The racial and ethnic stereotype population of my salt-and-pepper collection consists primarily of shakers depicting the indigenous peoples of North America: I have nine pairs of them. But of course, these shakers don’t really look anything like any actual former or current members of indigenous nations: what I have on my shelves can be more accurately called by the names than I am fairly certain they were more widely known by in the mainstream novelty shaker marketplace that originally produced and consumed them: Indians, or better, Injuns. Breeds. Savages. Redskins. Bucks and Squaws.
And yes, I know how offensive those terms are and how rightfully indignant lots of people get when they hear them–and not just people with aboriginal backgrounds. I find them exceedingly offensive myself. They are offensive. They belittle people. They hurt people who belong to the groups they so wrongly distort and misrepresent by confirming their supposed sub-humanity Nevertheless, I feel the need to use the offensive terms here, for they exactly match the offensiveness of the salt-and-pepper sets that purport to represent them. These are not Choctaw or Anishnabi or Pueblo people. They are Injuns. As well as being Injuns, they are, for the most part, cute dehumanized Injuns–small and shiny and ever-so-toylike and adorable.
While sort of expressing cuteness in their miniature brightness and shininess, the overall aura of the couple in this set is less cute than stolid. He seems to be wearing ceremonial headgear but with a bare brick-red torso, while she is wearing an orange garment only slightly less intensely reddish orange than she is herself. Both appear to be looking upwards in an expression that appears to be something more like annoyance than awe: yeah, sure, white man, shake some seasoning out of me. Make my day.
They are, also, clearly, one male and one female–as in every other set of supposedly indigenous people on my shelves, a squaw and a buck. Binary opposites, in other words. All the eternal verities and rigid distinctions of the world of stereotypes are preserved in them, then: big us and the belittled others, male and female, salt and pepper. And yet they look so harmless. It’s that rendering of the toxic as perfectly harmless that most fascinates me about them.