Dear Alyssa Milano:
I know that you see us. I can appreciate your tweet acknowledging the statistics we face as Native women—that we are "twice as likely to experience a rape or sexual assault and compared to all races have the highest rate of sexual assault in this country." I appreciate your broad affirmation that you "support indigenous people everywhere on the planet." I understand that you've been asked on Twitter to remove and apologize for selling Washington Redskins paraphernalia in your fashion line, Touch by Alyssa Milano.
I want to articulate delicately and kindly, as I would to a friend, that I too would like you to remove Redskins merchandise from your line. I'd like you to acknowledge the slur as racist. I'd like to ask you to make commitments to support indigenous people beyond general statements, with concrete action.
I understand you might think this disapproval of the team's name is a new development, and that people are eager to be offended by everything in today's culture of allegedly stifling political correctness. In fact, Natives have been protesting derogatory team names and mascots since the 1960s, when the National Congress of American Indians expressed serious disappointment with college and professional sports teams that use racial slurs or racist caricatures as mascots.
Indigenous people's histories are often willfully forgotten or erased because forgetting is easier than reckoning with white America's history of genocide. Colonization killed so many people that it changed the Earth's climate. We have stories about it, about how the Earth seemed to shift after white people came. The violence from that genocide survives in slurs. There is only one type of Indian in the white American psyche: the relic, the Indian in the headdress, the Redskin.
But it's important that you see us as we are now. Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a young indigenous activist, explained in a 2014 interview how he'd been hurt by this team name. His high school's rivals, he said, were named the Calaveras Redskins. As Brown recalled, "I have heard my own friends yelling around me: 'Kill the Redskins! Or, 'Send them on the Trail of Tears!'"
I am hurt by the team name. It's the kind of hurt that is hard to name. On one side, I see indigenous men who have told me that "there are bigger fish to fry" when I criticize team names, or mascots, or women in headdresses on Halloween or at Coachella. This response always leaves me taken aback; it's interesting that any man could look at me and my career, and imagine I don't know what to pay attention to or talk about. I made an entire career out of knowing what to look at. That's what writers do. And I've helped out whole families back home in the process. I know what I'm doing. These are men who believe you can't have a discussion about indigenous sovereignty or "real" Native issues when we're being distracted by you, or by women at Coachella, or by Cher wearing a headdress, or by Elizabeth Warren. Some people don't understand that we know how to gauge the impact of a racist threat against us. As indigenous women, we have to assess these things to survive, daily, in the world.
On another side, from non-Natives, we are told that we're being divisive for criticizing women like you. We're often assured that people like you have the best intentions—to not be racist, or sexist, or cruel to anyone. We're chided for taking offense when there are "bigger fish to fry." People attack us for saying we have a problem with anything racist a liberal does—because our needs often come last on the scale of liberal goals for progress.
It's frustrating. I know you know about frustration. I imagine your work with #MeToo is often frustrating, that you're probably often criticized for being divisive, or told that the careers of some men are more important than their transgressions.
I believe that people who have done racist things don't wish to acknowledge those things because it might make them bad, when they clearly know they are good. I think that such denial can be more dangerous than the transgressions themselves.
My mother has said that society operates like an abuser in denial. I know you are aware of how Indians take a beating from society. I think you can help. We have more connective tissue than people think. The problem is racism. Racism divides—not Twitter antics or political correctness. It's white supremacy that divides and hurts.
You appeared in the "Stop Violence Against Women" public-service announcement, which aired during the recent Surviving R. Kelly docuseries, where Tarana Burke said, "All women deserve to be free from violence, sexual assault, and shame." I'd like you to see the violence and shame in what you, yourself, have perpetuated against indigenous people. You wore a slur across your chest.
When you tweeted that the #MAGA hat was the new white hood, you weren't wrong, but hypocritical. If you see the racism in a #MAGA hat, you should also be able to see the racist slur on a product that you're profiting from. White supremacy is all around us, in symbols beyond Trump memorabilia. It's on the border, where Indians pass every day, with the knowledge that we were here before the division. It's in the White House, where portraits hang of men who forcibly removed Indians from land and made them march to their death; who enslaved people with full lives, families, and souls. That history is largely unwritten and untaught in American schools, which means that history textbooks remain symbols of subjugation too. It's in the bakery, where people make "Squaw Bread." It's at The Spunky Squaw Boutique. It's at Target, where they sell a children's Redskins costume.
Now that you see this all more clearly, what will you do to create a safer environment for the people you say you support?
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