How a Bunch of White, Cishet European Dudes Weaponized Literature
Content Warnings: cultural & physical genocide against Indigenous peoples, colonial practices, systemic racism, systemic sexual abuse, residential boarding schools, physical brutality and assault, “[noble] savage,” “civilized,” eugenics practices (medical experimentation, forced sterilization), abuse of power (stanford prison experiment), commissioners of Indian affairs, white supremacy, western supremacy, human trafficking, foster care abuse, child abduction, substance abuse, domestic abuse, violence against Native American Indian women, religious/spiritual abuse, “re-education,” forced confinement, forced shaving of hair, starvation, child abuse and neglect, environmental racism.
Privilege Warning: I am a white, cis woman of European decent who has benefited from living on stolen land. I was not taught any of what follows (Stanford Prison Experiment being the only exception) in my public K-12 education. I write this knowing I can never truly understand the experiences of Indigenous peoples and survivors of the US’s genocidal practices. What little knowledge I have on the subject I am sharing in a humble effort to spread awareness of the history that humanism has played in the harm.
Academic Rigor Warning: Given that this is a blog post and not an academic article, the research standard of this is limited; often I am summarizing or paraphrasing knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, as a student, grad student, or just a citizen of the world. When we get to the history lesson, I rely heavily on Andrea Smith’s book to back up that knowledge, but that text was published in the mid 2000s and thus would be out of date by academic standards. I am not an expert in the least, and I still have a TON of anti-racist work ahead of me.
There’s a part of me that didn’t want to write last week’s blog post.
I did so with a subtle cringe rumbling through me, so now I’m taking the time here to explain why.
I am uncomfortable when anybody says anything is universal.
Surely there are some broad categories, you may think. Isn’t that what storytelling’s about? Love is universal. Hate and anger and suffering is universal. Language is universal. Storytelling itself!
Yeah, but what it means to different people from different cultures, the way it’s expressed, who gets to express it because of histories of harm, is not. Love is often attached to romance and sex, but for the ace community, it’s not (and even within that, there are nuances). Anger is something we in the US express rather freely, but Inuit parents teach it very differently and BLM protestors don’t have the same access to it as MAGA white nationalists for some fucking reason. Yes, culturally, linguistic communication is common, but in the case of Genie, it was stolen from her. Do we all tell stories? Maybe. But the way we do varies.
So I get a little squirmy when someone brings up Carl Jung like he’s the God of Stories. And there’s alllllwaaaayyyyssss that one dude in your class who does (and yes, I get the irony of saying “always”). Do I think he has merits? Well, I did write the post in the end, so yeah. I’ve yet to move beyond a lot of the tropes or, let’s be honest, the act structure that we talked about last week, even though I’ve never once actively set out to plot, write, or edit with the collective unconscious in mind. (Not a beat sheeter here).
But I also know the dangers of saying (Western) art is universal. So let’s just agree to say that Jung is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
Let’s take a small tangent before we get to the main thrust of this post.
I’ve mentioned before that my sister’s decked out in psych degrees and works as a school psychologist, and since I’ve got a minor and am generally interested in people (as most storytellers are), we tend to get in the weeds sometimes about elementary psych studies and common myths within the field. For instance, in my little Facebook echo chamber (which is where I get most of my woke content—I know, I know, I need to get on TikTok), I saw a post make the rounds about the efficacy of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The experiment is decently lodged in the cultural zeitgeist, so you might have seen the 2015 movie by the same name that starred Ezra Miller, Michal Angarano, and Billy Crudup.
If you watch this trailer, you can get the main idea of the study conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971: a random sample of Stanford University college students were randomly assigned to be either guards or prisoners in order to study the effects that prison has on the human psyche.
The effects of this thing were profound.
The situation escalated well beyond what the participants and those running the experiment expected, and as a result, it was prematurely ended in order to prevent further harm. Some of the “prisoners” were traumatized so badly, they reportedly struggled with PTSD for years. That has impacts well beyond a two week study.
In Psychology (which had already–for decades–been playing it rather fast and loose with causing harm to their participants), this was a nail in the coffin of unethical studies. The Institutional Review Boards (IRB) was founded in 1974, and it’s now the gate psychologists must pass in order to do any kind of study with human beings.
The IRB is incredibly strict because it has to be. It’s the thing that prevents well-meaning psych students, grad students, and psychologists from accidentally recreating this level of harm again. For example, when I was in college, a fellow psych major had her study about reading tutoring denied because there would be a control group that did not have access to tutoring and an experimental group that did–and the impacts of which group you were in could have lasting impacts on young children’s understanding of reading skills. The IRB said nope, and she had to find another thesis project.
Because of the IRB, the Stanford Prison Experiment never has and never will be recreated to cross-test its findings. We are left its hauntings: the questions it raised, the horror we fear might be inherent in us all, the conditions that will forever remain untested for validity.
And haunted we are.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is referenced in almost every Psych 101 textbook, in humanities textbooks, in philosophy textbooks. It was made into a film. It’s referenced easily on the internet. This thing is everywhere. It was shocking, and its interpretation is disturbing.
