I Am a Native American Woman With White Privilege

Note from the author: This blog uses the term “white privilege.” The correct term is “white-passing privilege.” Please note that white-passing privilege is what I am referring to in this blog. 

First off, I think it’s important to say that I do not, and have not ever primarily identified as white. On my mother’s side, I’m Native American, enrolled in

ghostmy Tribe, and, to a large extent, raised in my culture. I was born on the reservation and lived on or near reservations for much of my life. Indigenous cultural signifiers are important to me – I love Coastal designs and canoes. I love to eat Salmon, attend gatherings, and socialize at potlatches or powwows. However, due to genetics (while both my grandparents on my mother’s side are Indigenous, my grandmother is light-skinned, and my grandfather, of mixed ancestry) it so happens that I am light. Like, really light. Light as a ghost, let-me-put-my-arm-next-to-yours-and-compare-whiteness light. Some people call me glow-worm because they think I’ll be florescent under blacklights.

There are a lot of ways in which it sucks to be a light or white-presenting Native American. I’m often not recognizable, even to people of my own nationality. Sometimes, I even have to perform to be seen by myself, as if by wearing turquoise and beadwork, I won’t get so lost in the Western world. Of course, it’s so much deeper than that, but it can help to have outward reflections of an inner truth.  If I’m not performing for myself, it can feel as if I’m performing to others. At times, (though very rarely) others with mixed-Native heritage have compared themselves to me, as if I were on the bottom of the scale for Native-presenting-ness. “Oh, I look mixed, but I look more Native than Mistylynn, right?” This desperately begs the question, What does a Native person look like? As I’ve posed it at other times on this blog, I’ll leave that question for others to chew on. Suffice to say, the need to be visible, and to have a voice as an Indigenous woman, is important to me. Native issues are my issues, are the issues of my people. I identify as an American Indian woman.

And I have white privilege.

I’ve thought about this more and more in passing weeks. The shooting in Charleston, the death of Sandra Bland, the deaths of many, many more – all of these things have affected me on a deep level. When Mike Brown was murdered, I was so outraged that I immediately became that awkward person, jutting into a conversation not my own, all well-meaning, bumbling passion that needed to learn its place. My place, I now know, during this epidemic of police brutality, violence, and death, is as an ally. I can listen to what my Black friends share and say is their experience. I can believe them because they tell me it’s true. And I can choose to stand with them, encourage them, lift up and amplify their voices by listening, learning, and sharing what they tell me.

And part of what they’re telling me is that there are things I take for granted that I receive as a direct result of my skin color. Because I am Indigenous and I do face a great deal of challenges specific to my nationality, I have often wrongly believed that I don’t have white privilege. That isn’t true, because the larger world views me as a white woman. When I’m out and about in the rural area I live in, white people assume I am their natural ethnic ally. Police officers don’t stop me on erroneous, trumped up charges. In fact, I could, hypothetically, see a police officer, and feel either more safe, or neutral. I can look at a TV and see people who look like me. In magazines, movies, and casting calls, white is considered normal or standard. Avatar actress Zoe Saldana once said that she was turned down for a role because her skin was “too dark.” Said Zoe, “It’s only dark if you’re comparing it to something.”

But there’s more. At airports, I am not searched randomly. I can walk at stores without being followed around. With a few exceptions, people don’t tell me I’m “articulate” or say, “You speak English so well!” I can find makeup to match my skin tone. “Nude” colored products are the same shade I am. I can attend a pool party and be reasonably sure a thirty-five year-old man won’t barrel-roll in and pin me to the ground, knee against my back, constricting my breathing. I’m not likely to be put in a choke-hold. My last words will not be, “I can’t breathe.”

As painful and uncomfortable as it is for me to admit, my light skin benefits me at every conceivable social and political institution in the United States. It means everything from concealer, to skin-care products, to my very life.

But, you might think, Misty, you have had a lot of things go wrong due to your Indigenous ancestry. You’ve experienced land-theft, you’ve seen poverty, heck, the house where your brother lives had a sign hung by white folks that said, “Future Indian Ghetto.” The white folks who hung that sign saw you as an Indian. Your Tribe sees you as Indian. Even the Federal government recognizes it, and you’ve experienced persecution and racism firsthand, through the specific context of being a woman of color. How can you, of all people, benefit from white privilege?

I had a hard time understanding it, too. It all comes down to colorism: people of color with lighter skin are treated better in a white supremacist society, plain and simple. None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone, I have access to better healthcare, better education, and higher-paying jobs.

