Darren Ranco on seeing racism and white supremacy beyond individual incidents

This evening I will be hosting an event called Think + Drink, which has been organized by Maine Humanities Council:

Think & Drink will be offered again in winter 2015 at SPACE Gallery, and the broad theme for this series will be “Disruption.” We’ll examine, in turn, the disruption of whiteness, authority, art, and gender.

The inimitable Alex Steed will be our Think & Drink “Agent of Disruption” for the 2015 series. He joined Think & Drink in 2014 as a panelist for “Truth in a Networked World” and we’re super psyched to have him as our MC for this year.

Tonight’s topic is Disruption of Whiteness. Panelists will include Shay Stewart-Bouley, Executive Director of Community Change Inc. and blogger, Dr. Darren Ranco, Chair of the Native American Studies Program at University of Maine, and Catherine Anderson, educator, essayist, and blogger. 

In advance of the conversation, I talked with Ranco about the way we talk and think about race and white supremacy. In addition to his role as chair, he teaches anthropology. He grew up in Orono and came back to the state to teach 5 years ago.

Tell me a bit about the Native American Studies Program you chair.

Not long after I came here we kind of re-calibrated and recommitted to having the academic, outreach and student development sides of our work all be more synergistic. This year we’ve really been devoted to language. We had an event on endangered native languages in the Fall and we’ll have a larger scale one later in the spring. We see ourselves as being a center for exchanging ideas in the state, and a place for for natives and non natives to come together and learn from each other around the most important contemporary issues.

There has been a big national conversation happening around race over the last 6 months, though it has largely been focused on black-white relations. What impact has that had on conversations about issues facing native populations?

It is both helpful and unhelpful in terms of our particular issues. It is helpful because it raises up the issues of white supremacy. But black/white dichotomy allows people to forget settler colonialism and that is the ongoing and structure and event. If you’re only dealing with the black/white dichotomy, you don’t have to address the particular issue of the land you are walking on or how that has been structured through the grammar of race.

For me, there are a couple of things going on in the state examining this. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is working really well with Wabanaki REACH to raise the issues of race and the way race has played out around DHHS placement of native children in non-native homes. There is also the ongoing fight that we’re having between the Penobscot Nation and the state of Maine that is really defining the water and the Penobscot River part of our reservation. The techniques and tools that the state uses to make its case are familiar white supremacy tropes around settler colonialism. I think that is clearing a space for some of this discussion.

[On a broader level] we’re also talking about the structure of racism, but not necessarily the structure of patriarchy. The two function so seamlessly together. I would say that would be a really important discussion that I would hope we have [at Think + Drink] as well.

It is not lost on me that this is an event that attempts to deconstruct white supremacy, and to some degree patriarchy, but the person moderating it is a white guy.

[Laughs] I try to do all of these things with humor. Are you familiar with the website called Africa is a Country? They have “white history month” in March, which is really about telling the hidden history of white supremacy and all the ways in which extreme acts of violence and oppression have been committed in the service of white supremacy. They do that and it is as much a part of history as the positive roles that native or black people have had in America. Can we have that conversation as well? [Laughs]

What would you like to see come out of the Think + Drink conversation?

I think what I have in my mindand I owe some of this to the scholar Patrick Wolfe, who has talked a lot about settler colonialismis to try to get people to think about the ways in which settler colonialism uses the organizing grammar of race. It is really more about territory and supremacy in a more general way than it is about race. It is kind of like these discussions people are having about religion. Is one religion worse than another, or is one more violent than another? Clearly, through time, people have used religion to exact horrible things one another. Race is a tool [like religion]. I want people to be able to connect the larger issues of settler colonialism and race and to realize that sort of invasion in the context of settler colonialism is a structure. It isn’t about particular incidents, but an entire structure. It is not necessarily about something that happened a long time ago, but an ongoing story and structure of that invasion.

I guess that’s where I am a little bit at a loss. I am more interested in that than specific stories or incidents. That’s because I am a callous, blackhearted fool. [Laughs] But there has been a lot of great work. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as I have already mentioned, and Wabanaki REACH is doing great work in building allies and raising awareness. It allows for people to heal and make better progress.

My sense of those things is to think of it as process oriented solutions. There is never one moment where it is like, “I figured it out, I’m all good!” The structure of this is not something you’re going to be all good with. You have to accept that this is going to be an ongoing process. Once you’re aware, you’re committed to never being quite right with it and always finding ways to be more ethical or a better ally.

So rather than people seeing “incidents” of racism, it is important to look for something broader?

Sometimes I think it’s important to relate it with land. There was so much land that was taken in the Casco Bay area because white people scalped Indians and got money… There is really a sort of bloody and violent past to this that we can talk about, but once you know that, there’s no turning back. You have to be like, “I’m walking on this land that has this sort of blood guilt on it. Now what do I do?”

If that isn’t a set up for a conversation, I don’t know what is.

[Laughs] Any time I can connect colonialism to Shakespeare, it’s a good day.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.