According to psych textbook author, Peter Gray, Ph.D., the interpretation within Psychology is this:
The conditions of a prison, where one group has power over another and the powerless group are stripped of their individual identities, creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons. Those in power become abusive, and those subject to that power become immature, passive, and rebellious. These effects do not have to do with differences in original personality (because in the experiment the subjects were randomly assigned to roles), but result from the situation in which people find themselves. In the original paper and in subsequent writings, Zimbardo has repeatedly emphasized his view that this experiment reveals much that is significant in understanding what happens in real prisons.Psychology Today
At large, its interpretation is far simpler: people in positions of authority abuse power.
Universal understanding of human beings: achievement unlocked.
I was taught this. My sister was taught this. It’s widely considered to be one of the pinnacles of the discipline–as a history lesson, a universal truth, and a cautionary tale for young students thinking they want to major. Universally, power corrupts and leads to abuse.
Cut To: Christina just scrolling on her phone, as she does. A lot. This thread kept popping up on my feed for weeks:
(Be proud I actually found a meme I was looking for on the internet!) I saw this without the very last (big) text, btw. So I’ll make my point and then talk about that last bit.
I had seen this thread come up, thought, “huh, yeah, it is of interest that it was Stanford (a very bougie school), and that they were cis-male / white.” No one in any of my classes or in any of my discussions about this experiment thought to read it that way because it was a random sample.
Yeah, but a random sample of a very specific population.
Often people bring up random sample or double-blind as the shining armor, the bullet-proof shield as to why science–conducted by humans and often with human participants–can claim objectivity when the humanities or even the social sciences, for that matter, cannot. Does it vastly increase objectivity? Yes! Of course. But is it infallibly objective? No. Science (as a very broad disciplinary term) is not perfect, and even technologies are corrupted by our own biases because we create them–Google Translate famously went through a redesign to try to cut down on the program’s gender bias, for instance. As we’ll get to in a minute (and this is probably a bit unfair to drop here, but bear with me), eugenics was a science, so we are more than capable of twisting methods of inquiry into skewed and harmful places. Just like with literary scholarship, there’s a spectrum of what we consider good practice in scientific disciplines (check out my Better Arguments vs. Misreads post for the literary side of things). Overgeneralizing based on a small sample size or a flawed sample and lack of reliability (consistency of the measure) or validity (accuracy of the measure) are elements that would push the Stanford Prison Experiment towards the lower end of that spectrum, potentially.
Point is, when I told my sister about this post while we were doing sister-meal-prep-zoom, she sat back on her heels and had this massive epiphany face. “Huh,” she said. “I’ve never heard anyone bring up the sample as potentially flawed.”
Yet we’d been inundated with the fact that this study speaks to all of humanity.
Which is why I find it so frustratingly funny that some (probably white) dude included the bottom text on this thread I embedded. The study and book were used as proof that ALL people are evil, but they only get flagged as flawed and allegorical when we start to maybe interrogate what the sample looks like and why it can only speak to other individuals that match that sample.
And remember, the IRB exists now, so we will never be able to recreate the Stanford Prison Experiment. We don’t know the answers to this thing, despite assuming we did for the last 50 years. If we could recreate it, maybe we’d have an easier time detangling the science itself, our interpretation of it, and what place it holds in our cultural zeitgeist. Maybe we’d figure out whether it should be included in Psych 101 textbooks as a history lesson (like Freud and Jung generally are) or as an actual insight into the universal human condition alongside Behaviorism’s Pavlolv and Skinner or Developmental Psych’s Piaget.
Textbook author Dr. Peter Gray ultimately decided not to include the Stanford Prison Experiment in his work. The Psychology Today article is worth reading, but the gist of it adds up to yeah, the sample is flawed, the participants were influenced by cultural context, the participants were influenced by Zimbardo himself, and we overwhelmingly undervalue the fact that we can’t recreate reality–that yes, abuse of power happens in prisons, but when guards’ careers are on the line, it doesn’t go from 0 to 100 quite like what we saw when Stanford boys played prison for a few days. (I’m being a little flippant considering the prisoners were traumatized, so I do apologize for that, but the fact remains that the abuses that happen are a little more subtle and insidious than the shock-and-awe we saw in this experiment).
In the synthesis post, I said that all writing has a set of politics. Textbooks are no different. And the danger is that we tend to imbue them with more objectivity and more authority–like we do with science. Keep that in mind as I talk about my teaching experience.
Okay, tangent done. To the main point.
I was hired to teach a class called, “The Art of Being Human.”
In one semester, I somehow covered the major disciplines housed under the humanities (art, film, literature, religion, philosophy, music, etc.), a very brief history of humanism & critical thinking, and some of the major themes that stretch across the fields (freedom, love, happiness, etc). As with most professors, when I was handed a class and a textbook (literally the week before classes started), I was rather dependent on the sample syllabus I was given and the text I was hired to teach. But very quickly, I realized the politics of the textbook were not only problematic, they were dangerous.
