Racial Identity: When ‘White’ Doesn’t Quite Fit

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My mom in her Kimono and Dad in his Dashiki after their non-traditional wedding.

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?

Comments

  1. Ezzy Guerrero-Languz says

    You have a rich and culturally vibrant background! Great picture, by the way. To answer your question with a question, "Whose definition of a label do you really want to and are you trying to fit?" I identify with what's in my heart and what comes naturally. What's in your heart? What comes natural to you? Where do you feel the most drawn? I think that sometimes the only way people can make sense of the world around them is by putting themselves and everybody else around them into a neat little box. Maybe we'd all be a lot happier and less stressed-out if we accepted the beauty in things being a little "messy." I believe that we can have multiple identities, kind of like a dual-platform system, functioning simultaneously. I heard the word "synchronicity" used to describe this phenomenon. I know it sometimes feels like a curse, but if you look at the uniqueness in all the cultures you mentioned, what an awesome expanded world-view to have. <3

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild says

      Thank you. :)  I love that picture.  I guess the answer to your questions would be that I'm most sensitive to those who might be offended by my claiming an identity other than the generic "white".  The more I sit here writing and defending identities, the more I wonder why I don't fight harder to defend my own.  Why did I stop identifying?  If I'm in good company, I have no problems, but there are times when I feel very guilty and a little confused about what is acceptable.

      Thank you for all your words of wisdom, I'm going to take what I've learned here and expand this topic in the future…the conversation definitely helps. <3  Thanks for being such a good friend.  :)

  2. Anonymous says

    My husband who is 'white' and whos's ancestry includes Irish, Scottish, and Native American roots has always held to the opinion that there are no real 'white' or 'black' people. He says that humans have been intermixing and intermingling since we were able to move about this planet, and that no one, or very few people, are 'pure' anything. These labels are falsely attributed to us based on what we see. You, me, him, we're all mixed if you really think about it. I find this a very freeing concept.

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild says

      Thank you Laila. :)  You're hubby is right, there is no such thing as a "pure" race.  I love that idea, but have found it hard to apply to myself.  The encouragement is really helping though. Thanks so much for letting me know how you feel.  ♥ You're hubby is a smarty! ;)

  3. Rory, ChocolateHairV says

    i am 3/8 irish and 3/8 cherokee. i LOOK irish, but i'm almost 1/2 cherokee. back in the days of affirmative action during college, i was placed in all sorts of groups with other native americans. i felt so out of place because i looked so different. i wasn't treated differently by the groups (God bless them). but i knew in my heart that i was not subjected to the same prejudice that they were because of of my skin tone. i am proudly cherokee, but honestly i defer to those who have experienced prejudice that i have not. and don't get me started on the "alcoholism" jokes i receive being half-irish, half-native american…. :-/

    • Chantilly Patiño says

      Omg…yeah, that would upset me.  Would love to know how you deter those kinds of jokes.  I know what you mean about the feeling different.  Really interesting points in your comment too.  It would be great to hear more about your story and the cultural connections you made as a child of these heritages.  :)  Thank you for stopping by amiga!

  4. Lisa Greenwood says

    What  a great heritage. My husband is registered Cherokee, though you would not know it to look at him. (He has more freckles than me).  We have been lucky to live in Oklahoma, and take advantage of the offerings of the tribe. To me this important to our children. My husband's family did not get to partake in their culture, because of the discrimination that was associated with being native american. So he never learned much from his grandmother or father. I am so happy that you got to learn your culture from your grandmother. As for me I am Irish/German French Canadian/Swamp Yankee. I was also lucky to get to know all my cultures. 

    • Chantilly Patiño says

      Lisa, thanks for stopping by!  It’s been a while since I’ve been over to visit you.  :)  I didn’t know you lived in Oklahoma…lol…now I’ll have to make a point to pick your brain!  ;)  I totally get the experience of your husband.  My grandfather also chose to keep their Cherokee heritage from my mother and her siblings because of discrimination.  He felt he would be able to get further if he left it behind.  My husband was also raised in a home like this.  Both his parents were Mexican American and his mother was fluent in Spanish, but his father insisted that they just fit in and forbade Spanish in his home.  I’m so glad that your husband has connected to his roots and that you’ve had positive experiences in expressing yours.  I would love to hear more about it!  P.S. What’s a swamp Yankee?  I think I’ve heard that before…but can’t remember…

  5. Jen Marshall Duncan says

    I am so glad you wrote this Chantilly. I agree with Laila's husband–we are really all mixed. But I totally understand your worry about hurting people by claiming your heritage. I think about the fact that it's often so hard for our mixed children to claim that both sides of their ancestry because society is so rigid in its classification system. And I wonder what will happen in years to come…I mean look at this community you have going here and on MF! There is so much intermingling going on! All of us have mixed children and there are more every day! Last week in my rural, white, classroom I met a new student and her mom. They came with 3 young children, the new students siblings, and they were all mixed! America really is "browning" and I wonder how those who feel the need to classify by purity/color are going to be able to keep on doing that when EVERYONE is a mixture of some sort.

