Sunday, December 25, 2011

The White Man With the Yellow Hat

I know, I know . . . you’re wondering why I’ve posted a commentary about White Man on Christmas Day. Well, with a toddler around the house, Christmas takes on a much more innocent tone with an emphasis on what’s good and right with the world. And Santa Claus, our favourite, dependable pop culture icon once again becomes a symbol of white, capitalist Eurocentrism (all courtesy of Haddon Sundblom and Coca-cola).

I must admit, however, that Curious George, another timeless pop culture icon featuring a white guy (in a yellow hat), was a story I didn’t read growing up as a kid. Now that I have a child of my own, however, my wife and I decided to pick up an anthology of his first six stories, and after reading the stories ad nauseam — and watching the two animated movies — I must admit I take issue with the colonialist overtones to the story.

So how do I go from Curious George to White Man from Queen? The notion of an imperialist mentality is the central parable in Brian’s song. The white, European colonialist arrives, conquers, and/or selfishly converts without any regard to the interests or indigenous well being of the local inhabitants or their ecosystem.

What motivated Brian to be so politically outspoken about the civil injustice being perpetrated on the Native American? Surely, the oppression of the “red man” was not an issue in Europe. Was Brian tuned into the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the events unfolding at Wounded Knee that were going on in the United States in the early to mid-70s? If he was, he certainly wasn't the only show business personality to speak up about it — The Eagles recorded The Last Resort (from Hotel California) about colonialism and the “red man’s way” and even Marlon Brando boycotted his Oscar win for The Godfather as a protest to the Wounded Knee stand-off.

Any lingering doubts I may have had on the negative impact of European colonialism on Canadian society were replaced with shame and empathy after I participated in a cultural field study to Alert Bay, a Native coastal fishing village off the Northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The village boasts the world’s tallest totem pole but is also home to St. Michael’s, one of three remaining Indian residential schools still left standing across Canada (photo by the author above).

From a paternalistic, imperialist point of view, aboriginals found in the uncouth Canadian wild were to be forcibly integrated into Canadian society, even though they had been here first. The extent to which Natives were oppressed is astounding, as this Wikipedia excerpt explains:

“The system was designed as an immersion program: children were prohibited (and sometimes punished) for speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths. In the 20th century, survivors of the schools claimed that officials and teachers had practiced cultural genocide and ethnocide. Because of the relatively isolated nature of the schools, there was an elevated rate of physical and sexual abuse. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of tuberculosis, and death rates of up to 69 percent.”

As a parent to a four-year-old, I can’t imagine government agents descending upon my house, taking my child at gunpoint, and then not allowing me to see him for eight to ten months out of the year so he can be indoctrinated by a Church. Hard to believe? That’s exactly what happened to aboriginal families in Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

I know it’s easy to criticize the unsavoury actions of a past government and there are no easy solutions to repair the damage that’s been done. This recent chalkboard message (photo by the author) from inside St. Michael’s at Alert Bay speaks volumes about the lasting effect colonialism has had on their community.

After 36 years, I wonder what Brian thinks of the current state of aboriginal affairs around the world. There are hints of social injustices in We Believe, so I think he’s still in tune with such matters. He’s obviously gotten more politically active since Queen proper ended in 1995 as his Save Me campaign will attest to.

Looking at the vinyl 45s at the top of this blog entry, I’m struck by the irony that White Man was the B side to Somebody to Love . . . they paint two very different pictures of how humans interact with each other.


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