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

  1. Beautifully written, honest and touching!
    I don’t understand why there has to be “the standart”?
    Why are darker-skinned people compared to white-skinned people and not the other way round?
    When was white set as the standart?! In the time of colonisation or even before?
    Your article animates to think about those questions, thanks!

  2. Hey I totally get what you are saying. I am of Pakistani origin. Both of my parents are fair so I ended up whiter than white like yourself. People always assumed I was white until I recently started wearing a hijab. Then people suddenly knew I wasn’t just a white woman and there was a massively noticeable difference in the way I was treated everywhere.

  3. Very interesting article, you have a unique story. It reaches out to all different skin tones raising awareness, and hopefully more awareness will instigate significant change. Overall, great writing.

  4. This is really a fabulous read, I think – including myself – we often forget who we are when we are with others, take situations for granted that for others can be a constancy in scrutiny. I applaud your insistence that people begin to recognize how privilege inherently separates people by virtual color of their skin. Thank you for this thoughtful commentary.

  5. I am a white women in my late 20s. I grew up extremely poor, in the wrong side of every town we ever lived in. I’ve been best friends with the same two black girls from my youth, for almost 17 years. I am having a very hard time understanding what you mean when you say, by virtue of your skin color alone, you have access to better health care, better education, and higher paying jobs. I grew up on welfare, my family must have missed the memo saying that because they were white we could have better Healthcare and I could go to better schools. I got my first fast food job at 14 and worked two jobs to put my way through college. College, which I am still paying off. I do have a higher then average paying job now because I put myself through 7 years of college and I work 5 13 hour shifts a week. Will my white children go to a good school and have access to good health care? You bet! Why?Because I worked my ass off to get to this place. No one ever offered me an easier way. What do people think happens? Do you think schools and business just say, “hey, your white, let us help you”? My two girlfriends went through the same schooling I did and had it paid for because of government grants to help African American go to college. Did they deserve it? Absolutely! Everyone that puts forth effort to better themselves and wants to work for their future, deserves it! They don’t feel oppressed or mistreated. They had the same opportunities as I did, and they worked hard just like I did. You don’t have to have access to the best to make something of yourself. You just have to work hard. I sure because my kids won’t have to work as hard as I did, people will say they are privileged because they are white. No one will stop to think they are privileged because of how hard their parents had to work to get where we are.

    1. I’m saying this one a lot myself. Sure, having white skin might be a single door opened. But so much more is having a suburban dialect. So much more is having a rich culture dialect. So much more is having wealthy, influential, or socially mobile connections.

      I have always experienced a privilege of having white skin. It was that none were ever curious about the alien in their midst, leading to question asking. However once I open my mouth, I sound like a nigga. This is because I refuse to be ashamed of the dialect where I come from. I am a 17 year long taoist philosopher with years of post activist narrative activism study following a university career in new media studies. My skin color isn’t going to help me. I’m going to have to burn the culture down by my self.

    2. What you’re getting at is called intersectionality. You can experience white privilege without experiencing economic privilege, or male privilege, or straight privilege, or… White privilege doesn’t mean that all white people live a charmed existence, or that all POCs lead lives of poverty and oppression. What it does mean is that our society is set up in such a way that you are more likely to succeed if you are white, and that there are benefits to being so. Yes, you worked hard to get where you are, and that is well-deserved. Have you considered that for POC to get where you are, they might have to work twice as hard to overcome the bias, pay gaps, hiring discrimination, historically unfair housing/educational practices, and sometimes out and out racism that have been proven to exist in this society? That in many instances, where you had to start at the beginning of the race to get to where you are, some people were deemed unworthy to even enter it to begin with because of their ethnicity?

      When you get a chance, I humbly request you watch this, as it is very informative and addresses some of your points: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NynTIaCM988

    3. You didn’t have to grow up under the legacy of residential schools. You misunderstand how institutionalized racism works. It is subtle, and subconscious. The assumption from a teacher that you aren’t destined for greatness, that you will grow up to be a drunk and a trouble maker. If you do graduate high school there’s only trades for you. You never see yourself represented on TV. After all, the history books portray your people as non-existent anymore, they’re extinct. You only see representations in films that take place in the past, you see yourself represented as a noble savage from a time long gone. You grow up seeing white doctors, white lawyers, white TV stars. You don’t have to worry about employers assuming that you’re dirty or lazy based on the colour of your skin. You can have white privilege without having class privilege.

