A week ago, I penned a post that put me on the radar titled, “I Am A Native American Woman With White Privilege.” It has since been shared thousands of times, has 65,000 hits, was featured on Freshly Pressed, and has made me the topic of Reddit boards, tumblr text streams, and feminist comment threads streaming hundreds-long. For my little blog, which, up until the big boom on Monday, had less than 5,000 views in its lifespan of a year-and-a-half, and which usually garnered a handful of likes from people I know personally, this was pretty shocking. Actually, I think it would be shocking for any light-skinned graduate student to find themselves at the center of a discussion on race, privilege, and police brutality. My expectation was that the twenty people who read the blog would be the same who have read the rest of my statuses and blog posts, who have seen me talk about the struggles of white-presenting, light-skinned Indians since the dawn of time, who would probably be refreshed to see me acknowledge any benefit at all coming from my skin, the topic of much ire, of some scorn, and of occasional denial. “It hurts me to see you deny one half of yourself,” one friend said, of the fact that I do (or did) not identify as white, like, at all.
But here’s the thing: I wrote the post in Laos, after traveling South East Asia for a week and a half, after going through countless customs, checkpoints, and security centers. I watched with my own eyes as women in hijab or darker-skinned people were patted down or “randomly” searched, while I was waved through with dismissal so abject it was on the level of an eye-roll. I was, in my travels, and in Thailand, and in Laos, a white woman. I was so much being read as a white woman that, even as I was surrounded by brown-skinned people, I never even mentioned that I’m Native American. Indeed, the citizens of these countries ten-thousand miles away from my own looked more like what a Native American is “supposed” to look like than I ever will. I admired the red-earth tones of their skin, the depth and the darkness of their eyes, their hair, black as a widow spider, and I knew I would never look like that. But for once, I didn’t wish myself to be otherwise. I knew who I was, but also knew that the person I was perceived to be was different.
I don’t feel caught between two worlds, though, as some have put it. I don’t feel like my body “fits” in the white world, but my spirit “fits” in the Indian world. I don’t fit in the white world. I don’t share the same worldview, the same history, or the same entitlement that often comes with WASPy sorts. The full weight of the genocide my people have suffered is a part of me, coded into my DNA, so my body can never quite fit in the white world, which was made to uphold institutions of supremacy and subjugation over Natives like me.
Among Caucasians, I’m the Indian in the room, one of the few in my graduate program, and at least something of an expert on Indigenous experience, just from my own life. But even there, my white skin, which you would think would buy me an “in” with non-Natives, actually detracts from my credibility: Misty’s not really an Indian, not really really. Really? Not really. She’s an Indian sympathizer. She’s a wannabe Indian. She’s a pretendian *insert audible gasp*.
And yet, my spirit doesn’t find rest in Native communities, either. In Laos, I didn’t have to wish I was brown-skinned, because I didn’t have to be brown-skinned to be accepted among the people. When I’m among American Indians with darker skin, I find my whiteness to be a cause for shame, for dismissal, and even for condemnation. It’s as if I feel myself to belong so fully to a people who maybe don’t even actually want me. I’m seen as less-than, as if even my enrollment card, my proof of Indian blood, my cultural competence, my family background, my lived experience, my beadwork, my dance style, my Eagle feathers or my leather dress, are not enough to prove my identity to a dark-skinned American Indian with prejudice against light-skinned folks.
So where do I fit? I’m not straddling the fence between two worlds. I’m not on any fence. I’m being wrongly perceived as a white woman by mainstream society, having my real, true identity as an American Indian undermined and not acknowledged, and this comes both from white folks and from other Indians. Then, the white privileges I discussed in my previous article allow me to at least walk safely through society, but only up until the exact moment that my Native American nationhood is discovered by a racist. Then, the pendulum swings the other way. That is why my (light) sister can go to the mall and not be followed around, but can be discriminated against at her school for her Native ancestry. It’s why my little brother is less likely to be a victim of police brutality, but suffers multiple microaggressions on an almost-weekly basis from white children who make remarks like, “If you’re really an Indian, why are you wearing a shirt?”
That’s why I have to say that, for every light-skinned Native who didn’t want to acknowledge that Native Americans can experience white privilege, I have so much understanding. Being constantly belittled on both sides is more than provoking, it’s exhausting, and to feel like an light-skinned ally suddenly got up and penned an article saying, “Native people can have white (passing) privilege” could feel like yet another act of aggression.
I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge that light-skinned people of color experience light-skinned privilege, up unto a point. But I also have to say that being a light-skinned person of color is one of the most anti-intuitive things ever. Even the term is paradoxical: light-skinned person of color. But isn’t whiteness or perceived whiteness the opposite of color? Sherman Alexie writes about the horrors a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew may have seen others experience during the holocaust, what horror, to watch your cousins being beaten, to know your family members, by virtue of being of one ethnic nationhood, are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be harmed, more likely to be killed than any other group in the country. Don’t tell me to be post-racial when statistics like these exist. But don’t tell me to be post-color, either. I can see my own reflection. I know what I look like. But I also know who I am.
I am a Native American woman.