Mandan News

Redefining the borders: going beyond poverty porn

Observations of a News Editor
By Dustin White

Last weekend, my wife and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. It is often said that those first years are the most difficult. If that’s true, then I have no fear for the future. The time seems have to vanished quickly, and I look forward to what comes ahead of us.

So, for our anniversary, my wife and I decided to take a short vacation together. This is something we really have not been able to do so since our honeymoon, so it was a great treat.

For this occasion, we decided to stay at a hotel that was attached to a casino. While neither my wife nor I gamble or drink, the hotel was near the area we were visiting, and proved to be an ideal lodging.

Being in North Dakota, this casino was on one of the American Indian reservations in the state. Passing into this new nation, as reservations are recognized as domestic dependent nations by the federal government, there was no big change. If I had blinked, and missed the sign stating I was entering into this new nation, I would never have known.

The land on either side continued without any realization that man had drawn up dividing lines upon it. There was no sudden uprooting of trees or grasses to signify a difference in the land. The border really did not change much, except for human perception. It wasn’t some magical line that changed how nature worked, or how people acted.

Unlike what some spread on the internet, there was no one trying to run me off the road and harm me because I’m white. There weren’t drunken individuals lying in the ditch. There really was nothing out of the ordinary.

Now, I wasn’t expecting any of that, but it is hard not to imagine such with all of the misinformation being spread. With the president recently visiting a reservation in North Dakota as well, those negative stereotypes and depictions also gained some momentum.

That’s not to say that American Indian reservations do not have problems. They certainly do, and because of their status, there are a number of complications there. However, the situation isn’t as dire as some media would have people believe.

Within some media circles, there exists what is called “poverty porn.” A basic definition is media that allows outsiders a look at the stereotypical negative aspects of a minority community, while also encouraging those within that minority community to play up those stereotypical views for effect. Essentially, it allows for outsiders to become a tourist in a community that performs for them in order to reinforce the negative stereotypes that already exist.

The end result of such a situation is that only the negative aspects are voiced, while ignoring all of the good. The end message is that life on the reservation is terrible, it is filled with alcohol and violence, and the only real solution is to leave that all behind.

Such a view also leads to the reinforcement of negative stereotypes, such as Native Americans are drunks. Or, that since poverty levels are often high on reservations, Native Americans must be lazy. Doing so creates an underlying prejudice within our society, that can have massive negative effects.
The larger problem though is that such views offer no solutions what so ever. They paint a negative view of a people, and then leave it at that. Outsiders get a brief view into a community, but the picture seen in only half finished. What is given is basically a book with half the pages torn out.

In order to get the entire picture, those torn out pages have to also be looked at, because there are absolutely some legitimate problems on American Indian reservation; however, there is also some greatness that is occurring there as well. It is only by looking at this entire picture that actual solutions can come forth.

But the whole picture is complicated. There are many variables that play a role in the issue, with some of them extending back centuries.

Simple solutions really are easier though, and for many, that is desirable. But we must often resist the urge to accept such black and white answers; answers that ignore all the other information out there.

Instead, striving to be informed can make a major impact. Knowing this history that has led up to the current situations on many reservations can shine a massive light on the current state of affairs. It can also help people to refrain from making those same mistakes that helped lead to the negative outcomes that have resulted, while maximizing the positive outcomes.

It may also help us listen a bit better to those individuals who are affected by both the positive and negative conditions on American Indian reservations. Because while, as outsiders, we may have good intentions, but those good intentions don’t always lead to the best outcomes.