    4. To the one who worked her ass off, you sound a bit pissed off that you had to work as you came from the poor side of town, l am proud of you for working your way up so your children will not have to be in the SAMe boat as yourself. What got me PISSED off was, your anger towards “us” well many of ,”us” have been in your situation and work just as hard if not harder because everything was “taken” from us, our land to be number one along with many things so you see, we to COULD have cried but we continue to live happily n l pray you pass that on to your children to end hatred to every color then there might be hope for a peaceful world….

    5. 👍good for you for busting your ass, and I agree being white doesn’t give you privileges I pass for white and have been hungry and broke and had to bust my ass to get what I have

  6. Being British-Chinese-Jamaican, I completely relate to this on every level. My family has lost property and the little wealth we had all because all my family is dark-skinned, but I do understand that I am still privileged because I am white enough to pass as white. If I am murdered the murderer is a murderer, end of, yet if my mother was to be murdered then the murderer would be mentally ill and my mother’s memory would be scared. Thank-you so much for putting it into words.

  7. So well written and true. I can’t believe in 2015, people are still judged by their skin colour. It might not be as prevalent or as in the open as it once was, but white privilege still favours what is referred to as ‘normal, everyday life’. I thank you for bringing this important topic up.

  8. I loved reading this. I identify as an Oglala Lakota/ German woman living in LA, who up until a few years ago, stopped going to ceremonies. My grandmother was Laguna pueblo and English, and my grandfather is a full blooded Lakota. The native side of my family grew up poor. My father is German and Austrian, and grew up well off.

    I have a slightly different perspective and would love your insight. I grew up visiting my family in Pine Ridge, and going to ceremony and sweats whenever I had a break from school. I am also enrolled with the tribe.

    I unfortunately experienced racism from both the white world and my native family. My native side is very traditional (religious). I would be told my hair was too short or that I looked like a little white girl. When a native relative asked what I wanted to drink, my white privileged side of me requested a Perrier. I didn’t know the German side of my dad’s family had money and that Perrier was unheard of on the Rez. Id get scolded and offered kook aid. I was happy with kook aid! I just didn’t know what the problem was.

    On the other hand, the German side of my family was interested in my native heritage. It was the white world where I experienced racism.

    I have tan skin in the summer, and pale skin in the winter. Depending on the time of year and the length of my hair, as a kid, white kids would make fun of me. It wasn’t clear with my look alone that I had native blood. They would first ask if I was Chinese. Then when I told them, They’d call me Pocahontas, ask if I wear a loin cloth, talk behind my back, pat their mouth with their hand and Holler (like in the Disney Peter Pan cartoons).

    I personally didn’t feel like I belonged in either world, not 100 percent of the time, anyway. Sadly, I stopped going to ceremonies. Partly because my beliefs have changed. Honestly, I took a philosophy class and started questioning the existence of a “creator” or a “God.”

    Do you experience racism in your native culture? I think about it a lot because I want to stay close to that side of my family, but I feel myself drifting from it because of racism and the judgement I feel from my aunt and uncle, because I don’t carry on some of the traditions at home, and partly because I married a white man.

    I love both sides of where I came from but I feel so sad when I feel like I don’t quite fit in on either side.

    As for my husband’s family, they are as white as you can get. Sometimes I can’t believe how little people know if Native American history. People don’t know about the conditions on the Rez or the history of wounded knee, or about Indian boarding schools and assimilation. It blows my mind and it can actually piss me off sometimes, but then I realize, I grew up with it so of course I know.

    Sorry this is so long!

  9. Excellent, excellent article! Your way with words is awesome. You’ve hit on every aspect of trials and tribulations ,basically, of anyone with lighter colored skin, than is relatively normal. Thank You.

  10. I can relate so much with this article. I too was born as a mix of native, creool chinese dutch with a light skin compare to the rest of my family who are all much more dark skinned. I was always called the boeroe niece by my uncles, aunts and cousins which is a way to call dutch people or white skin people here in the country of Suriname. When I moved to the Netherlands suddenly my skin color turned out to be colored for the Dutch people. It took me many years to become the confident individual that I am today. A proud mom and a strong woman with her own identity. Thank you again for writing your article. 🙏❤

    1. Everyone has a culture. The question is, Are you sufficiently self-aware to articulate and accept it? It can be related to race, but it’s also about place and parents and a billion other things

  11. Congratulations for been brave and for stating your opinions! You can become an advocate for the human race if you try to understand your so called privileges. Maybe the way you were raised, your behavior and other factors have contributed to your “lucky treatments”. You probably can encourage other young people to practice love, tolerance and empathy for people with different shades of skin color. People who come from other countries do not consider skin colors as elements of superiority.

