief complaints of social justice warriors.

Sensitivity over borrowed identities has flared into downright paranoia in the last decade. For instance, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) recently offered guidance regarding wearing of clothing in connection with its honor camping organization, Order of the Arrow. Specifically, costumes and symbols associated with its primary borrowed identity, American Indians (an extremely diverse group lumped together recklessly by Boy Scouts the same way as in cinema), are not meant to be used disrespectfully. The language of the press release is a little weaselly. If one considers the motivations and cultural milieu when the BSA adopted Native American cultural traditions at its founding in 1910, there was an innocence and notable lack of guile compared to other (unnamed) contemporary American institutions.

That’s a relatively broad, even charitable, assessment of an organization aimed at character and skills development in young boys. A much more involved and subtle examination of borrowed identity is found in an article by Jennifer Percy entitled “The Skinning Tree” published in the February 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. When the issue came out, I read only about half of the article; it made me vaguely uncomfortable to be gawking at something so very weird. The article profiles an annual tradition in the city of Lusk, WY: staging a reenactment of the 1849 skinning of a Native American by white settlers. Controversially, because there are no Native Americans in that region now, all the roles are performed by whites, many of whom wear redface and costumes. In the reenactments, the oppressors perform ritual penance for the sins of their forbears. It’s not clear whether any demons of guilt are successfully purged. Participants mostly describe the experience as fun.

These and other hallowed, enshrined, and fetishized aspects of the American soul demonstrates just how messed up are we Americans when it comes to national identity, which probably tracks into racial, sexual, gender, class, and vocational identies. Percy’s article discusses ways Americans from the founding have used negative identity to borrow the identities (read: victimhood) of the very people they oppress in service of the agendas of the oppressors. For instance, in early America, colonists

… appropriated Native culture in order to distance themselves from the [European] places they had left behind. “Indianness” … helped colonists define themselves as separate from their Anglo-Saxon roots and allowed them to fantasize about a connection to the continent’s history. In the eighteenth century, American colonists didn’t think that they needed the British anymore; they chafed at British attempts to control trade and to keep them near the coast for the sake of collecting taxes. “Indian” costume was adopted by militias and other groups of white men throughout the colonies to protest land-use laws and intimidate British officials. Native imagery appeared in colonial newspaper mastheads, military flags, and patriotic songs. In 1772, colonists pretended to be Native Americans and set a British ship called Gaspee on fire. In 1773, most famously, white men dressed up as Mohawks for the Boston Tea Party. 

After the Revolutionary War, America’s relationship to Indianness changed. The “Indian problem,” as it was popularly called, was seen as an obstacle to western expansion, and enthusiastic performances of Indianness became a kind of neurotic response to the mass extermination of Native people. “Ironically, as the assault on Native religions and lifeways continued,” Angela R. Riley and Kristen A. Carpenter wrote in the Texas Law Review, “Americans increasingly fetishized the Indian.” Indian-inspired men’s clubs and societies proliferated in the mid-nineteenth century. In cities, fraternities gathered in dark halls to initiate white people into the mysteries of “Indianness,” and in rural areas they gathered around fires deep in the woods. The Tammany Society burned an effigy of “The Old Chief” — a make-believe “Indian saint” — in a fake wigwam to celebrate American abundance. The Improved Order of Red Men met throughout New England for monthly campfires where they dressed like Natives and called one another by what they believed were Native names. Out of the order grew an auxiliary group for women called the Degree of Pocahontas. The Boy Scouts of America grew out of a youth group called the Woodcraft Indians, which promoted “Indianness” as a way to teach Americanness to white boys.

The article goes on to discuss the development of the “stage Indian,” which is echoed in minstrelsy. Taboos against blackface and racial slurs directed towards blacks are considerably more potent than with any other oppressed group. However, there is no sweepstakes to be won over which group was treated worse or which response among whites is more guilt-ridden. Percy’s remark that assumption of cultural roles and play-acting to assuage guilt are neurotic responses seems quite right, and we’re nowhere close to being over with it. Such behaviors are also found in passion plays, which are part of Christian identity, and Civil War reenactments, which perpetuate resentments of the vanquished South over the so-called War of Northern Aggression.

Considering the tradition of borrowed identity extends back to the founding, and despite vigorous claims that such misappropriation is indeed offensive, many organizations are unwilling to abandon their long-term traditions, sometimes insisting that they honor the cultures from which they borrow. For instance, sports franchises whose use of Indian names and imagery have developed into valuable intellectual property have refused to rebrand. Who, then, is to be believed: the offended parties or the offenders? Victimhood provides moral authority by default, whereas offenders (e.g., the Boy Scouts) can claim with honesty that nothing nasty or offensive is intended by trading in borrowed identity. I don’t have an answer worked out (and absolutely no authority to make it stick, anyway) but can observe that the issue is a minefield.

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