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Ralphie May & Bomani Jones: Opposite Sides of the Coin

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Been an interesting couple of weeks, but two things jumped out and caught my attention. At first they might seem kind of unrelated but a closer look reveals two sides of the same coin. And the coin is called racism.

The first incident involved a so-called “shock comic” named Ralphie May. He’s been around for a while and has had a controversial career saying outrageous things about all kinds of folks. But he got in trouble with Indigenous folks when a video of his skit went viral on YouTube and he got caught saying some very nasty and disgusting things about us. He was scheduled to bring his act to Bemidji, Minnesota when the local Indigenous folks got wind of it and told everyone: “Ain’t no way he’s coming here!!”

As reported in the Bemidji Pioneer – “On Wednesday, the Sanford Center’s Facebook page erupted with outraged comments…. Arena management posted an apology, but said it was legally obligated to put on the show.”

Something prompted city officials to get involved and later that same day it was announced that the show was cancelled. According to City Council member Reed Olson that decision was “We’re just not going to have it here.”

Bemidji has been working on improving its relations with the three Anishinabe territories of Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth. These three territories represent billions of dollars flowing into the Bemidji economy and have used their economic clout in the past to get their point across on an issue.

The second item to catch my attention was ESPN sport commentator Bomani Jones’s wearing of the Caucasian t-shirt on ESPN’s Mike and Mike show. This time the Twitterverse and other venues erupted with outraged white people. I read several comments and it was clear they totally missed the point of what he was doing. They took it very personally.

In the midst of this insanity, an Indian ally posted, “If you’re offended by Bomani’s t-shirt then you know why Native Americans hate sports mascots.” This flew over the heads of the wingnuts because the tirade continued.

Ironically this shirt has been around for about 10 years. It’s manufactured by a Cleveland based company Shelf Life Clothing. In fact they make a lot of neat t-shirts and seem willing to parody anything.

Jones hit the nail on the head when he said, “The reason they won’t get rid of Chief Wahoo, which is completely indefensible, is they could still sell stuff with it. They can say they’re gonna de-emphasize it, but they’re not just gonna set money on fire.”

Racism is profitable. Ralphie May makes a good living spewing racist garbage that unfortunately is thought to be funny by enough people that he has a career. Not only Cleveland, but Washington, Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta and lots of smaller cities and towns make money off their particular brand of racism.

Kudos to the Navajo Nation which last week won a lower court decision regarding the using of their name and imagery for profit by non-Navajos. Of course it’s going to be appealed and will probably spend several years on its way to the Supreme Court. Or, as the article suggested, there may be some sort of settlement between the parties.

In either event, it’s good to see someone putting their foot down on this all too pervasive exploitation.

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Recently I heard an excellent phrase coined – “disparity mining”. What is means is this is what happens when a people who are not part of another group uses the disparities of that group to enrich themselves behind the guise of helping that group. For example, a economic development coalition of non-Indigenous businesses and organizations go out and get a grant purportedly for the purpose of helping the Indigenous peoples in their market area – without consulting, involving or notifying any Indigenous government, organization or person that they’re doing this. Once they get the grant or donation they then invite some selected Indigenous folks to join them and tell these folks “hey look what we’ve done and now we need your help doing it.”

We all have known that’s been going on for some time, but now we have a phrase and name we can attach to it. By being able to name it we’re in a better position to call it out when it happens.

Don’t expect any immediate change from the other side of the table. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explains the issue beautifully – I’m paraphrasing – that it is almost impossible for the oppressor to see the flaw in their thinking when it is pointed out by the oppressed because oppressive thinking is so deeply engrained into their identity, sense of entitlement, and the rightness of their actions.

Those in power are so used to handing out “prescriptions” to those who seek redress for an issue. Take any issue in Indian Country, we have endured decades of poor housing and all we get back from HUD are prescriptions for the use and implementation of their form of housing, or continuing horrible health care we get from the I.H.S.

This becomes deeply problematic when we realize that our own governments and bureaucracies are doing the same thing. But that’s what they’ve been trained to do for more than 40 years.

The very foundation of all of these issues lies within the relentless racism now inherent in Western systems of governance and power. You cannot find a settler bureaucrat who is prepared to simply hand over the money we request and step away from micro-managing our uses for that money. Every little bit that comes to us is wrapped in pages and pages of regulations and rules.

The owners of the racist branded sports teams are not going to change the images or names. Those names and images mean millions of dollars in revenues for them. Bomani is right, they’re not gonna set that money on fire.

Ralphie went on the defense saying people took this out of context. Saying folks need to see the whole skit to see how it ends by pointing out the stupidity of bigotry. He’s missing the point, we need not wallow through 40 seconds of his version of bigotry to see if this ends positively.

Trevor Noah, in his skit “Lost in Translation”, got to this same point with much greater finesse and class by starting his rant by pointing out – “terrorism is an action, it is not a face”. He then brilliantly skewers the racism and bigotry aimed as Arabs/Muslims since 9-11.

Bomani took the snap them between the eyes approach. Which I have no problem with. But we have to do both, snap them when they need it, and, cause them to think differently by subtly turning their world upside down and sideways.

As a final note we bid so long to Al Jazeera America. They certainly gave it a good try but you have to think that is was an ill-fated endeavor to launch an Arab owned television company in America after 9-11. 9-11 joins the ranks of the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, Cuba and Little Big Horn as unforgivable sins by non-whites who dared to attack them or give them a comeuppance.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.