  12. I am Native by heritage but have no enrollment card to prove it, I usually mark white on forms not because I identify myself that way but because someone will want proof and I don’t have any – I always feel like a liar when I mark white or Caucasian but I mark it. I’ve tried marking Native American before and when I can’t prove it – I look like I’m trying to cheat a system of affirmative action – it makes me sad most of the time. My mom is white. I look white, I was shunned by my cousins as a kid we would play with them on our tribal land in Oklahoma (where I still live) my blue eyes and light brown hair stuck out like a sore thumb. In my heart I’m Native.

  13. Loved this. My mother’s grandparents were full blooded Native American. But I asked her and she said that they didn’t affiliate with a tribe. She recognizes herself as Choctaw but that’s all she would really say about it. Wish I could get some answers.

  14. When I was young if you were white and male and looking for a job, everybody wanted you. Not so much anymore. Now I’m old and white in a primarily Latino community and nobody wants me anymore. So I know how you feel, a little.

    Light or dark, Native or European, male or female, young or old, all of those traits pale to insignificance compared to your other trait, which is that you are awesome. You have a that rare gift where you can put meaning to words that can touch the heart and soul of thousands, and you are not afraid to use it. You are a rare gift, not only to your culture, but to all cultures. Keep writing. The world is listening.

    Gary
    share-a-like dot com

  15. Being selective about privileges exists in every nation I’ve lived in. But I’d say being selective about privilege is based on perceived difference in color, race, accent, looks and money. In this case it’s just that you live in a part of the world that has been dominated by Europeans for the past 400 years. If you lived in China but were an ethnic Uyghur or Zang, who could pass as an ethnic Han, you’d probably be thinking exactly the same things.

    In Thailand, the reason for many young Thai girls preferring light/white skin has little to do with race. It has to do with the concept that poor people have to work outside and therefore go dark and those who are rich enough not to work outside, stay inside and remain light. (But in my cynical mind it has to do with making a product that is cheap to produce and can be sold for a big profit if advertised well enough)

  16. This is a great post! Thank you for sharing your experiences. Looking at your picture by itself, I wouldn’t have guessed you’re a Native American as well. White privilege is real. I just visited my friends in US and when we went to a restaurant, the bartender treated my white friends way better than me. I think he assumed that an Asian wouldn’t tipped as good as white people or something. In Asian countries, you see whitening skin products everywhere. I don’t think I’ve seen any products that have to do with tanned skin. Having lighter skin means you’re well-off, coming from a good family and any other positive ideas. I have darker skin and I face different treatment now and then. I’m getting used to it.

  17. I completely relate to your experiences here. I am a Metis woman and have all of the comforts of white-passing privilege and feel the same fire in my soul for this issue. It breaks my heart to see such events going on in the world, but also I have hope because a global conversation has finally been started. Discrimination in any form is never ok. I will always stand up against that, any time I am able. I do not stay silent on issues, I refuse, not because I am special in some way but because silence is a passive form of agreement with the established order, an order that is wrong.. so, so wrong. I will be the voice for anyone who has lost theirs. That is my vow and nobody will sway me.

  18. I like this blog, well written. I understand where your coming from. I’m Lakota, My dad is full blood while my mom is white. I was born white but as a kid growing up I was raised with doing the traditions and the ceremonies, going to powwows, etc. I always put down American indian as my race. But now that i’m a little older, unsecure about myself. I stop dancing in pow wows because I always had that one person telling me I was just pretending. It hurts to be honest. I’m very proud of my background, I would change a thing but there are days I wish I had that beautiful looks of Native Woman.

  19. I came across this post because I was searching for people who have a similar experience to me; and I’m searching for an answer to the question: “How do I deal with people who tell me I’m white and by doing so negate my entire identity?”
    It’s really saddening to me. Advice would be great 🙂

  20. I’m a white woman. I travel pretty often, and it has made me very aware of white-privelge. It was hard to admit at first- it’s too easy to brush it off, especially because I didn’t ask for it. I admire your cultural-awareness. It will take you far! Advocate for multiculturalism. After all, we’re all people.

  21. Very interesting article. In Western European and early American culture, being fairer as opposed to tanned was a mark of economic privilege, as a tan was an indicator of laboring out in the sun. Today, interestingly enough, the opposite is true – a tan is coveted and a sign of health and leisure that many are willing to risk cancer in order to obtain.

    I am of Celtic, Western European, Mexican, Native American and Jewish descent. I have very fair skin and know that I receive white privilege for this. Interestingly enough, all of my “white” ancestors (barring the English, of course!) who immigrated here seeking a better life were discriminated against on the basis of their culture. Irish, Germans, and European Jews were terribly treated. My Irish 3rd great grandparents died in a poor house/mental institution where they resided for 25 years in terrible conditions, and the building was crowded with poor Irish.