I’m writing this because I want other light-skinned people to acknowledge their privilege and admit that it isn’t normal that, by virtue of having light skin alone, one is automatically safer, wealthier, and better off in a society with institutions made to give them the upper hand. I want white people to admit to their own gross privilege, not because of shame, but because we should want equality. We should not be okay with a white girl getting her traffic violations waved by acting innocent to a police officer, but Sandra Bland dying because she didn’t use a turn signal. We can’t think Miley is cute for smoking weed, but Trayvon was a thug who got what he deserved. We cannot continue to justify police brutality by using the politics of respectability as an excuse. That’s saying, “You deserved to get catcalled because of your outfit.” We all know the outfit has nothing to do with it. But perhaps that is a clumsy metaphor as well. It sucks to be catcalled, but it would suck even worse to die.

I am acknowledging that I have white privilege, and I am demanding that all equal rights “privileges” should apply to everyone, not just those with light skin. I want everyone to be safe from police brutality. I want the wage gap to close, not just for women, but for women of color. I want an inner-city Black child to have the same access to safe, comprehensive education with qualified and passionate teachers, as his or her white peer. And for god’s sake, I want Taylor Swift to shut up when Nicki Minaj is talking.

The first step is to acknowledge, to see oneself, to hold up a mirror and really, truly look, and not look away.

I’ll close with a story: When I got to Thailand, the first big poster I saw was an advertisment for a product called “Snail White.” Snail White is a skin-lightening cream hyped to Asian women. Even here, it is considered better to be white, to be as white as you can possibly be. To be a ghost. To disappear entirely, a transluscent wunderkind, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione under a veritable Invisibility Cloak.


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453 thoughts on “I Am a Native American Woman With White Privilege

  1. I found this article because I’ve been feeling lost. White people who know my heritage have cast me away. I’m not welcome in their circles. Natives who see my white skin cast me away, too. I’m not dark like them and I’m “only half.” Looking this white, I know that I have white privilege among those who don’t know me at all, so I’m like you, and this article made me think a lot.

    My father was Navajo/Apache and he was REALLY dark, like… as dark as a stereotypical Native should be. But my mother’s German genes were stronger. I got the raven hair, the dark brown eyes, and the high cheekbones, but I also got the light skin. Amazing how genetics work because my cousins (my dad’s nieces and nephews, so actual direct cousins) are just as dark as he was. All of my aunts and uncles married white people and yet their children look Native, and I see what they go through. I feel like the odd duck, being so white, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Though it really sucks when you watch your family members get treated like crap even though you have the same amount of Native blood as they do.

    Looking so white, I obviously look like a normal white person to everyone else. Nobody suspects who I really am at all. However, I never grew up on the reservation. I was born in New York, and I grew up in Idaho. While I knew I was Navajo/Apache, it was as if my dad was trying to bury our heritage, so I never learned anything about it until I went to college at the University of Idaho. There, I learned so much from the Nez Perce community, and though I looked white, they accepted me for who I was. They welcomed me and taught me traditions that have nothing to do with the Navajo Nation or the Apache. But they were loving toward me. I have never met such a great group of people before, and while I know I have no Nez Perce blood, they made me feel like I was one of them. My people in the Southwest, however, are always apt to remind me of how white I look. Many of them can be downright hateful, so it confuses me. It makes me feel like I don’t belong anywhere a lot of the time. Interesting how the behavior of people changes in different regions.

    Sorry for this long tangent. You just made me think about several things that I’ve been struggling with.

    1. You sound JUST like me.

      My dad is Wailaki and my mom was Lakota and German. I have dark brown hair, almond eyes which are brown hazel and high cheek bones, but very pale skin. I am rejected by many in my tribe, but not always accepted by “white” culture who knows my background. It is a limbo of being “half-breed”

  2. Hey there, like yourself I’m “white-passing”, I regard myself as “mixed race” more than anything due to being only 1/16th native american and from there on a jumble of Irish, Scottish, French, Italian and Spanish (but mostly Irish). However despite this I have dark blonde/light brown hair and very white skin (like yourself in fact) and a strong BBC grade English accent which means literally all the time I am mistaken for just being English. You should see my mum, she gets mistaken for being “asian” all the time and the subtle racism is odd. When were in a shop and we’re talking to the staff they mainly direct their comments/gaze towards me, despite being very obviously the daughter out of the two.
    I don’t know how to convey how offensive that is, and even with friends especially after I’ve explained and been met with the answer “are you sure?”. Like holy shit yeah you’re right I’m “totally the whitest girl you know” but I’m sure as hell not even a little bit “White English”. Because of this occurring since a very young age I’ve been left with a sense of dysphoria about where I belong, if I were to take up the native indian culture I’d feel like I was appropriating it, I find Irish culture more comfortable but way too personable and invasive but English culture is very cold and clinical.
    Have you had any issues similar to this?

