Your Cherokee Heritage and your Denial of White Privilege
I have white-passing privilege. I get to pass for white most of the time, especially since I’m clean cut and since I live in a place where the sun is a memory. I chose to move here though I didn’t realize what it would do to my complexion. I’m clean cut by total choice, because I didn’t get a lot of respect when I wasn’t, and for a long time I wasn’t. I chose to look like I do so I could assume the appearance I project with the body I was given.
When I get a tan I look like an illegal Mexican who has hijacked a white girl’s sedan on a cross-country trip, according to an Oklahoma police officer when I was on a cross-country road trip in 2006. I’ve been kicked out of swanky late night parties THEY WERE PAYING ME TO ATTEND after souring the mood with talk about race. When I try to discuss the issue of racism I am met with fierce opposition by white people who often claim to also be Native American as a sort of defense mechanism against the charge that they have unexamined white privilege.
This is happening in Oregon, a state where miscegenation was illegal until the 40’s. That’s when your grandparents were alive and their parents were voting.
White privilege is the ignorance of this legacy. The ability to be free of racial limitations is the crowning achievement of whiteness: a white person need not even consider the vast and historical apparatus that has subjugated people of other skin colors for centuries under the banner of race, and of whiteness. Just because a white person does not have to think about race does not mean race does not exist around them, continuing that long pattern of the racial infrastructure of this millennium.
You cite your Cherokee grandmother as proof that you’re not also a white person. That you are somehow exempt from the history of those who call themselves “white.”
You haven’t even examined your race, you haven’t asked yourself why and how you decided to call yourself “white” when you decided to call yourself “white.” What made you defend whiteness? Who are the people in our society who most vocally defend whiteness? What is your interest in the concept of whiteness? Is whiteness an issue of pride for you? Are you proud to be white? Has your race worked out for you? Have you had a better life because of your race? Are you better because of your race?
And yet you are also of the race of people whose plight you have internalized as acceptable. You are Cherokee, apparently. Good. If you have a Cherokee ancestor, great, good, I am glad to have another cousin. Welcome to all. Though often a white person says they have Cherokee blood to avoid accountability. White people say “I’m a descendant of a Cherokee Princess,” when the Cherokee don’t have Princesses. A ploy. It happens so often that it is a common joke among Native people.
I struggled for almost a decade with my Native identity before I felt proud enough to claim it, because colonization of Native America led to the complete removal of pride from my cousins. None of us knew who we were because we fell victim to the culture destroyers. It took generations for me to be able to speak clearly who my ancestors were, and it will take longer still until I fully appreciate anything they did for me. I am a descendant of the original inhabitants of this country, and there is a very strong inclination toward wanting to teach the lessons of decolonization.
No, you do not have a Cherokee Princess in your family. But you might have an aunt who has a story, or if you’re lucky like me you’ll have a Grandmother who is your best friend on the planet, and she’ll tell you everything you need to know about your heritage, everything you can know about what remains of your culture. You only get a few generations of family in your life. People who have had and known personally their great-great-grandmothers are few and far between – especially as life expectancy goes up and the birth rate drops. Learning to appreciate what you can learn from your family is a value most Native people hold pretty close.
By presenting yourself as a white person, and then presenting yourself as somehow excused from the implications of being “white,” you have alienated me.
To me this is one of the few problems of inequality that we can improve by ourselves without politics. This should not be controversial but it consistently gets me kicked out of more parties than any other conversation. I am mouthy about it because the more I learn about my heritage the greater is my zeal to tell the story that is being forgotten so that people can justify this terrible country.
The idea of “white” is not an acceptable term to me when you reveal your heritage. It is the lazy adoption of a formerly-intentionally racist nomenclature. You are not “white.” You are whatever your parents, and their parents, and theirs, are. This is not a value exclusive to Native people: Scandanavians, English, Scottish, Dutch, German, Czech, Russian, Irish, French, Italian; They’re all in on remembering your connection to your lands. The place your people started. It’s fairly common among human beings.
There is no shame in having German or Italian or Russian or Jewish heritage. I would know as I’m pretty sure I have all of them, somewhere in the mix. One thing I know for sure is there were never any out racists in my family, as far back as the my grandparents but I suppose even further: I know I have lots of heritage as my family were the pioneers of miscegenation. But the only way I’ve ever identified myself is as Native. It has been a long journey discovering my Arapaho roots. I look forward to it continuing. I am no expert on Native culture, I am the boy who spent his whole life in the woods and is home, to learn.
To see a person, who is intelligent enough to be able to type long and cogent thoughts, give no consideration to their own race as a factor in their own lives is, in many ways, heartbreaking. You live in the United States and you identify as “white” despite some knowledge you have of your Cherokee ancestry.You either totally hate your ancestors, our cousins, and are fine with the complete colonization of sovereign land; or you are somehow ignorant of the basic history of your own country, that white settlers colonized sovereign Indian land and set up a racist empire that dishonors its treaties with the Indians.
Either way it just makes me sick. Which is why I’m bothering.
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