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Houska: The Racial Wallpaper of Slavery and Genocide

Tara Houska, Ojibwe, says there are more examples of institutional racism in the U.S. than just the Confederate flag, such as the Washington R-word.
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The last few weeks have been filled with complex issues of race, identity, and all of the things America just doesn’t like talking about. A 14-year-old black teenaged girl was slammed to the ground at a pool party by a white police officer, a white woman was exposed for claiming to be black, a white male massacred nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church.

On Monday, we took a tiny step in the right direction. South Carolina’s governor, despite protestations of “Tradition! History! Honor!” called on the state legislature to take down the Confederate battle flag across from the capitol. A symbol so inextricably tied to the fight to keep slavery lawful might finally be retired.

The week prior, in a rare somber monologue, Jon Stewart described the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina and the streets named after Confederate generals as “racial wallpaper.” How are we supposed to respect one another when we are steeped in a culture of racism? How are these deep racial wounds supposed to heal in that environment?

A sign in a restaurant called "Buffalo Billiards" in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Tara Houska.

It is monumental to see people recognizing and tearing down racial wallpaper; to witness progress in some of our most divided regions. Here in Washington, D.C., however, racial wallpaper is not even recognized as such.

Every day, I walk down the streets of our Nation’s capitol, through the halls of Congress, past statues of celebrated American leaders. And every day, I am subjected to pinpricks of racism directed at Native Americans.

Jerseys, hats, bags, umbrellas, bumper stickers, miniature flags, giant banners, even paper towels – all proudly displaying a caricature of a Native American with a dictionary-defined racial slur as its moniker.

Here, in the place where federal Indian law and policy are made, Native Americans are openly mocked for the sake of sports. “It’s an honor,” we’re told. What honor is there in racism? Is blackface an honor? Ask Rachel Dolezal how her masquerade as a black woman turned out.

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Atop the U.S. Capitol, there is a frieze depicting American history. At first, Native Americans fight an onslaught of colonists. Our final reference is the death of Tecumseh and a kneeling Native American woman, hands upraised. There is nothing after. In the story of American exceptionalism, Native Americans cease to exist after Manifest Destiny.

In reality, as our numbers dwindled to near extinction, George Preston Marshall, staunch segregationist, chose the Washington team name. Andrew Jackson, proponent of the Trail of Tears, appeared on the twenty dollar bill. Christopher Columbus, who was brought back to Spain to be prosecuted for the horrors he enacted on indigenous peoples, was given a federal holiday.

RELATED: Rescind the Medals of Dishonor

But Native Americans didn’t go extinct. We’re still here. And this is the racial wallpaper we see. A largely forgotten, marginalized people, surrounded on all sides with the celebration of Native genocide.

For us, it isn’t enough to say something offends, we must prove it. Despite empirical studies demonstrating psychological harm, numerous tribal resolutions, lawsuits, and protests spanning decades, the r-word still remains widely accepted. How many people in the black community were polled about the n-word?

Proud tradition does not negate the racism of a flag associated with the enslavement of a people, nor does it negate the racism of a moniker that dehumanizes and slurs a people who underwent attempted eradication.

I believe America will continue to tear down the tenets of racism, that we will all aspire to be better. I look forward to South Carolina taking down the Confederate battle flag. I hope the Washington team is next.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP and a founding member of Follow her on Twitter @zhaabowekwe.