“If you walked into my office I would just assume you were White.”
That was what a man at a domestic violence conference in the Midwest felt the need to share with me while I was presenting at a conference four years ago. My presentation topic? The prevalence of domestic violence in Indian Country. It’s a good time to note that my entire (admittedly relatively short) career has been in domestic violence advocacy and prevention services. The overwhelming majority of research and writing I did in graduate school was on domestic violence in Indian Country. At that time I had been in my job for close to a year, working as a DV program coordinator in a Tribal community. Not to mention I am, you know, Native American. I wouldn’t venture I’m some sort of expert in much of anything, but I definitely know my shit well enough to speak with some sort of authority on the topic. Without a doubt I know way more than he ever will, yet he still felt the need to interrupt my presentation with that bit of White nonsense. I knew then, as I know now, that I shouldn’t let it bother me. I should be confident enough in my own skin, even if that skin isn’t what some people consider “Indian” enough. That the myth of the vanishing Indian keeps us stuck in the past—revered for our bravery, but gone the way of the dinosaurs, the dodo bird, and the black rhino. Yet four years and countless microaggressions later, I still cringe whenever I’m reminded of this moment.
Fast forward to June 2015, when Rachel Dolezal, a woman who had built an entire life and career around her Black identity, was outed by her very White parents as being White. Around that same time, the internet also caught wind that Cherokee scholar/activist Andrea Smith was not actually Cherokee, after a now-deleted Tumblr post by Washington State University graduate student Annita Lucchesi entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee” went viral. This last bit wasn’t particularly newsworthy. Andrea Smith taught at and was denied tenure by my alma mater in 2008. I took a few of her classes and was somewhat familiar with her from the Native community on campus. I was kind of under the impression we all silently agreed we didn’t think she was actually Cherokee, but decided to be polite and not talk about it. Both these incredibly bizarre instances of ethnic fraud gave me a lot to think about. Two years later, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the motivations for claiming (and ultimately profiting from) identities that don’t actually belong to you. What I find most galling about all this how it silences marginalized voices. For all the Pretendians out there, there are, doubtless, actual Native Americans, fretting over whether or not they’re “Indian” enough—whether or not they’re doing enough to preserve their language, protect Native families, learn their cultural teachings, make badass regalia, and if they can even be taken seriously doing these things because they don’t look, talk, or act “Indian” enough. White privilege is being able to float in and out of different cultures without consequence, while those within the cultures feel they have to fight every day to defend our rightful claim to that culture.
This isn’t to say those of us more phenotypically European Indians don’t experience some unearned White privilege. In order to hold others accountable, we must also be held accountable and called out from time to time. Thanks to my father, likely the most South Boston-Irish man to ever live in the Midwest, no amount of melanin from my olive-skinned Potawatomi mother will ever make it okay for me to go out in the sun without some SPF-30 on hand. Despite my penchant for back sassing strangers, it’s also highly unlikely I’ll ever be the victim of police brutality, get pulled aside for a random bag check by airport security, or followed too closely by retail associates in stores because I fit the profile of someone they think would shoplift. My skin tone wasn’t a barrier for me moving into the upper class neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past three years, and my problematic AF neighbors will likely never call the police on me for suspicious behavior. I also have a Master’s Degree from an elite institution. Based on how abysmal educational outcomes are for Native American students, this is kind of a big deal.
Identities are incredibly complex. The important thing to remember is how to be secure in your own without appropriating one that doesn’t belong to you.