Jean Barker

Is Spur's Native American racist?

2016-01-08 11:00

Jean Barker

I knew this would happen eventually... Americans have heard about The Spur, and they're offended. They say the portrayal of Native Americans reflects negative, old fashioned stereotypes, and the use of the guy in the head dress is unethical. I guess they have a point. 

I don’t sentimentalise racism any more than I do corporal punishment, and both were staples of every 80s South African childhood, and yeah, there’s no question that the Spur thing is hard to explain to Americans.

The food is fairly easy to get past them. It tastes like bad-American-BBQ-meets burger-joint – sweet, salty, and well… sweet again. The reason your milkshake goes so well with your Spur burger is that the ingredients of the two aren’t very different.  It’s also one of the few restaurants in South Africa with bottomless coffee, just like you get in the USA. 

But the reason why it’s a place of happiness, and not racism, for South Africans is harder to pin down.  It's harder to explain how Spur's intentions are mostly pure, if a little out of touch with the culture they're based on. 

Perhaps it’s because going to the Spur was like going to a different place – to a western fantasy land where Native Americans were still fighting on, just like in the movies on TV on Sundays.  Many of us believed, as kids, that white colonisers had killed most or all native Americans and stolen all their land,  which was often given as proof that Americans who dissed apartheid were hypocrites, just like the Aussies. It was never meant to be real, or true to life. 

Going out for Spur was also a special experience, because we only ate there on special Fridays, and birthdays, and were not always allowed to order a (green) cream soda.  The Spur represented a place free of all our fears. 

It’s one of the few sit-down, full-service restaurants in South Africa that now has a very multi-racial clientele, uniting South Africans in the one love we all really, truly share: red meat. How could this be racist?

When questioned, both Spur management and customers naively saw the Native American stuff as a tribute – a memorial – to a culture from the past. Western clothing isn't necessarily the same as civilization, to us, and our tribes are getting more mixed up by the day. We wear our traditions on our sleeves, even when they aren't all ours. 

Surprise surprise 

Turns out many Native Americans are alive (which is good news), think head dresses are silly (cause they have superior fashion sense to us), and are offended. To which I say, fair enough. As a woman, who is often annoyed at how many people depict my gender, I believe that nobody has to justify hating how they're portrayed by others. What you feel, just is. 

But the recent reaction of some Americans (some of whom are of Native American heritage) to the discovery of Spur Steak Ranches’ branding has offended me, as a South African, almost as much as it seems Spur’s use of the Native American stereotype offends some Americans.

The woman being interviewed about her experience of Spur on NPR after a recent visit to South Africa said that South Africans didn’t get the outrage, because they were “Disconnected”. Instantly, she just sounded to me like a lazy journo looking for a story. Not disconnected from anything, just disconnected. 

She and the radio host also lamented the fact that we didn't read novels about Native Americans (how weird, they said, as if most Americans did!), and called our spur thing a “fetish”

“Disconnected?” Really, Lady? I’d been on her side, up until then. 

I presume she means disconnected from the history of a country most South Africans are very unwelcome in, very unlikely to ever visit, and whose very own media and sports teams have systematically educated us in the same stereotypes that the source of them now expects us to find offensive. If so, then yes, we are “disconnected”.

And yet, Lady: South Africans’ “disconnectedness” doesn't even begin to cover how many Americans and America's education system values our entire country, and often our continent.  

Americans don't often know our president's name, or where we are on the map (though you'd think “South” Africa would be a slam dunk), or much of our history, or what languages we speak (No, it's not Swahili).  

And we're also not apparently so racist, or so willing to forget out history, that we celebrate Thanksgiving, the day the people we would later murder en mass gave us food when we were starving. 

Imagine how most Native Americans feel about that. 

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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