'Cool' in America

Diane A. Johnson

July 30, 1991|By Diane A. Johnson

IN A RECENT commentary entitled "It's cool to be an Indian," Joanne Jacobs of the San Jose Mercury News says, "The American Indian population is soaring -- it's up 38 percent in the last 10 years. Where they're coming from is anybody's guess."

It seems that for reasons unknown to us non-Indians, more people want to be identified as Indians, based on having a fraction of Indian ancestry, or on the myth of Indian ancestry.

The fact is, however, that the Census Bureau lets Americans be whatever they want to be, with a mere stroke of the pen.

So, these newfound Indians don't have to be registered tribe members.

They merely have to check a different box on the form.

Lots of Americans are part Indian -- or so they say (my good friend claims this). Well, here's another flash -- it won't do them a bit of good to check that box on the Census form.

More than likely, some of these new Indians are in fact old Indians who were passing for white in the last Census, which makes this a new phenomenon.

"Being an Indian," says Jacobs, "has become a 'cool minority' to be."

Wait a minute; isn't that a contradiction in terms -- "cool" and "minority?"

One reason these part-Indians are identifying themselves as such, is that affirmative action rewards minority status, assuming it's an indicator of poverty and discrimination. Some of the Census Indians may be angling for a competitive advantage based on the presumption of disadvantage.

Well, none of these "Indians" is disadvantaged by that status. They don't suffer discrimination. When you're one-sixteenth Blackfoot, who knows to hold it against you? Your skin is still basically white.

Identifying with Indian culture, religion and heritage might enrich their lives, but it won't make them need special help through affirmative action.

Anyway, everybody who cares knows that affirmative action, as it was intended, is dead. (OK, if not dead, it serves no useful purpose.) White society still dominates and controls, and always will.

The Indian population boom reflects a historic change in American society; people are choosing to identify themselves, against the percentages, as members of a once-despised minority group.

Jacobs suggests that behind the willingness to check the box marked "American Indian" is a sense that being white isn't all that great; that it isn't what it used to be.

Well, Jacobs is obviously white. From where I sit, being of white descent is everything it always was. The percentages prove that it's only advantageous to be of white descent in the Census and in real life.

And that is a cross for many to bear for life!

Diane A. Johnson writes from Baltimore.

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