So let me take you through the briefest of Class Day 2 lectures:
Humanism, broadly speaking, was an ideological product of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that followed. After the dark ages (when, for the record, Asian and Middle Eastern civilizations were thriving on the fronts of art and science), medieval Europe started to read, to write, to create art, to think beyond how do I grab this land. And here’s the main tenant, the thing this class was built on, the history that *is* real but needs to be interrogated:
Humanists studied the great artists, writers, and thinkers of their day because they wanted to become fully human.
The idea is admirable: we go on a journey of self discovery through art. We learn more about ourselves and perhaps can live more intentionally through that knowledge. It’s pop psych self help but in renaissance form, in a sense.
If there is a “fully human,” and if you need to do certain things to achieve that, it means that if you don’t do those things, you are “less than fully human.”
It means that humanity is conditional.
That not everyone is human.
This is the story of how a bunch of white, cishet, European dudes weaponized literature.
This is the story of colonialism.
My textbook bought in. It tried to defend the humanities’ right to be funded, to exist in the university setting unthreatened (which I believe in too) by asserting that A), art can and should be classified into great and not great, aka high and low culture, B), Western art is great art, and C) great art should be studied in order to become fully human.
All of that is so fucking harmful.
Day 1, I blew up the high/low culture bullshit.
Shakespeare was low culture in his day. His entire sense of humor was puns and sex jokes. People were drunk and pissing on the Globe’s floor. Playwrights were drunkenly killing each other in bar brawls (re: Christopher Marlowe). The puritans thought the theater was so immoral, there was a period where Shakespeare couldn’t perform because they shut down the damn theaters in all of London. (A good number of those puritans were pressured to leave England afterwards. Three guesses as to where they went.)
Shakespeare was a Marvel film: toss some money at it, eat some popcorn, have a good time. Don’t study it. It wasn’t until the neoclassical period (1700s) that a bunch of white, cishet European dudes decided he was high-brow, edited him into volumes–cutting a lot of the raunchy material out–and told upper middle class families that in order to be upper middle class, they had to have a copy of the Bible and a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works in their libraries (because books were expensive). Hamlet is a clusterfuck to perform because those editors at one point decided more Shakespeare is always better, so they took every single draft that existed and stitched it together like some Frankenstein monster. It’s literally like 4-6 hours if you perform the whole thing on stage, as we know it. High culture is bullshit. (And for the record, Marvel scholarship is valid and worthy.)
Day 2, I started my students on a call and response
Because if I was going to get one thing across to them, it was going to be this:
Me: Why did humanists study the great artists, writers, and thinkers?
Them: To become fully human.
Me: Why is that problematic?
Them: Because humanity is not conditional.
Across history, we have treated humanity like it is. But I’m here to tell you my core morality–the essence of who I am–is wrapped up in this one thing. If you are human, you are enough. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what books you read, it doesn’t matter what class you are, it doesn’t matter your race, your religion, the worst things you’ve ever done. You. Are. Human. And as such, you deserve the full extent of respect and dignity that Beyoncé deserves. I don’t care if you are an addict or a saint. You. Are. Human. You. Are. Enough. You do not need to do anything to prove that you deserve to belong here.
That does not mean, for the record, that those differences between us should be erased. It means that those differences are valid. They are worthy. Just as worthy as the elitist crap the Europeans were peddling.
(Again, I’m of European descent, so I’m very much speaking from a place of privilege here).
And to throw another caveat out there, I might have had my students along for that ride until we got to the freedom unit. Me being me, we didn’t talk about the philosophy of freedom. We talked about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s critique of the death penalty and the collateral consequences of being a felon. Usually, that’s where I lost about half the class. Being a murderer, a rapist, a drug dealer–in my mind, at least–does not void your humanity. Accountability MATTERS, punishment and rehabilitation matter. But I’m what you might call a bleeding heart liberal because I think convicts are still human beings. We, as state, cannot violate human dignity without being in the wrong (to quote Bryan Stevenson, “It’s not about whether or not a person deserves to die for their crimes, it’s whether or not we have the right to kill them”). So I’m not a capital punishment gal. A lot of my students were, and I gave them room for that. But I also cried after class when a (white male) student looked at me straight-faced and advocated that we execute people, resuscitate them, execute them again, resuscitate them again, ad infinitum–or at least until eye-for-an-eye was satisfied (whatever that means and whoever gets to decide when that is). I looked at him straight-faced and replied, “so… torture.”
That tangent aside, I do hope you stick around for the history lesson I’m about to drop–because I was not taught any of this in K-12. And if you’ve picked up a particularly rage-y tone to this post, it’s because I’m pissed about that.
Accountability matters. But the United States refuses to be held accountable for the way it used the logic of humanism as a weapon against Black and Indigenous peoples to found a nation. A lot of people hope the cries of the past die out if no one now echoes it back into existence.
I’m writing this post to amplify that sound, and particularly to analyze how art became a vehicle for genocide. Calling western art and the symbols inherent “universal” when they aren’t was an insidious Step 1 that rippled deep into European and American Imperialism.