  3. Excellent Appreciating the hard work you put into your website. I am glad that you just shared this useful info with us. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends and additionally sharing in delicious. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I came across this blog while searching google for others like myself. I was caught up in the middle of a protest last night in San Francisco while minding my own business having a nice meal with my husband. He is Spanish, I am Native American, but the protesters who stormed the restaurant were racial profiling me as white. I am Native on BOTH sides of my family, but my mother is also part German, and I happened to have very pale skin which dark brown hair and hazel brown eyes which are almond in shape, high cheek bones etc. My dad was a reservation baby, though I was not (military family).I was offended and saddened all at once as I was being called a part of “the problem” who being “white”.

  5. Im in the same boat… my father is native his ancestry stems down to sasketchewan in a trube called black foot and my mother ancestry stems back to germany and had moved here(canada) in 1800’s i dont know wtf i am i dont hqve the high cheek bones like some other memebers of my fathers family all i have is black hair and brown eyes. My skin is pale olive. Most people call me ukranian, polish and latina.. i dont even know who i am.. or where i stand in tge world my identity is dostorted.. am i white? Native? Or just a polish wanna be.. iunno but it pisses me tf off and makes me sad. I know my ancestors were native but im white wash am i white now lol
    … but seriously kinda feel lost…

  6. Wow. I absolutely love this article. It articulates everything I’ve felt about my appearance since I was a child so well. I didn’t grow up on any reservations or even in a heavy Native American environment. My grandfather on my mother’s side was 3/4 Choctaw, making me (of what I know) 3/16. That’s if I have none on my father’s side, but I wouldn’t know because he was adopted as a baby. His side is another story. I am very pale with blue eyes. But I do have the extremely dark hair and facial features like my grandfather. Growing up, I struggled with this because I would get picked on in school if I mentioned that I was Native. People would just look at the color of my skin and call me a liar and tell me that I was trying too hard to be something that I wasn’t. It’s funny how genes work, though. My sister looks Native. She’s got the dark eyes, facial features, dark hair and the beautiful skin tone (just not as dark as most). And growing up, I saw this and would easily be convinced that I was adopted, because she and I looked so different. Even to this day, I have to almost convince people that I am Native. I proudly tell them and they just laugh at me or ask for proof simply because I’m white passing. I have friends that make fun of me when I defend being a person of color, simply because I don’t look it. So most of the time, it’s just easier to say that I’m white. It’s like I almost feel ashamed now for saying that I am a person of color, because I’m not someone’s ‘idea’ of POC. That’s why it’s just easier for me to say that I’m white.

    Everyone says that my dad looks like he could be Latino (again, he’s adopted) but as we know, looks can be deceiving. And every time someone says that I just think “That would suck. I would not only be Native and not look it but also be Latino and not look it.” He’s got dark eyes, dark skin, and had (he’s currently bald) dark hair. He fit in very well in Hawaii when he lived there because he had almost the same look at his Samoan friends. I mean, growing up, I was convinced he was related to The Rock. But standing next to my parents and sister (all having brown eyes, darker skin, dark hair) I almost feel like I’m not part of the family because I don’t look the same. It’s a constant confidence battle.

  7. i Think youre a brave Queen who dare to say youre a White native i wish i could do the same but i live in Sweden but i feel sorry for these people because theyre now in reservations and they should bee free theyre not savages they are humans too

  8. I do no know white privilege despite being called white often. I am from the Black Foot. Not once have I ever been given a spot at school, in housing or just flat out money for being white. I often have to prove my heritage for those things, and when I do, I get some kind of advantage in life.

    I got a free house, education car and income, just for proving my heritage. My half-sister, whom I have lived with all my life, is of Swedish and Irish decent, has had none of these advantages. So I ask in all honesty, what do you see as white(looking) privilege? Because I have not seen any of it.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this, I am a white inuk woman and I really appreciate the time you took to express what I and many others have been feeling for years.

    1. Jessica. You you could very much be a White Inuk woman. Nothing wrong with being White in identity as well as belonging to the Inuk nation. But a caveat. Most White identified people have most their family also looking White, including their parents. If their parents, or even grandparents look like another ancestry, usually they identify as the other, or as Metis/Mestizo/Mixed/Half Blood. I am one of those cases because my father clearly looks Native and so does my sister, even if I look White. My nephews, on the other hand, were raised seeing mostly White people and identify as White.

