American “heathens”

Kathryn Gin Lum explores the entwining of racial and religious stereotypes in the United States.

Kathryn Gin Lum traces the Ameri­can theory of the heathen, a word chosen deliberately for its negative and archaic quality. Heathens, according to a common and very powerful historical view, constitute an alarmingly large part of the world’s population. Beyond their spiritual ignorance, they suffer from grave physical and mental inferiority, and they have no hope of raising themselves by their own efforts. They can be elevated only by the dedicated and benevolent work of their superiors, who are White and Christian—and overwhelmingly Protestant. As they rise to accept the standards of that higher breed, suitably improved heathens can begin to make their way in the world. The goal of helping and improving these inferiors, whether they seek out such aid or not, is a fundamental building block of American ideology.

I am oversimplifying a complex argument, but this sketch gets to two other key points of Gin Lum’s argument. The first is the very early and constant overlap between race and religion in the US Christian vision. Despite some claims to the contrary, American views of the inferior outside world do not segue from religious to racial stereotypes; instead, the two are all but indistinguishable all along. Second, Gin Lum argues that this concept of the heathen is still very much alive and well, long after the actual vocabulary has become tainted and obsolete. It manifests in the easy and widely accepted division of the world into the fortunate and the benighted, which over the past century has usually been detached from explicitly religious groundings. We see it, for instance, in the language of the “third world.” The approach is fundamentally infantilizing.

Gin Lum’s work ranges broadly across authors and genres, particularly as she highlights figures who appropriated the heathen label for their own purposes in order to turn it back against the White empires. She makes skillful use of such powerful writers as the Yankton Dakota author Zitkála-Šá and Martinique’s Aimé Césaire.