Not Another “Tragic Mulatto” Post…Or Maybe It Is

Let me start by saying I have been putting this post off for awhile. My current position has caused me to wrestle with some things that I would rather ignore than process, but you can only ignore something for so long before it starts yelling at you and smacking you over the head.

WARNING: This post is going to be long and far from linear as it is serving as a mode of processing for me. I won’t blame you if you don’t read it all the way through. In all reality, it’s pretty self-serving and hardly enlightening.

If you’ve been here before, you know that I identify as multiracial. I am Black, Native American (Lower Brule Sioux, Yankton Sioux, and Choctaw), and white (Irish, German, English, and French). I have never been comfortable with identifying as just one for a number of reasons. One reason being that the few times I have tried, the response I usually get is, “Yeah. But what else?” The other main reason being that I feel like if I choose one over the other I am denying not only part of who I am but the history associated with each of those identities. My racially ambiguous appearance affords me certain privileges that I wouldn’t be given otherwise. I acknowledge that fact and don’t try to hide from it. I cannot say that I have ever been able to truly blend anywhere, but it is fairly easy for me to navigate a variety of different spaces without raising too many questions or eyebrows.

In a previous life (undergrad) my primary identity pattern was multiple monoracial in which I identified as all of the above individually and distinctly. When people would ask, the answer was always, “Native, Black, and white.” In grad school, it shifted to primarily multiracial. I attribute that shift partially to my changing ideas of how I perceive myself more than how others perceive me. Every race is part of me, but I am not part of every race if that makes any sense. It’s kind of like when you mix Blue and Red. Purple is comprised of those colors, but you would not look at Purple and say, “That’s Blue and Red!” You’d just call it Purple. (I know that the analogy is flawed because race is a social construct and not “real” in the genetic/mixable paint sense, but bear with me).

Another reason I switched to saying multiracial/mixed rather than listing all of the above is my personal history (or lack thereof) of inhabiting any of those identities culturally. As I have mentioned, I grew up with white parents in a predominately white community. I had no relationship with my Native American family or background until I was 13 1/2 when we opened the adoption and met my birth mother. My Native family has been in my life for the past 13 years, but our family is not exactly what you would call traditional. Very few of us speak the language or participate in ceremony. My great grandpa was a product of the boarding school generation and as a result spoke only English to my grandma and her siblings. We are an incredibly assimilated bunch to say the least. I had no interaction or relationship with Black culture until I went to college, and did not know my Black family until I was 21 1/2 and found my biological father on Facebook (long story for a different day). Prior to college, my knowledge of what it meant to be Black was limited to what your average, middle class, white student in South Dakota would learn about in school: slavery = bad; MLK = good. The end. It’s sad really, and one could argue that’s why transracial adoption is a problem. I don’t personally believe that, but again a story for a different day.

Which brings me to my current predicament. During both undergrad and grad school, my primary friend groups were comprised of Black people. Prior to college and now in my post-grad life back in South Dakota, my primary friend groups are mostly white due to the nature of geography and all of that. The only time in my life where the cultural identity of the majority of those I interacted with was Native was during my gap year while working at the local tribal college. So now, here I am in this job where my main focus is the improved success of Native students within our state’s public universities. Cool. Every job I have had in higher ed has involved Native students in one capacity or another, so that’s not new.

The problem: since starting this position, I feel less and less Native everyday. I have not had to deal with most of the challenges that these students face on a daily basis. I did not grow up on the reservation. I am not a first-generation college student by any interpretation of the term. Should I one day pursue a PhD, I won’t even be the first in my family to do that. I grew up middle class in a college town. Nobody ever accused me of trying to act white if I did well in school. I grew up in a household where academic excellence wasn’t just encouraged, it was expected, and I always knew I would be going to college. None of that makes me incapable of empathy though.

Typically, that kind of stuff doesn’t really cross my mind. I am 100% aware of my privilege, and that doesn’t bother me. I have used that privilege to my advantage and for doing work to help those who need it most, but that privilege only extends so far. What bothers me is that there are people who think of me as white. I have been called many things and accused of many things in my life, but being or wanting to be white is not one of them. If people do see me as white, I would like them to please inform the cop the pulled me over for texting and driving when I didn’t even have my phone and then proceeded to question me in his car for nearly 20 minutes on the side of the interstate. I would like them to please inform the girl from elementary school who told me my skin was the wrong color and that I needed to go to a different school. I would like them to please inform every person in a store who has followed me while I shopped.

The fact that I was raised in a white family has nothing to do with any decision that I had any part in. If people want to be mad at my so-called whiteness, I need them to be mad at my tribal council. They approved the adoption. Sure, being raised in the family I was raised in has had an impact on how I interact with the world, but it doesn’t negate the fact that at the end of the day, I am a woman of color. When people look at me, they see brown skin, dark eyes, and dark curly hair. Nobody sees a white girl. At the same time, most people won’t ever look at me and see a Native either thanks to Hollywood’s never evolving imagery related what a Native is supposed to look like.

If other people don’t see me as Native and I have a limited connection to my culture, am I really Native? Sure, the federal government counts me as Native. I am enrolled member of my tribe, so on paper my tribe counts me. I neither look nor sound Native. I don’t participate in ceremony and honestly have no desire to. Do I have an emotional and spiritual connection to our ancestral homelands? Yes, but I don’t know many people who grew up in the Black Hills who wouldn’t say the same thing. Is there still a part of me that is big enough to continue to keep me connected to my identity as a Native?

It’s funny. At the end of the day, the community that has been most accepting and welcoming to me in my ever-shifting racial identity and has never questioned who I am or how I identify is the community that I had zero connection to prior to August 2007. It’s the community that I am now geographically isolated from. To my UNC ODMA and BSM families as well as my OU BGSA family: Thank you. Thank you for letting me be me and for loving me. Thank you for teaching me and letting me explore.

The question now becomes, how long can I remain in this region before missing the Black community becomes too much? How long can I hold on before I start to feel like a total and complete fraud in terms of my Native identity?

I guess we’ll see.

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