    I agree with Ezzy–follow your heart. If you feel connected to the Cherokee nation, don't let that part of you slip away because of society's limited view on ancestry. Claim it all if you want to! I loved reading about your heritage! Your wide variety of cultural influences allow you to connect to so many people, Chantilly. What a gift that is, and what a gift you are to all of us.

    • Chantilly Patiño says

      Awww…Jen, you are the sweetest.  I agree, Ezzy and Laila give such good advice.  I’m feeling a bit more comfortable with expanding discussions about Native culture, ancestry and related racism.  I have so much to say on the topic, but it’s been a more emotional subject for me.  Knowing that I have a supportive community that will hear me out is very encouraging.  I’m so glad to have all of you too.  This community has brought so much strength and knowledge to my voice and I’ve learned so much through hearing all of your stories and perspectives.  ♥

  6. Suzanne Kamata says

    Hey, I went to Grand Haven schools. I gave a little speech on diversity in Japan a couple weeks ago, and I started out talking about how my school was all white, and how utterly unprepared I was to raise bicultural kids with a multicultural consciousness. But I'm doing my best!

    • Chantilly Pati&ntild says

      Suzanne, thank you for your comment!  I absolutely love hearing about your perspective because I feel that it's one I can relate to and you have such an important outlook.  I would love to hear your speech in Grand Haven if it's available.  We really need to get connected online.  :)

  7. Glenn Robinson says

    Thank you for sharing Chantilly =) I think Heidi Durrow has the best answer to "What are You?". She says "I'm a story."

  8. Holly Garza says

    Oh my gosh we have GOT to talk!! My mommy's mother was like that as well. Racist, "White" and even thought her children were mixed with Native American it was a "white thing" then came my dad the Mexican and you can imagine……. Not to bad mouth her or anything as that will do nothing, we have a lot on common. Just recently (as in the past decade) I admitted to be "White" and learning more through my wonderful aunts, cousins and even facebook.

    When I went to Mexico I completely immersed myself in the Mexican part of my heritage and loved it! As a matter a fact, we went there when I was 9 and a half summer of 89 and did not come back to live permanently until I was 15 and a half. 

    Talk about a culture shock! 

    I was used to talking Spanish, dressing, acting, and talking a certain way. Greeting my neighbors cleaning the sidewalk, fresh tortillas, REAL elotes with chile, holding my friends(girls) hands walking to the plaza without it being sexualized. Old fashioned abuelita, religious, strict upbringing with many neighbors, friends and much love.I came back to live in a not very controlled environment, in the "mixed" neighborhood (Blacks and Mexicans -gang areas) in the era of snoop dog, rude manners and searches at the public school.I was made fun of for still being…hmm a young lady ;) saying mande? instead of what and for dressing like a girl vs zebra stipped tennis shoes and colorful baggy clothing. Of course, I assimilated, which is a whole different story! It took me forever to "feel White". I don't know anything about Native American culture although I am starting to learn and read about it. As for me, I just identify with being a Latina Muslimah at this point. I have so many Puerto rican/Dominican friends my "Mexican accent" has been replaced with a "white girl" accent (uh oh better use it more!) in pronunciation or a Puerto rican one. I have my Religion mostly to identify with but even as a Muslim it's like I have to PROVE I am indeed a Mexicana…so annoying! I wrote a blog post on it a while back.Anyhow I just wanted to say GREAT Post Chantilly!

  9. Shannon LC Cate says

    I consider it only ethical to identify as white when a label is required (which, when you think about it, isn't all that often). The world sees me as white (mostly–I have heard that many white people view mixed-race families as something outside whiteness, but personally, I have benefited from white privilege).
    I have the same amount of Cherokee as you and while we talk about the grandmother, in my family, I have never seen it appropriate to call myself an Indian. I have talked to Indians about this. At times, I have thought that to identify as Indian might go against the grain of the genocide that mixing Indians with white people ultimately led to. But no Indian I've spoken to appreciates people with white heritage claiming to be Indian, so I don't. I name my grandmother when it comes up, but I don't claim her race as my own.
    In the end, race is not a biological or genetic category, but a social and political one, constructed by people with privilege (who invented the idea of whiteness in the first place and claimed it as their own). I try to keep conversations about race with my children, students and others in the realm of what race DOES to you as a person–does it benefit you, does it harm you–does it have mixed effects, or change and shift with differing contexts?
    I squirm a little when I find myself faced with the "white" (or worse–"caucasian") box on a form, but I check it, because even if I'm a race-traitor, I'm still white according to the constructs of my society.

    For more on being a race-traitor, check this out: http://racetraitor.org/

  10. Chantilly Pati&ntild says

    Shannon, I could have sworn that I responded to this.  Your comment really stood out to me and I really appreciate the perspective.  I would never count myself Native, since I don't live within the culture and haven't since I was very young, not to mention the fact that I am visibly and bloodline white.  I do feel that I am multicultural and mixed in a way and I do wish that race (i.e. color) wasn't used as a dictator for so much of our identities.  I do know that I'm on the luckier end of the spectrum though, because privilege benefits my 'race'.

    Not sure if this post benefited the discussion, but it was on my mind at the moment.  Thanks for the link…I will definitely check it out.

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