    Eventually these ancestors assimilated into the “white” culture because they became difficult to tell apart on the basis of skin color. However, sadly, they lost their heritage. Very few “whites” have done their family trees and know the stories of their ancestors, all of whom originated from distinct cultures and customs.

    It would be well, along with Caucasians remembering that others do not receive the same opportunities enjoyed by those with lighter skin, if everyone (including Caucasians) remembered that “whites” have a diverse and varied history as well, and that you can’t tell by looking.

  22. Is it white privilege that I was raped by a black man? Privileged? ……no, I was targeted because of both my sex and my race. The FBI stats show over 30,000 white women get raped every year in the USA by a black man while statistically ZERO black women via white males. Is it white privilege that these people won’t leave me alone nor keep their hands off me when I walk down the street? Sister, if you don’t like the “privilege” of being who God created….why don’t you move to Africa? ….or even a black area in Chicago or Detroit. You won’t find any white privilege there- that’s THEIR SOCIETY.

    Oh, I get it….you don’t think all societies are equal- it’s unsafe in Chicago or Detroit. You might be right. Did I mention I was one of 30,000 white women who get raped every year by a black man while there’s statistically zero white male on black female?

  23. I admire your ability to understand yourself and speak on it so eloquently. I have been struggling quite some time with a somewhat similar issue of identity. My grandparents were/are melungeon (NA) and very happy that they and their decedents, myself included, are lighter skinned. Cultural discussions were hush-hush, delegated to back rooms and special occasions with the exception of a single powwow as a child -that I was not permitted to participate in. I feel so far apart from that side of my family that I don’t even know if it’s part of me. Am I just a white chick? Am I white-passing? All I know is that I’m lost.

    Had to get that off my chest somewhere. Thank you for writing this.

  24. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told I am NOT native because I look white. Not just white, but ghost white. My dad grew up on and off the Osage reservation and although I don’t live anywhere near, I feel like a little piece of me calls it home as well. I can very much say I take to heart the social and economic issues of all indigenous people to heart on a daily basis, but much like you, I have had the umbrella of white privilege protecting me my whole life. I denied that it existed when I was much younger, but as I grow older I see how easy I have been able to move through the world. For my son, however, that is not the case. His beautiful brown eyes, black hair, and carmel coloured skin WILL label him. He will be followed around, he will be suspected even if he has done nothing wrong, he will be treated differently, and it hurts my heart to know this. I’ve had to open my eyes to the treatment of people on a raw level and take off my rose coloured glasses to prepare him for challenges I never had to face. Thank you for opening up about your life and helping people like me feel less alone in the world.

  25. This is such a fantastic article. I had tears in my eyes when I started to realize that I AM white privileged, something I never even thought about. I grew up very poor, but loved, with lots of illnesses. Now I am still poor, overweight, sick, without ability to work, a woman and I never thought of myself as privileged because most of these things make life hard and I get mocked, insulted and attacked a lot. Being German adds another layer of being called a Nazi and being attacked for that, which happened many many years before I was even born. It did never feel like being privileged. BUT when you wrote “None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone…” you have access to things others do not, just because of being white. No matter how hard I experience my life, how many people mock and attack, call me names, tell me I can’t get the job because… I still have a whole different life experience because I am white. That realization is quite a hard hit. And it really sucks, because I believe from the bottom of my heart, that everyone should have the same chances, the same acknowledgements, pay, ability to just go and buy that thing they need, to pass the street and feel save, to meet people and not feel like they are either a felon or a circus attraction. I really hope that one day, we will get there.

  26. Pingback: Living White |
  27. You have opened my mind to learn from the indigenous peoples than ignoring them because of first world bias. So I’ll be less likely to complain over the killing of a bowhead whale in Hudson bay or hunting of seals. I’ll care more about pollution harming the poor little fish then the netting them. I’ll try to be wiser and less fearful of those who I can’t seem to understand.

  28. “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?””

    Yes! Exactly! Why does it have to be that way? How I see it is, while I’m not enrolled in my mother’s tribe (don’t get me started on their bureaucratic red-tape garbage), I am a product of my DNA – white genes from one parent, and Native American from the other, so that’s exactly what I say. Even if I look more Armenian or East Asian. (But that’s a totally different story. Genes are funny that way.) The hell with the detractors, go with what makes you happy.

  29. I always hated being light skin colored, my mother and father are both dark, beautiful native Americans and I look like a white person. I’ve always felt I don’t belong or fit in anywhere.

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