The Collective Unconscious and the “Noble Savage”
Why I’m Bringing All of This Up Now
The Art of Being Human textbook had a collective unconscious chapter titled, “Myth & Archetype.” Students had to know who Carl Jung was, what the collective unconscious at large was, and what a selected number of archetypes and symbols meant (e.g. warrior, trickster, sage, etc).
One of those symbols was The Garden.
Given we’re pretty inundated with the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, you can probably guess what the garden means. But notice I didn’t say “because you’re human, you get this symbol.” I have doubts that it’s actually in the collective unconscious, if the collective unconscious even exists (again, by definition, we can’t ever prove it–because our conscious minds *supposedly* cannot perceive it). We could go mad with the chicken and the egg here, whether the garden shows up in the monotheistic traditions because it’s a collective unconscious symbol or if we mislabel it as part of the collective unconscious because it’s part of the monotheistic tradition. I don’t exactly know where I land, but again: guidelines more than actual rules.
The garden is a place of peace and harmony, of natural splendor. The land of milk and honey. The place where the grass is literally greener. Adam & Eve, the apple, the snake, the whole nine yards.
In the Western Imaginary, the New World became a Garden.
And the people who lived there came to be known as another “archetype”: The Noble Savage.
The Art of Being Human textbook defined the noble savage using Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1768) and the philosophy of Primitivism: they were “those who lived far from cities in what was called the state of nature were happier, less apt to commit crime, and more willing to share the fruits of the land than their educated and wealthier counterparts” (47). The noble savage was “untutored but astute in the ways of nature, infinitely resourceful, and able to provide food and shelter for his family” (48).
The textbook dropped this as a term. AND THEN LEFT IT. No critique as to how “savage” is a racial slur, how that “archetype” is not universally understood, how it’s not part of the collective unconscious but rather is a construct that imperialists used as means to vilify and exterminate Indigenous peoples. I literally stared at the page and went, “wait, what?”
And here’s the extra layer that the textbook also left out, which is strange to me given it has the quote about trying to become “fully human.” In Shakespeare’s Humanism by Robin Headlam Wells (part of the research I did for a grad seminar paper on Hamlet), there’s a quote from English lawyer and religious poet Robert Aylett that speaks to the underpinning logic of connecting art to humanity: “[E]very rude and savage nation, / Where gentle arts abide not, are inclined / To rustic force, and savage cruelty of mind” (14).
In other words, built into this garden / noble savage construct is the (untrue) thought that what makes the Indigenous peoples of the americas “savage” and “rude” and “cruel” is that “gentle arts” do not exist in their cultures.
And in case this is not 100% ridiculous to you, for the record, art and music and philosophy all exist (bar is very low with that word, paraphrased from “abide”) in Indigenous cultures. Those arts just looked different from what colonists understood as “great,” and therefore were relegated to the opposite side of the binary. Colonists thought, “These ‘savages’ don’t have Shakespeare. They don’t have Voltaire. They don’t have Michelangelo. Welp, I guess that means they’re not human, so we can do whatever the hell we want to them.”
We’ll get to what that “whatever the hell” was in a second.
In essence, the humanities became a tool to violently enforce white supremacy from the first moment of colonial contact–in the Americas, in the Pacific, and in the African continent. It became a way to measure the differences between humans and less-than-humans: “civilized” colonists vs “savages” / “barbarians.”
In fact, the connection between art and humanity was such a pinnacle of white supremacism that once the goal post was in place, marginalized communities had to play by it to get anywhere. The best example, in my mind, is the Harlem Renaissance. The 1910s-1940s (depending on who you talk to) saw a boom in Black art, literature, and philosophy in Harlem, specifically, that was often leveraged in an attempt to gain civil rights decades before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. All of this art and philosophy could “prove” that Black folk were capable of producing great art or high culture contributions–and thus should be given the respect and dignity of, you know, human beings. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Louis Armstrong, and Bessie Smith all come out of this moment of cultural revolution that in part, as Du Bois mentions in his concept of the Talented Tenth, was a vehicle to achieve “racial uplift.”
The logic in a nutshell:
- “Human” means having the mind to produce and study great art.
- Produce and study great art in order to prove humanity and gain the same level of civil protections.
But white supremacists were never really invested in logic (and we’ve all seen how they still aren’t today). They’d either block the goal post or move it. And when it got hard to deny the talents of Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald even within white audiences, they’d often resort to using “science” to argue that Black minds were evolutionarily inferior and thus incapable of that “great” studying. Again, reminder, eugenics was a science. It was taught in US medical schools long before Hitler ran with it. We came up with it in the 1800s. And we implemented it. Heftily. But we’ll get there.
A few decades later, the Civil Rights Movement would try again with different means. I am being a little reductive of the Harlem Renaissance in order to unearth this construct and bring it to light–the art produced was not simply just a tool, and the ripple effects are amazing and profound. But Du Bois’s Talented Tenth weren’t able to achieve all that they hoped. In the end, it was a dream deferred.
