Ethnic sensitivity and some forethought will prevent a crisis

This post began ruminating when I read last year that the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six operated its mission to kill Osama bin Laden with the Pentagon-derived code word of “Geronimo” for the most reviled and hunted man in recent American history.

Then last week Victoria Secret burned itself by sending a lingerie model down the runway in a flowing Indian headdress.

Victoria's Secret goes nativeI just concluded five years of working on and off for the Seneca Nation of Indians, a proud and progressive sovereign native nation in Western New York. Perhaps that makes me more sensitive to these ethnic insults than most.

But a little thought and common sense goes a long way to preventing these insulting events. [We won’t go into the various “mascots” still pretending that they are all about positive ethnic attributes, even as they use racial stereotypes. The Washington Redskins, seriously? Would an NFL team ever name themselves after another color of skin? Or the Cleveland Indians, who play in a state whose very name is derived from native language, Oh’yio?]

But we digress. At Eric Mower + Associates a few semesters back, we had the good fortune to offer an internship to a Buffalo State College student named Samantha Nephew. As it turned out, she is a Seneca. And she was everything a company could want in an intern: Curious, hard-working, self-starting and helpful. She went on to a full-time job, and I was honored to serve as a reference, and is also going to grad school at St. Bonaventure. I hope one day she’ll serve her Nation as president or a Council member.

She posted on Facebook a few days ago about the sexual stereotyping of female Indians and how destructive it is. For an ancestry that includes women who were raped and abused by white settlers, and before that by rival tribes, this carries a great deal of weight. She linked to, of all things, a story in Great Britain’s Independent. Should Americans really have to be taught about racial fairness from the Brits?

Headdresses are traditionally worn by Native American war chiefs and warriors as a symbol of respect, the feathers earned through acts of compassion or bravery.

Samantha’s posted story continued:

“We have gone through the atrocities to survive and ensure our way of life continues,” Navajo Nation spokeswoman Erny Zah told an interviewer. “Any mockery, whether it’s Halloween, Victoria’s Secret – they are spitting on us. They are spitting on our culture, and it’s upsetting.” Victoria’s Secret promptly apologized, promising to remove Kloss’s controversial outfit from future broadcasts and any promotional material, saying it “had no intention to offend anyone.”

Maybe, but you didn’t think in advance about how offensive it would be, thus creating your own crisis.

Samantha posted as well about the group No Doubt’s racist video involving Native American “themes.” I’ve learned much from following her. The stereotyping is almost comical in its childishness. Peace pipe smoking? Spear throwing? Headdress wearing? Today, while most Indians I know take their heritage seriously and with pride, Indians fill as many occupations and lifestyles as any other Americans.

Samantha wrote this: “The Chair of the American Indian studies program at Dartmouth also said this about Halloween costumes at the end of this interview: ‘One big difference between dressing up as a Native American as opposed to a pirate or astronaut or cowboy is that the latter are occupations, not societies. You don’t try out for a job as an Indian. It’s your culture; it’s your way of life.’ ”

No Doubt, Victoria Secret and the U.S. Military, among others, should know better. Avoid a crisis by thinking through what you are doing. This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about treating people with due respect, as you would like to be treated. This is a conversation we shouldn’t even be having in 2012.

Especially involving the people whose ancestors lived on this land for thousands of years before any Europeans arrived and were almost wiped out as a result.

Consider the real historical context of the “first” Thanksgiving.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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