Doug Ducey

What Do You Mean ‘We,’ White Man?

Photo of Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, 3 February 1956. Moore is riding Silver, while Silverheels is riding Scout. (Credit:  ABC Television)

Photo of Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, 3 February 1956. Moore is riding Silver, while Silverheels is riding Scout. (Credit: ABC Television)

The joke was old even before it appeared in print.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger asks Tonto: “What are we going to do, Tonto?” To which Tonto replies: “What do you mean we, white man (or paleface, or kemo sabe, depending on the version)?” Its racist ancestry is undeniable: the joke partly evokes the picture of a feckless subordinate who will treacherously abandon his superior at the first sign of trouble—usually with the ethnic or social group to which the subordinate belongs. But even before 1956, ancient variants of the joke were meant to deflate the condescension of individuals who used the royal “we,” and the insulting presumption of people who assumed, for their own purposes, what they had no business assuming.

Perhaps because one becomes cantankerous with advancing age, I have increasingly resorted, in the last few years, to Tonto’s wise words to defend myself against the mind-bending onslaught of U.S. political rhetoric. (more…)