The weaponization of art was wielded in different ways against Black and Indigenous communities, but the (il)logic is the same. And it showed up in my textbook, unfiltered and unapologetic: humanity is conditional; one of those conditions is great art.
Qualifying “Savage” with “Noble”
Racism is messy and illogical. Talking our way through the mental gymnastics that goes into racist myths is not an easy thing to do. But “noble savage” has some weird nuances that come from weird places–and they’re important to talk about, so we’re going to do our best.
Colonists have this symbol of goodness: the garden. They want to go there. They think their lives–and potentially themselves–will be more “good” once out of the old corruption and politics of the old world. Problem is, people already live in the garden. And so colonists have to reconcile a massive cognitive dissonance: the Indigenous people who live in the garden somehow have to be both good (because they’re in the garden) and evil (because they’re “barbaric,” “savage,” and less-than-human) at the same damn time.
The good in the construct is the “noble” part, and it’s what generally has survived as a trope in art and literature–which is why, I guess, the textbook decided it was worthy of being a universally-understood symbol of the collective unconscious. We see it in the Thanksgiving myth (“willing to share the fruits of the land”), in Pocahontas and Tarzan stories (“those who lived far from cities in what was called the state of nature were happier, less apt to commit crime”), children’s books like Paddington Bear and Jungle Book (“infinitely resourceful”), and blockbuster sci-fi’s like Avatar (which is really just a Pocahontas retelling). You might have heard it put a different way: the “good Indian” stereotype.
Stories that employ this stereotype follow the same sort of trajectory over the course of the tale: “good Indians” embrace the “noble” part of themselves and civilize (by choice, coercion, or explicit force) the “savage” out of themselves (something that will echo in shocking clarity in the next section). Pocahontas, Mowgli, Tarzan, and Paddington Bear all go through an English-ification. They’re brought “out of the wilderness and into the light” by learning to dress, act, eat, and speak like the English do. Historically, that has been the “happy ever after” of their stories.
And for the record, these specific stories gained traction and survived the tides of history because they gave colonists a “feel good” story about “saving savages”–proving that it could be done (at a time when WASPy Gentlemen were having a panic attack about what separates human beings from animals because of Darwin. Tarzan, specifically, is an incarnation of that anxiety, and the “happily ever after” is a balm that assures them that gentlemanliness will prevail in the end). Pocahantas is a great example of literature being written by the imperialistic victors. Pocahantas wasn’t even her name.
Most modern creators have started to recognize the sordid history of these stories and how they employ racist myths–so they’ve revised them. Disney’s 90s Pocahontas (most importantly, its sequel), Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan, and John Favreau’s Jungle Book all portray their lead characters choosing their original homes and identities instead of reifying the “civilization arc” by become English. But for centuries, these stories populated the Western imaginary as a way to uphold the idea of “good Indians”–the “noble savage” who can be saved.
I’m sure there’s someone out there thinking, “okay, it’s a stereotype, but it’s not a harmful stereotype, right? The ‘Indians’ are good, after all.” So let’s address that.
Stereotypes by definition limit representation. That, alone, is harmful.
But here’s the thing with constructs and stereotypes: if a very real person or community fails to live up to the logic of the myth, the response becomes somewhat unscripted. Or rather scripted in the inverse.
To help explain, let’s look at a different sort of construct that uses the same logic: the “perfect victim.” For any crime or circumstance were there is a “victim,” especially if that injustice is upheld systemically, there is a version of victimhood that we’ve constructed. When a person fails to live up to that imaginary definition of that victimhood, then justice becomes limited–and often times more harm is inflicted. For instance, when you think about the crime of rape, what is the scripted version of events? Who do we think of as the stereotypical rapist, and who do we think of as their victim? Up until recently, it’s as follows: a complete stranger jumps out of the bushes, girl screams no and physically fights back; she wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t dressed provocatively or promiscuous; she wasn’t a sex worker; she has a clear memory of the incident and has witnesses; she was white; she was cis. (And often her attacker is a person of color.) She didn’t “ask for it” in any way, so we can believe that she was victimized.
She’s the perfect victim. And he’s the perfect perpetrator.
If she is a sex worker, if she was inebriated, if she was a he or nonbinary (and especially if they were trans), then it’s harder for society to believe–and in the worst possible cases, people think it was justified. “She was drunk and slutty, so she was asking for it. That trans woman tricked him, so he had every right to be angry.”
An invitation for harm.
Or in other words, victim blaming. The victim did it to themselves. They invited it.
When marginalized communities fail to live up to a “good” stereotype, whatever that may be (speaking with certain tones, looking certain ways, acting certain ways, coming from certain backgrounds or having certain experiences), then the system says that community or person has invited harm.
We see this happen with police brutality cases alllllll the time. With every new case, some dude with a thin blue line badge as his FB profile picture says, “well if that [B]lack man had just cooperated–”
What that asshole is saying is, “If he’d lived up to what I see as the ‘perfect victim,’ then maybe we could have a talked about police brutality. But he did it to himself. He was asking for it. What did he think was going to happen?” The shittiest part about that example? Being Black is one of those scripted elements that makes police brutality victims imperfect. White supremacy never went away. It is engrained systemically. An alarmingly large portion of the US’s population sees being Black as an invitation for harm. And the system has been built to uphold that.
