“Racism is a cowering thing

” Ward Churchill on calling things by their rightful name

jon schledewitz/global aware

By Ward Churcill

November 2005

Earlier this year, Indigenous rights activist and scholar Ward Churchill spoke in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Churchill titled his talk A Little Matter of Genocide: Linking US Aggression Abroad to the Domestic Oppression of Indigenous Peoples. At the time, Churchill was at the centre of an enormous controversy back in the US – and enduring vicious daily attacks from right-wing pundits – over his long-published essay “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” written in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

In that essay, Churchill said of the attackers that “the most that can honestly be said of those involved on September 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people.” (He made that point in the context of the horrible crimes perpetrated by the US against the Iraqi people during the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed.) Churchill argued provocatively that many of those who died in the attacks constituted “a technocratic corps at the heart of America’s global financial empire,” and therefore could not be considered “innocent” victims. The specific and much-misunderstood phrase that the right wing seized on in their attacks was Churchill’s reference to those at the top of the towers as “little Eichmanns.”

After concluding his formal remarks in North Battleford, Churchill opened up the discussion to those in attendance, prompting the following exchange with members of the audience.

When I read down the list of Iraq war casualties, I see so many Hispanic names. They seem to be targeting the poor of America as their fodder.

Always.

And last fall, I was at a banquet in Billings, Montana, and this guy started talking to me about his son who works as a full-time recruiter for the US Marine Corps, in Canada , recruiting Indians on Indian reserves. I was shocked!

They’ve been doing that for a long time. I really became aware of it during the Oka stand-off. There were about three or four different groups who participated in that, but by and large they were Vietnam combat vets, or had been involved in US excursions elsewhere. I figured they were all from the States, figured they were all going to get deported. Nope. They’re all from Canada! These were Canadian Mohawks who had fought in Vietnam.

And the Mohawks probably aren’t that unique. They’ll give you preferential treatment in the States if you’ve served in the US military. That’s a short cut to going from landed immigrant to citizen status, and I don’t think the Mohawks particularly wanted that, but they would have gotten work permits more easily to work steel in New York and so forth.

Have you noticed any difference in the ordinary American’s attitude toward the war in Iraq?

Well, I seem to have personally precipitated a whole resurrection of the culture war, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask for an objective view on that!

What I’ve found is that when you call things by their rightful name, it serves the same purpose as lancing a huge boil. And the puss has splattered all over everything. It’s splattering right now. You would not believe the connections being made by people who subscribe to that pre-packaged, red-white-and-blue ideal of American supremacy. I get emails talking about how “Shivington should have finished the job.” Who’s Shivington? Well, he was a Methodist minister turned volunteer cavalry colonel who was responsible for two things: one was the Sand Creek massacre, and the other was popularizing its rationale, which was nits make lice. That’s what he instructed his troops to remember when they went in there on November 27, 1864: “Remember boys, kill all. Big and little. Nits grow up to be lice.” Vermin. And while he certainly didn’t kill all the Cheyennes and Arapahos, what these people are saying is – he should have.

Remember, these are people who are fervently embracing what’s going on in Iraq. I got another email the other day that said, “I used to be indifferent, but after listening to you, I’m glad we exterminated them. My great-great-grandfather is to be commended. And every time I spend a 20 dollar bill, I congratulate Andrew Jackson for taking the noses of the butchered red skins at Horseshoe Bend.”

Now, these are probably events and place names with which you’re not familiar, but I think you’re getting the drift. It’s bringing all that ugly, poisonous puss that’s built up in the American mentality out in the open where you can deal with it, rather than running around all the time pretending that nobody feels that way. It’s not easy being the centre of that, having that 6000-emails-deep of invective thrown at you, but I think that actually serves a purpose in lowering the mask, exposing the racism that moves beneath the surface.

