Day 257: It’s not a compliment to tell me you didn’t realize I wasn’t white

I had a funny exchange with a fellow Indigenous scholar this week. This scholar was afraid people would think we were two white guys talking about race (which would be a little obnoxious). I told him I wasn’t white, and we had a conversation about how he isn’t, either, but how he, like me, is in the vast uncharted gray space between living on a reservation and being part of White America.

My reflection today is not to imply anything about that conversation. I’m not going to identify the person here in public, as I am not certain how much that person is passing and it’s not my place. But it wasn’t that conversation that fueled this post– it was just a memory trigger.

When I reveal to people that I’m mixed-blood but mostly Cherokee, and I tell the story about my family, I tend to get the following reactions:

  1. People who do what you would hope people would do– show interest and remember later who and what I am.
  2. Sadly, more than a few people have doubted me, or tried to refute me.
  3. Some people seem totally disinterested and forget or never mention it again.
  4. Some people tell me they’re like 1/64th from some tribe in a “me too!” moment.
  5. Then there’s the worst, people who say one of the following:
    1. I’d have never known! You seem so white!
    2. It’s not like that matters!
    3. You don’t act like an Indian.

I am, in scholarship, a bit of an anomaly. I study identity issues, which should make sense because I sit between two worlds, but it’s uncommon for indigenous scholars to engage with identity in a personal way. I’ve been “told off” a few times by other indigenous scholars. I’ve also been told by lots of white people that I don’t seem Indian or that I am not “really” Indian.

I’ve been told by people who had a sweet tone to their voice that they think of me as white.

Take a moment to let the last few things I said sink in.

Now… a moment of rebellion.

It might well be true that not all indigenous scholars think about their personal identity or study the ways that people create and curate identities. the perspective of the indigenous storyteller on how this works, however, is fascinating (at least to me) and has a great deal to offer to traditional (read: White European) scholarship. My work is never at odds with other indigenous work, so I’m confused why occasionally another indigenous scholar decides to take me to task for what I do. But there’s also the fair observation that I make frequently to stand along side it– I live in White America. I was raised Cherokee in White America. I didn’t grow up surrounded by people like me. I haven’t ever been part of the tribe or lived on a reservation. So my perspectives will be different. I know enough to admire that difference and give reverence to people who think differently.

But the other side of the equation is just a moment where I feel like for the good of everyone I need to tell some people off. It is not a compliment to be considered white.

Let me repeat that.

There is a distinct privilege that is attached to being white. And sure, in some passing moments it’s better for me that such things stick to me. But I don’t ask for it. I don’t expect it. And believe it or not, I don’t get it all that often. I get it more often than people with no chance of passing, but in most cases my identity is written fairly clearly on me among people where influence matters.

But it’s not a compliment to be assumed to be white, or told that it’s okay because I “seem” white.

I am convinced that white people think that is a really positive, inspiring thing to say. I think this could be due to the fact that white culture consumes other cultures at a rate much higher than other cultures, and so there are weird things like “hood passes” where white folk assume they can take on the identity of a group and be accepted into it. That is a strange prospect to a person who has been othered.

I don’t want to be absorbed. White people (none of the ones I know now– ancestors) tried to erase my people. And I’m part white (part German, the most deadly of the white ancestors, so I’m told). So I get it. But I don’t want to be consumed and regarded as “one of us.”

I do want to be accepted by people. But as me. The person I am.

Don’t try to erase me to accept me. I wouldn’t do that to you.


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