[It’s taken me a month to write this post because it just is so emotionally draining to explore, let alone illustrate whenever I give the internal dialogues of white supremacists / misogynists / transphobes. It hurts me to write, and I’m so sorry if it’s hurting you to read. Okay, deep breaths.]
So how does that same logic apply to the “noble savage” or “good Indian” stereotypes?
Historically, when Indigenous communities defended their land rather than shared the fruits of it, when they committed “crimes” or were “aggressive” rather than being some kind of happy garden angels, colonists thought they had an invitation for harm.
In sum, the imperialistic implications of the “noble savage”–in the minds of European colonists–are twofold:
1. Indigenous peoples live in the garden, so some part of them must be good (“noble”)
2. Indigenous peoples are less-than-human because they don’t have “great culture” (“savage”)
But also their inverses:
1.1: If Indigenous peoples aren’t good to us, we have an invitation for harm (physical genocide)
2.2: We can save Indigenous peoples by forcing them to embrace “great culture” (cultural genocide / benevolent white parent / white savior complex)
This happened–in part, because of this construct. Art became a vehicle for genocide. In 2.1, it’s the excuse to exterminate, and in 2.2, it’s the actual method. So let me round out to the most obvious of fucking statements:
The “noble savage” does not belong in the collective unconscious.
The garden, as I’ve said, probably doesn’t belong there either.
And because of harms like this, I cringe anytime anyone says something is universal–Jung’s collective unconscious archetypes included. I’m not saying the Hero and the Sage are the same as the “noble savage,” but I’m just saying we might want to pump the breaks before we elevate them to “universal.”
The history of how this “noble savage archetype” was deployed and exploited is fucked up. I’m sorry I’m swearing so much in this one. I don’t know how else to really talk about this.
Get ready for the history lesson.
“Killing the Indian to Save the Man”:
Cultural Genocide on Paper, Physical Genocide Behind Closed Doors
In the 19th century, the United States and Canada shifted from a rather explicit pattern of physical genocide, ideologically underpinned by 2.1 above, to institutionalizing the logic of 2.2–crafting a method to “civilize” Indigenous Americans. Their “solution” came from Richard Henry Pratt:
Residential boarding schools
In 1879, Pratt founded the first off-reservation boarding school, Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The United States’s government ordered its military to take Indigenous children from their families and relocate them at this school; if parents resisted, they were imprisoned. Once enrolled, these children were forced to speak English, learn Euro-American curriculums (remember: intersection of art x humanity), and practice domestic skills that would prepare them for life at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder (alongside Black Americans).
According to Andrea Smith, author of Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005), Pratt actually was considered a humanitarian for his efforts. After all, saving the man was far better than simply “killing the Indian,” which up until that point had largely been the established practice:
“Within the context of the white debate at the time, Richard Pratt was actually a friend of the Indians. That is, U.S. Colonists, in their attempt to end Native control over their land, generally came up with two policies to address the ‘Indian Problem.’ Some advocated outright physical extermination of Native peoples. Meanwhile, the ‘friends’ of the Indians, such as Pratt, advocated cultural rather than physical genocide. Carl Schurz, a former commissioner of Indian affairs, concluded that Native peoples had ‘this stern alternative: extermination or civilization.’ Henry Pancoast, a Philadelphia lawyer, advocated a similar policy in 1882: ‘We must either butcher them or civilize them, and what we do we must do quickly’” (36).Andrea Smith
For the government, it was less about being “friendly” and more about being pragmatic. War and genocide are costly. The commissioner of Indian affairs, Carl Schurz and the Secretary of the Interior, Henry Teller, argued that it would cost “$22 million to wage war against Indians over a 10-year period, but would cost less than a quarter of that amount to educate 30,000 children for a year” (Smith 37-8). And so, by 1909, twenty-five off-reservation boarding schools, 157 on-reservation boarding schools, and 307 day schools were operational (Smith 36). These schools would be the primary mode of “dealing” with the “Indian problem” up until the 1980s and 1990s, facilitated by social services and the commissioner of Indian affairs once the military was disentangled from the actual child separations.
As of 2005, when Smith’s book was originally published, there were still eight off-reservation schools and 52 federal BIA on-reservation schools still open (37). Most of those are still operational today–in 2021–though funding is on the decline.
Pratt summed the goal with alarming precision:
“Kill the Indian to save the man.”
At their inception, the mission of these schools were clear: cultural genocide. Killing off Indigenous cultures instead of the actual human beings.