What they’re doing in Iraq is of a piece to how they consider native people here. And you need to call it out by its rightful name, okay? Stokely Carmichael, who became known as Kwame Ture, wrote an article back in the 1980s in which he said: “When I was a young man coming out of Howard University in 1961, I joined SNCC and went down to take part in the Civil Rights movement in the southeastern US.” He said, “We encountered racism then. Overt, proud, strutting racism, wearing its bed sheets and its pointy little hoods, lynching people, burning us alive, beating us with log chains and tire irons and axe handles. And we defeated it. We didn’t defeat it non-violently, but we defeated it. And then you have a period,” he said. “where racism is a cowering thing. It’s retreating into the shadows and no one will admit to being, or having ever been, a racist. And now” – and remember this is 20 years ago that he said this – “it’s back. But it’s back in a far more virulent and insidious form, and it’s much more effective than it used to be, because now it’s masked itself as anti-racism.”

Racism occurs. We all agree on that. You can go to the Conservative Party convention now and they will agree that racism is a reality in Canadian life. But ask them to point out an active racist. They can’t. We’re talking about immaculate racism: racism is everywhere; it permeates our existence, but apparently nobody is doing it.

I had the same kind of discussion on Bill Maher’s comedy show, of all places, with Michael Faughnan, the brother of an individual who was killed in the World Trade Centre. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. And no matter what I mentioned, according to Michael, the Eichmann analogy didn’t apply. His brother wasn’t an Eichmann; his brother’s friends weren’t Eichmanns; the people in the firm weren’t Eichmanns. So when would the Eichmann analogy apply? Maybe somebody who works twelve year-old kids to death on starvation wages in sweatshops in order to maximize profit and be able to sell more stock? No, he rejects that too. Nobody in the World Trade Centre. Maybe somewhere there are these evil capitalists, or Donald Rumsfeld. What, Donald Rumsfeld is committing genocide single-handedly?

We all agree. Michael Faughnan agreed: the US comportment in the world is responsible for not only millions, but perhaps tens of millions of people living their lives in absolute destitution and misery, and dying, prematurely, very agonizing deaths. No contest: that’s happening. Just… nobody’s responsible for it. Excuse me? That’s exactly what Kwame Ture was talking about. You’ve got to call it by its rightful name. I liked Michael Faughnan, and I vaguely knew his brother. He was a nice guy. Michael wants me to put a human face on his deceased stock-broker brother – I will. But he wants me to put a human face on him in order to distinguish him from the “little Eichmann” characterization — I won’t. “My brother was human,” he said. I can see that. But what, then, was Eichmann? Was he too not human? Did he too not have a human face? Was he not perhaps a good father? A loving husband? Committed to social improvement in the society that he valued? Simply trying to get ahead by doing his job?

Denying it does not allow us to heal it, and you cannot heal while the wounding continues. You’ve got to call things by their rightful names – even, or maybe especially, when it’s uncomfortable. We have to dig out the colonizer in ourselves. That’s colonized and colonizer alike, because one of the means by which colonialism perpetuates itself is by imposing its false assumptions upon those who are subordinated, so we become self-colonizers. Native people have to undergo their own decolonization. It’s a little different for the colonized to decolonize than it is for the colonizers to decolonize, but both have to take place in order for the decolonization project to work.

With all the threats you’ve received, are you afraid?

There’s a very personal dimension to it, but it’s not about me. It’s about rolling back critical engagement in the academy as a whole until it gets to the point where universities are only about imparting technical skills on raw material. I’ve become the point-man for the repeal of ethnic studies and all of its sub-parts – whether that’s American Indian studies, Afro-American studies, Asian American Studies, Latino-Latina/Chicano studies, Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, as well as the critical components of sociology; they’re all to be gone. That ought to be scary, okay? Those are the stakes, and like I say, it isn’t about me. I’m not backing down or I might get obliterated – and of itself, that’s inconsequential, but it would knock a hole in the floodgate of academic freedom.

You are under attack right now by a country that purports to value free speech. How does that make you feel?

Well, I never believed they really valued free speech anyway. What I tell my students is, “You’re in the United States. You’ve never read the thing, but the Constitution guarantees you certain rights. And you unequivocally have those rights, right up until the moment you exercise one. [laughter] Ultimately, you have one tangible freedom in the United States: you’re free to do exactly what you’re told, all the time. That’s the one freedom you have.

And the alternative? Well, we’ve got cages. We’ve got clubs. We’ve got the 82 nd Airborne Division. What have you got?