  10. Uh, no. You are a White person of Native descent who belongs to a tribe. Ethnic Native and Biologic Native are two different things. You are a mixedblood. A Mestizo/Metis/Creole, so am I. It does not mean wehave some automatic White privilege, but it does mean we don’t face biologic Native burdens. We face our own Mixedblood burdens, but not the same ones a Native, who looks Native, faces. You also have the Majority norm advantage. This is not White privilege. Majority norm just means your features, your culture or something else, is in line with the majority of the population and therefore is automatically mor represented in the media, and power structure, unless a minority group imposes their imagery and beleifs above that of the majority. Example, the real White privilege in Latin America where Whites are a minority but are overrepresented in every single sphere. In the US, Whites have a majority norm advantage. Having said that, in the past White privilege was imposed such that even in areas where Whites were minorities, they still retained power and overepresentation, and in places where they held majority their representation still exceeded that of their demographics.
    In today’s arena such laws are explicitly illegal but economic disparity from that past privilege and majority norm still give Whites less burdens as far as representstion goes. Majority norm, not White privilege.

      1. “White” is a social regard. Nobody’s wrong to call you white. If you look white, and are part (or mostly) white, then congrats, you’re White™.

        Hell, I bet even you know more about the life of being a white woman, than a Native woman. Bet you have no trouble facing racism, like we many other “colored” peoples do.

        I’m black, British, and Native ancestry–I’ve only known life as black, so I’m black. Not even I can claim I’m British and Cherokee, despite my grandparents both being half-Cherokee and our British ancestry being strong (I’ve relatives so light, they can pass as being half-white).

        For all intents and purposes, and social/ethnic regard, I’m black. For all intents and purposes, socially, you’re white. Because that’s what “white” and “black” are–social regards.

      2. Why do you feel like it’s acceptable to tell. reservation-born Indigenous woman she’s white? Pretty messed up, fam. I don’t take it seriously but I think it’s tasteless to come on a Native woman’s blog and insist she’s white, lmao

    1. Your biological descendency did decide for you. You are a Metis/Mestiza with predominantly European ancestry. Don’t believe me? Take a DNA test and get back to me. Plenty of White people have the same mix as you. Your Native affiliation is ethnic. Plenty of US tribes are predominantly non-Native due to admixture. Especially some of the Oklahoma and East Coast tribes that have low blood quantum rules. A Tribe is a Nation, an Ethnicity. A form of social government with rules and membership, not a biological identity. Not a biologic identity. You may not have a White Ethnic Identity, but your biologic identity is definitely White (a hyperbole for European descent). Different Nations have different rules of membership, even adoption into the tribe. So even a full blooded non Native (biological identity) can become a Native (ethnic identity). The first and second generation people of mixed ancestry usually identify as mixed regardless of predominance, but by the third generation of dilution usually people identify by the larger ancestry in their biology which is what surrounds them. The only cases where this is different is when a Mixed Identity group exists which perpetuates the group identity regardless of the looks because everyone is mixed and thus no cognitive dissonance between various looks. The other time when a non predominant ancestry becomes dominant in an ethnic identity is when trickle migration occurs. Probably your case. You have a finite number of an original group with an ethnic identity. You have a smaller number of another biologic and ethnic identity come in and intermarry. The larger predominant biologic and ethnic identity absorbs the smaller one. The ethnic identity remains the same but the biologic one is now slightly mixed. If another group approaches, the process repeats. With enough time, The ethnic identity remains constant but the biologic identity of the group has changed to that of the immigrants who have slowly become a larger part of the ancestry. Many tribes, through intermarriage now have more European or African ancestry than they do Native. In the Cherokee, for example, the most some members have tested is 30% Native. The average is much lower, and many don’t even show any Native ancestry anymore. Only a small core show larger DNA markings and you can see it in their faces as well. Those many call moon faced that live in NC. Take a DNA test. You will see I am right.

  11. A lot of American Indians give all types of reasons for claiming DNA test are invalid, but the real reason they won’t take them is fear. Fear they may find out they are actually less Native in ancestry than they thought. Natives that still look Native really don’t have this fear.

  12. Very great article! I am Ojibwe on my dads side, my family belongs to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe in Michigan, and French Canadian on my moms. I was raised by my mom but have identified as Native since elementary school. White Passing Privilege is exactly what it is.