Indigenous languages, religions, and cultural traditions were prohibited. Children could only speak English; they could only practice Christianity. Their hair was cut. They were given new, English names. And the schools were specifically designed to prevent parents from visiting and prevent children from returning home during summer and winter breaks:
“[Pratt] argued that as long as boarding schools were primarily situated on reservations, it would be too easy for children to run away from school and the efforts to assimilate Indian children into boarding schools would be reversed when children returned to their families during the summer. He proposed a policy which mandated that children be taken far from their homes at an early age and not returned until they were young adults” (35-36).Andrea Smith
Pratt and others designed these schools to sever children from their cultures, and the fear was that if children had access to their communities, they would “backslide,” in essence–that children visiting home or parents visiting the schools would “reverse” any assimilation the schools had inflicted upon their students. In my home state of Michigan, for instance, it was commonplace for children who lived in the Saginaw area to be sent up to the school in the Traverse City area (almost four hours’ drive away) even though there was a school only 15 minutes away. Distance was a very real and purposeful barrier put in place to separate children from their families and communities. And it often went further. In the early and mid 20th century, children were “involuntarily leased out to white homes as menial labor during the summers rather than sent back to their homes” (Smith 37).
Separation, isolation, cultural control.
To say these schools inflicted scars on these families as a result is an almost egregious understatement. As you can see in the Unseen Tears documentary clip below, a lot of children blamed their parents for not visiting; they internalized that isolation and framed it as abandonment because they were never told that the system was purposefully designed to do this to them.
And sadly, the efforts to eradicate Indigenous cultures–to some degree or another–have worked. In the worst cases, when an entire generation was housed within this system, languages and cultural practices have been lost. Children were effectively severed from their communities and their cultures.
And even in the best cases, children suffered trauma around their own identities, their families, and their place in the world. Many boys, for instance, found that the military was the only kind of career that made sense after the militaristic regimentation of their lives at the hands of teachers, administrators, and staff of residential boarding schools. And Smith says that part of the domestic labor and education girls endured was meant to “inculcate patriarchal norms into Native communities so that women would lose their place of leadership in Native communities” (37). These schools set out to eradicate Indigenous cultures; thanks to the strength of Indigenous resistance even inside the schools, “eradicate” was often lessened to “damage,” but that still, for the most part, has happened in a blanket of silence. The United States has not acknowledged its own genocidal practices in the same way that Canada has (but we’ll get there).
Conditions, Abuses, Eugenics
Pratt might have sold residential boarding schools on paper as the “friendlier” option that moved away from outright murder, but in practice, it was a different story.
The conditions of these schools reflected the desire to cut costs. In other words, they were atrocious. According to Smith, “children were given inadequate food and medical care, and were overcrowded…. As a result, they routinely died from starvation and disease” (38). And because of the racism inherent, the relationship between staff and students more often than not was abusive. Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs issued a report in 1991 that documented cases of children often being “beaten severely with whips, rods, and fists, chained and shackled, bound hand and foot and locked in closets, basements, and bathrooms, and had their heads shaved or hair closely cropped”; and students at the Mohawk Institute at Brantford, Ontario reported seeing children “having their faces rubbed in human excrement… the normal punishment for bedwetters” (Smith 39).
Such abuses often could be fatal: “In 2001, a report issued by the Truth Commission on Genocide in Canada maintained that the mainline churches and the federal government were involved in the murder of over 50,000 Native children through this system. The list of offenses committed by church officials includes murder by beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation” (Smith 40). The cases are more documented in Canada than in the United States because the country has confronted its past more fully; however, survivor’s stories assert that this level of abuse and murder was just as frequent within our borders.
The most documented, I’d argue, in the US concerns sexual abuse. In 1987, for instance, the “FBI found that one teacher at the BIA-run Hopi day school in Arizona, John Boone, had sexually abused at least 142 boys, but the school’s principal had never investigated any allegations of abuse” (Smith 38); and in another case, a sexual predator even admitted on his job application that he’d been arrested for child sexual abuse, yet was hired anyway at the Kaibito Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation–he was later convicted of abusing students there (Smith 38). Despite the passing of the Indian Child Protection Act of 1990, rates of sexual assault of Indigenous children continues to be vastly disproportionate in comparison to other ethnicities in the United States (Smith 38-9).
Even though residential boarding schools were designed around cultural genocide, you can see how in practice and behind closed doors, they still enacted physical genocide as well. Children were not cared for properly in the best of cases, and many were murdered. The schools were designed to be a barrier for language and cultural practices from being passed down from generation to generation, and behind closed doors, they even physically limited that possibility. Behind closed doors, white doctors practiced eugenics.
I’ve dropped this “science” a few times, now, and just to make sure everyone’s on the same page about it, I feel like I should pause and explain what it is. Eugenics was/is an attempt to hack human natural selection. The idea was to use Darwinism and apply it to the human species in order to direct evolution the way scientists saw fit. The result has without fail been a human rights violation every single time. In the United States, doctors who practiced eugenics forcibly sterilized populations they saw as undesirable. In 1927, the US Supreme Court upheld States’ rights to do so if a person was considered “unfit to procreate” because they were deemed “mentally deficient.” It was common practice for eugenicists to perform vasectomies and even hysterectomies on people with disabilities, which at the time were lumped into the label “imbeciles.” Eugenics is the same ideological underpinning that Nazi Germany used in their efforts to produce Hitler’s “aryan race,” and the same that led to the murder of Jewish, Roma, LGBTIA+, and disabled people in the holocaust.
