Monday, May 21, 2012

"You're Lucky": Random Half-formed Thoughts on Identity Politics

“Everyone knew who Indians were.  Everyone knew what we looked like.  Even Indians.  But standing in that parking lot in Oklahoma with my brother, looking at the statue of Will Rogers, I realized, for perhaps the first time, that I didn’t know.  Or more accurately, I didn’t know how I wanted to represent Indians. My brother was right.  Will Rogers did not look like an Indian.” …-  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
I was having a conversation with a cousin on the side of the road on my rez a few years ago, one of those times where you are walking along and the other guy pulls up beside you and starts chatting out the window, whether you want to talk to him or not.  At any rate, our conversation turned to a racist incident that had occurred in town recently involving a mutual acquaintance.  I commented on the fact that it can sometimes be tough out there for us to get a fair shake from the non-Native community, and he responded thusly, “well, you’re lucky, you’re a passer, you can get away with blending in.”

That comment has always sort of dug into my skull and clamped down on my brain.  It bugs me.  It hurts a little bit.  I am light-skinned, or fair-skinned, whichever way you want to call it.  I used to say white Indian, but other fair-skinned Natives didn’t like that very much.  Bonita Lawrence wrote about it in her book ‘Real Indians’ and Others, which I made these notes on:

Light skinned privilege
-          there is a perception that light skinned Indians have a privilege not enjoyed by dark-skinned Indians, there is debate around this but it does exist for those who already enjoy class and gender privilege

-          did light skinned want to look more Indian?  In some cases yes, in others no.  some were able to accept their own sense of self, others were troubled by knowing they were Indian, understanding they were Indian but looking in the mirror they saw a white guy


-          white looking Indians find themselves having to defend their nativeness and declare their nativeness to defend their native heritage

-          there are many that don’t feel comfortable in white or native society

-          white people are always willing to denounce claims of nativeness, as are native people who accuse you of being a wannabee, both because you don’t look the part

-          those that have all the other markers, status, band membership, lineage and heritage, it is less traumatic

I can assure that, living as a working class fellow living on my reserve, I do not feel “lucky” that I’m a passer.  Lawrence captured the feelings and challenges in her book.  There is a lot of discomfort in my position within my racial and cultural identity.  I take much out of the fact that I have those other markers of lineage, heritage and membership, but like Lawrence’s people, I do, often find myself having to declare and defend my Nativeness to both Natives and non-Natives alike.  My cousin’s comment was pretty innocent, but it does reinforce the discomfort of my position.

What is an Indian?  What is a Native person?  What is an Aboriginal person? An Indigenous person?  First Nations/Metis/Inuit?  How do we represent ourselves when we do not know what we want to represent?  The debate going on about identity is scary as there are sides that say I don’t deserve to call myself Native, and others that are declaring that I have the lineage so I have the right.  I call it a debate but it isn’t really.  I recognize that this entire issue is something created by the ongoing colonialism that is taking place in this country, and I am worried that some arguing for decolonization are trapping themselves into a neo-colonial view by taking fundamental ideas on who should be considered Native.  I’m not brown enough for some folks, and that isn’t going to change.

How do these identity politics affect our children and our students?  How is their self confidence, self-esteem and ability to succeed affected by their understanding of who they are?  How do challenges to our understanding of self affect how we succeed?

 I feel like I am repeating myself a little bit but these are things running through my mind right now.

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