Racial Identity: When ‘White’ Doesn’t Quite Fit
Can white people call themselves ‘mixed’? Can they see themselves as something other than white, if they appear visually white? Sometimes, I don’t know. All my childhood, I struggled with that label…the label of being white, but not feeling white, and not being accepted by “whites”. To me, if feels uncomfortable to identify as white, even though I know that people see me as white, that society treats me as white. My childhood is a confusing one and it seems a bit risky to share and be called out as nothing more than “white”, but I thought I’d give it a try.
I grew up in a family where cultural heritage was always emphasized, although not translated into “different-ness”. My father was mixed Austrian…mixed with what? We were always unsure. His family said they were Black Dutch and I could never figure out what that meant as a child…in my adulthood and after some research, I discovered that it was a code name for “dark-blooded” heritage. What does that mean? Well, it means that at some point in our family tree, someone in my dad’s line married a person of color, most often code for Native-European intermarriage. My dad heard rumors about this ancestry, but nothing solid was nailed down. I think many white families have a story like this floating around…and it’s also something that isn’t quite acceptable to talk about…since skin color dictates identity. In a lot of cases, whites are culturally ambiguous, but in some families…we may never feel quite white and many whites don’t see us as being like them either. Often, ‘ethnic’ whites, like my dad’s immigrated Austrian family, are labelled as “white trash” or some other derogatory term and live in a culture that is separate from much of white society.
My dad grew up in the “heights”, a.k.a., not a white neighborhood in our hometown. His Godfather was Black, many of his friends growing up were Black and Latino. He wore a Dashiki to his wedding and never identified our Puerto Rican honorary “uncle Dominic” as anything other than ‘like us’. (I actually never knew that he was Puerto Rican – a fact that I am sometimes ashamed of). My dad introduced us to pickled pigs feet, chicharrones and blood sausage, and he never let on that they were anything but ‘normal’. But at the same time, I never understood the cultural differences or significance of all these factors, I never understood “race”. I grew up aware in a sense, and at the same time unaware, because my parents opted to ignore the differences. I guess they assumed that raising us “colorblind” was the answer to racism.
In some ways this was good, but then again, I grew up not understanding race, racial identity, or other important topics. Talking about race was taboo.
On my mother’s side, she grew up in a conservative racist family in Illinois…with one hitch, her grandmother was full-blood Cherokee. Imagine the contradictions of a child who’s father refused to acknowledge his Native heritage, who looked at it as a barrier to success and wanted to wash it away. He used racial slurs frequently and wasn’t able to see the irony in his words. My mother’s only real exposure to the culture, were those sporadic visits to her grandmother’s house, where she would study the Cherokee alphabet and listen to stories from my great-grandmother’s past life as an Indian girl. On the other side of her family, were Polish roots. My mother grew up eating pierogis and singing songs about babushkas (headscarfs, also slang for grannies). To add a few more twists, she also studied Spanish in High School and went abroad as a missionary in Japan in the 1970s.
As a result, we grew up hearing bits of German, Polish, Spanish and Japanese…although we were only fluent in English. You couldn’t call any of us multilingual and I think this fact is indicative of my childhood experiences. I grew up feeling not quite white, but there was never enough to grasp onto to justify calling myself otherwise.
When I was young, I was often asked, “What are you?” and I would proudly answer “Cherokee American”. I felt both emotionally exposed and proud. On one end, it seemed people saw me as different, but then on the other, I was proud to be different. As a child, I had browner skin and used to compete with my siblings over who was the brownest, who looked “more Native”. I was proud of my my tan, my dark hair and my “exotic” eyes (a frequent comment I received), even though I wasn’t aware of the possible motives for people pointing them out. We attended Pow Wows and Native crafting events frequently and heritage groups would often stop in our trailer park to share their traditions. It was rare to find a Cherokee teacher, in our area though. Most Natives were either Ottawa or Pottawatomie, but the time spent with these elders and crafters made up some of my fondest memories as a child.
I always felt I was Native until I was at school one year…we had to go to an upper-class white school…Grand Haven schools. Anyone from West Michigan knows what I’m talking about. We learned about Native Americans with Tepees who lived outside, hunted Buffalo and made hand-crafted items that reflected their culture. I wasn’t aware of all the history, but when I spoke up about my personal heritage, I was told that I wasn’t “a real Indian”. Indians aren’t white, Indians don’t eat American food, Indians circle around a fire cross-legged and dance in traditional clothing. So, I started to wonder…Can I really call myself Native? I didn’t grow up on reservation, I’m not brown, I don’t “look Native” and I’m not really in touch with my heritage…so do I have any right? Am I being naive? Am I being selfish?
I don’t know…this is something that I still struggle with. Yes, I am white…yes, I am Polish, I am Austrian, I am pale. But am I ‘mixed’? Am I ‘Native’? Since those conversations in my childhood, I’ve never felt like I had a right to claim anything but “white”. When it comes right down to it, I know that society views me as white, I know that I have benefited from white privilege and that people of color won’t look me in the eye sometimes when we walk down the street because they see me as different, as someone who can’t be trusted. I wonder, can I be mixed and not slight people of color by seemingly “denying” my whiteness? I don’t want to be one of those people who claim a colorful background in order to separate themselves from white privilege and the stigma of racism, I just want to identify by what I feel in my heart. But it’s still a struggle…it still feels like an insult, like I’m taking away something from those who do face racism. So my question is…what can you do, how can you identify…when you don’t quite fit your label?