Eugenics was practiced at residential boarding schools, which makes up a lot of the “medical experimentation” Smith references in the Truth Commission on Genocide report (another chapter in her book references birth control experimentation before it went to market). In the early to mid 20th century, most children had their tonsils removed without needing today’s standards of cause. While Indigenous children were anesthetized for that procedure, doctors often took human evolution into their own hands and sterilized their patients without their knowledge or consent. Some didn’t find out until they sought the help of fertility specialists later in life.
As Smith states, “In the case of boarding schools, it is clear that Native communities continue to suffer devastating effects… including physical, sexual, and emotional violence in Native communities, unemployment and underemployment in Native communities; increased suicide rates; increased substance abuse; loss of language and loss of religious and cultural traditions; increased depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; and increased child abuse” (43). Trauma often begets trauma, and the degree to which Indigenous communities were actively and purposefully traumatized at the hands of white doctors, teachers, politicians, lawyers, social workers–the list goes on–is hard to fully put into words. (And I am certainly not the best person to do so.) Smith mentions in Conquest that she’s attended several “Native wellness workshops in which participants are asked to draw a family tree that shows the generation in their family in which violence, substance abuse, and other related problems develop. Almost invariably, these problems begin with the generation that first went to boarding school” (44).
In Canada, September 30th has become Orange Shirt Day, a day to honor the Indigenous children who were sent to Canadian residential boarding schools; whereas here in the US, I didn’t even hear about boarding schools until Steven Spielberg included an episode on them in his TNT miniseries Into the West in the mid 2000s. I did not receive any formal education concerning the topic until my Racialized Gender Violence and the Law graduate seminar, in which we read Smith’s Conquest. In 2000, the Boarding School Healing Project was founded in the US to help survivors and their families and advocates who argue the case for reparations; the four pillars of the project are “healing, education, documentation, and accountability” (Smith 44); and I likewise cannot put into words how much my own education failed me and my classmates on this topic and many, many more. The US has a problem with recognizing the fact that it’s a racist nation. That it was founded with racist principles and its structures were meant to uphold white supremacy. The institutionalization of residential boarding schools is one such piece of that puzzle, and as such, it’s been wiped from the history books.
Art x Humanity x Universality
We’ve covered a ton of ground in this post, and I wouldn’t blame you if you’re sitting back in your chair trying to remember what the through-line of this whole thing is and how the heck we got here.
The West has a history of using “great art” as one of the conditions of humanity–one of the things that separates fully-human from less-than-fully-human. The West has often asserted that its own cultural products are universal and then weaponized those cultural products against people who are different from them.
When I cracked open that textbook and saw the garden and “the noble savage” as collective unconscious archetypes I was supposed to teach my students, it was only because of my very limited exposure to the institutionalized consequences of those terms that I was able to throw the book across the room and lecture my students in the complete opposite direction. I could have been an unwitting participant in that erasure because of what I had not learned. Because I am, as a white woman, undeniably privileged. I’m not saying this as a “give me kudos” deal–fuck that. I’m saying all of this because that should not have happened. It should not have been that close. And if anything, I deserve the opposite of kudos because I never told my department head what was going on–I was a newbie instructor trying to find my bearings, and I failed to do the right thing and ask for that textbook not to be taught in that course ever again.
We talked about the collective unconscious last week, and it’s really easy to buy in–especially given its prevalence in the education system. I learned about Carl Jung in high school but not about residential boarding schools, for reference. And it could be argued that what I’m asking for here is semantics: rather than saying some symbols and character types are universal archetypes, maybe we should just say they’re common tropes. It’s nuance, some might say. But just take a second to think back on the ripple effects of saying Western art is universal. Look at the harm that has produced. The way it wormed its way into the foundational logic of racism, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, misogyny, and even eugenics. The holocaust.
Call it semantics if you want, but I think it’s worth cringing any time anyone says anything is universal. Including the symbols we find in stories.
I believe in the power of words, and as writers, I know you do too. We want our words to evoke, to provide escape, to move people, to create community. The last thing I want is for my words to cause harm. It legitimately scares me that they could because of what I still have yet to unlearn and to learn. I’m honestly scared that these exact words will cause harm as I am writing them.
The collective unconscious offers us a tool with which we can plot and revise more intentionally–beat sheeting your act structure is really helpful for plotting and revising. Noticing who your Sage is in your story and when the Abyss happens in the Hero’s Journey can create more impact in your work. I’m not saying we chuck it all out the window.
My hope after this post is just that we also think critically about our assumptions when we use these tools. That we do what we can to not cause harm.
I’ve included a resource post alongside this one, but as I mentioned in the disclaimers at the head of this, I’m not an expert–at all. Use these as spring boards into your own learning, and if you have resources as well, please feel free to share. I have so much more anti-racist work ahead of me.