Personal responsibility

What is the role of personal responsibility in the perpetuation of racist images?

Sounds like an essay question, eh? It was a thought that occurred to me recently in an online forum frequented by a majority of translators (oh, oh, I’m going to be rumbled for sure…). The discussion revolved around the best way to translate “sitting indian-style”, an expression I only recently came across when my daughter came out with it, much to my horror.

It was suggested that the phrase was a “glaring stereotype” and should not be used, whereupon several comments replied that it was “just a description”, that the alternative (“tailor-fashion”) was “just as offensive to tailors”, and that the role of a translator was to translate and not judge the offensiveness of the phrase in question.

So I ask you, should everyone take responsibility or should we just say it’s not our problem?

15 thoughts on “Personal responsibility

  1. I think that’s a brave question. And I wish I had the answer. I also think of things like this. I wonder how I can make a difference.

    I look forward to others ideas and opinions.

  2. I read a post and comment at Zuky’s, I can’t link it right now because my pc keeps freezing.

    Anyway, the idea from that post was that anti-racism is not a noun, it’s a verb. And I think that sums up responsibility for me.

  3. As a relatively new reader of your blog and a relatively new active proponent of anti-racist efforts and anti-racist parenting you’re going to have to help me out on this one.

    If I go to my friend and tell him to take the rebel flag bumper sticker off of his truck, I can very easily explain how that’s a racist image. And yes – I know someone who has one of these stickers and he tells me it’s about “states rights.” I’m working on him…

    Certainly, I can discontinue use of the term, but if I go to literally everyone I know who uses the phrase “sit Indian style” on occasion and tell them to find a better phrase, they will all laugh at me. It’s not that I mind being laughed at, but I want to have a positive influence, and this will not get me anywhere. The argument (as you might expect) is – how is this derogatory and/or racist? It’s a perfectly useful and comfortable way sit, who cares if it’s a description attributed to a racial or ethnic group? It’s not like this particular phrase has a derogatory connotation such as Redskin.

    Honestly just asking. Is is because of he use of the word Indian rather than Native American?

  4. Actually, we refer to ourselves as Indians quite frequently. But there is nothing specifically Indian about sitting cross-legged – in many tribes its actually taboo because its considered immodest for women.

  5. In a national poll a long time ago, American Indian was the preferred term (among natives) to Native American, but it is best to use the tribe’s name if you know it. Alaskan natives don’t consider themselves to be Indians and they are in ethnic groups or villages but not tribes. Many people prefer being called a “nation” than a tribe — i.e. Commanche nation not Commanche tribe. You can also call them People with a capital P. Furthermore, many groups have names either whites mistakenly call them or other tribes used as racial slurs or as names during the trade language and you should call them by their proper name. For example, Eskimo is a racial slur for several groups such as Inuit, Aleut, etc. Sometimes ppl self-ID as Eskimo b/c otherwise people don’t know who they are. Often with non-Indians people will use the popular name i.e.Sioux and among Indians use their real name i.e. Lakota/Dakota/Nakota.

  6. Hey CJsDaddy,

    You ask a good question that raises an important point: how to act to promote anti-racism.

    Effectively, I imagine that “go[ing] to literally everyone [you] know who uses the phrase “sit Indian style” on occasion and tell[ing] them to find a better phrase” might even piss a few people off. But if someone uses that phrase in your company, you can tell them you would appreciate it if they didn’t use it because it is a racist stereotype.

    Here’s why:

    1) as panracial points out, there’s nothing specifically Amerindian (I use this term to differentiate between people from India, and to include ‘Native Canadians’ as well) about sitting cross-legged

    2) the inference in the term is that only “savages” who don’t have chairs sit this way

    Since there is nothing wrong with “cross-legged” and it is widely understood, why not suggest people us this term instead?

  7. Thanks for the details. This is one area where I was afraid to pull out the “I know one of these” arguments. But I did get to know a member of the Cherokee Nation in a previous job and he was pretty laid back about terminology, and personally preferred to be called Indian.

    My whole issue I suppose is that it honestly never would have crossed my mind to be concerned over the term sitting Indian style because it’s not really derogatory (at least in my mind). It seems more like we’re giving credit to Indians when we should not be. But I suppose if one used the term equating a privative sitting style with a stereotypical privative culture, then there’s a problem.

    If it’s offensive, then by all means, it should not be used, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like it conjures the same negative stereotype as terms such as Indian giver, or using mascots like “Raider” or “Brave” with a feather headdress and a tomahawk. But I think given the pervasiveness and commonplace of the term in a neutral or even positive context, it seems impossible to irradiate it from usage.

    How ’bout terms like Indian Summer and Indian corn? I’m sure there are others involving other ethnic terms.

  8. I’m not sure about the origin of the term Indian Summer — what’s called Indian corn is a special type of multicolored corn. It’s sacred to the Cherokee (because it comes from Grandmother Corn Selu) and it can be respectfully called Cherokee corn, but I’m not sure how that corn relates to other Indians and if it should be called Indian corn.

    CJsDaddy, I don’t think the point of being anti-racist is that you’re so omniscient that you never accidently use a racist term like sitting Indian style. I think the point is that you realize you’re on a journey and when someone points out to you that something’s offensive you stop doing it. Indian style is offensive because it’s inaccurate — it’s like saying somebody’s eating ice cream Jewish style or walking down the street Mexican style or reading a book Black style there’s no such thing. There’s nothing positive about associating a practice with a group that doesn’t have a connection with the practice, and, as I said, in many cases actually finds the practice actively offensive. For example, to a strict Muslim dogs are filfthy, so it would be offensive to say, even supposedly complimentarily, that someone is kindly petting a dog Muslim style. I think respect means that when you’re outside of a community you don’t rank what they tell you is offensive or incorrect along a hierarchy and then argue with them that some terms are actually positive and neutral — if they say it’s offensive you quit.

    My guideline for ethnic terms is when in doubt don’t use it.

  9. Oh yeah, Indian corn was developed by ancient Indian botanists, but I still don’t know if it should be called Indian corn.

  10. “Indian corn” was the term the English settlers gave what Amercians still call “corn” and the British now call “maize”. Maize is the technical term. (Corn is/was a generic term in British English for cereals, but is not used so much now because people don’t really understand what exactly what it refers to.) It’s unlikely that it would be considered offensive purely because it is an appellation that denotes historical origin. In any case, it is not a stereotype. However, it has provoked a ridiculous translation into Quebec French: “blé d’inde” which means “wheat from India”!

    For info on the origins of “Indian summer”, see

  11. We’re not given the context in which the phrase to be translated is being used. So, my answer would be, “it depends”.

    What is the goal, purpose, or intent of the translation? Are they desiring a literal (as close to word for word as possible) or dynamic (intended meaning) translation?

    If the purpose of the translation is historical, academic, or legal, as examples, then perhaps the goal is a more literal translation (“this is what was actually said” regardless whether it has racist implications).

    If the translation is of a simple description in a story or other scene, a more dynamic translation is probably desired, i.e. using “cross-legged” to describe the way the person sat.

  12. The context is that this isn’t a published work that requires us to stick literally to the original author’s prose. It is a simple description to create an image in the reader’s mind.

  13. As a preschool teacher, when I want the kids to sit cross-legged on the group rug, I tell them “criss-cross-apple-sauce and demonstrate. These kids have never known the term Indian style as a way to sit. And, they won’t learn it from me.

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