Dear White-Presenting Indians: I’m Here For You

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.

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13 thoughts on “Dear White-Presenting Indians: I’m Here For You

  1. Yes, it is easy to be shamed when in a room of people who look Native. I sometimes feel trapped between two cultures, especially when I catch grief from both sides. Still, I am firmly rooted in my Native identity. I love traveling in Asia, meeting with others who are Indigenous, and sharing the challenges facing us as Indigenous people, and often, as light skinned people who could “pass” but refuse to any longer. Still, as I approach 70, I find I get tired of the political correctness on both sides. I remind myself that genocide is alive and well most placers where Native people live around the world. Thank you for speaking up!

  2. From one light skinned, completely white looking girl, to another: it’s tough to be challenged on your identity and race constantly. I’ve started to say to people “I’m mixed race, Indian and white. I identify as native american but im white presenting and therefore racially white.”

  3. BRILLIANT!!

    As a dark skinned Native (Anishinabek/Ojibway) man, I grew wanting to be white. I hated the racism against me, and my people in the small town near our reservation. I was also somewhat embarrassed by what my people were notorious for. For being drunk, and rowdy, and other undesirable traits.

    But as I grew older as a teenager and the racism cut deeper, I felt an utter disdain for white people. Even for the white/light skinned people on my reserve.

    I never grew up with my culture as a child, but when I did finally find it in my 30’s, I was introduced to a 1/2 white Elder. Very well known in these parts of Turtle Island, called Canada. He basically rescued me from the depths of my own demise, and through is teachings and tutelage, that biased I had for light skinned people eased.

    When I became very politically active, and more deeply culturally aware of the “Hoop of Life”, I became more innerstanding and compassionate about my lighter skinned friends.

    Ironically, most of my closet friends and comrades are non native, and light skinned.

    Miigwetch for this post.

  4. Very interesting read. I’m from Argentina, my grandparents on my father’s side are white Europeans, and on my mother’s side they have Indigenous blood. I’m light brown-skinned (I look Spanish and am considered white) but I am neither white nor Indigenous. I’m “mestizo”, I guess. I believe your case is different, because you fully identify with your Indigenous side and don’t fit in the white world.
    Identity can be a complicated issue, everyone has the right to decide what they want to identify with. Sometimes it can be tricky though: Imagine a mixed-race guy who is half white half black, but looks black (really black), and yet he claims to be white because he truly identifies with that part of his heritage, etc. He honestly feels white, but it is also understandable that a black-skinned man claiming to be white won’t be easily accepted by mainstream society. It can be tough. So, I’m curious, do you claim to be only Native American or do you admit being mixed-race?

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