    1. No such thing as White Passing Privilege unless there are social mores that discriminate and segregate people with Native ancestry with some type of hypodescent rule. White culture has plenty of people claiming Native ancestry who are not segregated for it. You may have been raised in a Native tribe, but your ancestry is predominantly European and most people will treat you as any other White person with some indigenous ancestry. That is not passing. Passing is pretending to be something you are not. What you can say is that you do not face the burdens that people who have predominant Native ancestry face because that ancestry isn’t obvious on your face, but because you have grown uo close to immediate family and community that do face that discrimination, you understand the rscism they face like no person with remote Native ancestry would unless they immersed themselves in the culture and lived among our people. What you can say is you are a member of a Native Nation (if you actually are and are recognized by them and you can also say that your culture/nation faces ethnocentricity, xenophobia, and stereotyping that affect you just like any other ethnicity stereotyped. There is a difference between ancestry and culture and racism and ethnocentricity. Even a pure Native may embrace (or be forced into) the mainstream culture and become a part of it through multiple generations, and still face racism, while not facing ethnocentrism as their sociocultural patterns are the same. Such is the experience of many Latinos as well as adoptees and some of the boarding school students who never went back to their tribes. On the other hand, some intermix but retain a strong ethnocultural identiry such that ‘racially’ (most people don’t get ancestrally) the person is predomonantly of the mainstream and does not stick out, but experience cognitive dissonance because their sociocultural patterns are rejected/strreotyped by the mainstream.

  13. Take a DNA test and then tell me about how you are passing.
    At least 0.18% of White Americans or over 35 million of them have Native Ancestry.
    That is a much larger chunk of the pie than the 5 milion self identified full and mixed blood American Indians today. The real question should be, how many American Indians have at least more than 50% of their ancestry be Native. But because there are so many predominantly White Native tribes, like many of the Cherokee tribes, most tribsl members refuse to DNA test themselves to find out how much Native they really have. Many who do test themselves end up having none (so if there ever was a Native ancestor it was 1 or less, 7 generations ago or 1 or less of 512 Non Native ancestors. So effectively, they are not passing as White, they are Whites that are culturally American Indian and/or Whites passing themselves as ‘racially’ Native.

      1. To be a racist I would have to actually believe in races little one. But I do know this, I am just as Native, if not more, then you.

      2. Your Dad is White, your mom is, at most 1/4 Native, more than likely 1/8. You may be a member of a tribe but you are still mostly European in ancestry. That is
        Just reality. Nothing wrong with that.

  14. Sorry, but you’re effectively white. Not just passing, but legitimately white.

    Being part (or mostly) white doesn’t work like being part (or mostly) black, where a “One-Drop Rule” style of regard follows you. You’re treated as white because you’re white. White is more a regard than a science, anyways.

    A lot of white people have native ancestry, somewhere in their heritage. Some even have traces of black African ancestry. But they’re still white. Unmistakably ‘white.” White is white.

    Meanwhile, if you replace your Native ancestry with black and were still light in complexion, there’d likely still be no mistaken you’re black. Socially, you’d be seen as black, so you’re black. Nobody calls Halle Berry or Obama or even Beyonce as “mixed” or “mulatto” or passing for black, but rather, just singularly Black™.

    With as much white as you have in you, you don’t merely pass for white–you ARE white. You’re just white with high Native ancestry in you. But your whiteness supersedes all. Though, again, white isn’t even a singular thing, anyways. It’s a regard, to begin with. Many Welsh and Italians and North Indians are dark, but are still “white peoples” nonetheless.

    1. This is patently absurd. You sound like Donald Trump. Being tribally enrolled means I have dual citizenship in my tribe as well as the United States. You don’t get to decide if I’m white or Native American – that choice was made at three months old when I gained citizenship in my tribe.

    2. She is still ethnically a Native because she was raised as such. But as far as the social racial constructs used in this country, she is White as no Metis racial category really exists here.

      1. All your recordssay Native, much like all records say Hispanic for many Spanish speaking Natives. Both are ethnic categories in such records, not racial. If they were racial they would not have a tribal affiliation requirement.

  15. Hi. Thank you for your insightful article. I see myself as having a foot in both worlds ( Indigenous and non-Indigenous.) The first by blood and the latter by physical looks. This is a big responsibility because many times one is laden with burdens seen and felt that aren’t personally asked for. It seems that it is usually me having to be the one that speaks up, defends, has to remain calm, asks for understanding, and educates on both sides. I have long since stopped blaming anyone for the troubles that my non dark skin has caused me in Indigenous circles and the convoluted diatribes I hear in some non Indigenous circles. I have learned that “Hurt people, hurt people.” In order to move through the day peacefully, I prepare myself daily with tools: Prayer, yoga, education, confidantes, spirituality, values and ethics that keep me open to the goodness on both sides and the hopefulness that we all desire. I desire peace so I model peace. I live what I want to see in the world and try to change any situation with compassion and love. One thing I know for sure though is that “Silence allows the violence to continue!” So keep speaking and raising awareness and consciousness. Blessings to all!

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