Help with self-identification
March 8, 2012 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Identity crisis filter: ethnicity edition. Did you grow up one ethnicity, and choose another later in life? Do you identify with one ethnicity over another, even though both are in your lineage? Did you deny your ethnicity throughout life, then later claim it? I need some help working through my ethnicity self-identification, also in the ways of culture appropriation.

I'm in my [very] early 20s, and have been doing the normal soul-searching, finding yourself stuff that people my age tend to do. I've conquered my sexuality, my body issues, and my religion. In all of these aspects, I know who I am [for the most part]. Great! Now I've found my brain coming back to the issue of my ethnicity, over and over again. I read blogs, journals, websites about ehtnicity, just in general. It seems to be the next hole my mind is trying to fill-my lack of a self-identified ethnicity.
Theres a bunch of haze surrounding the topic for me, though. In my heart, and my mind, I identify as Native American [Seminole, specifically]. I've been thinking back to my childhood, to try and see how I identified then, and it was the same. My mother, who I get the lineage from, was always very proud of that part of her heritage. She had Native pottery, paintings throughout the house. Our coffee table books were on the history of Native American loom-weaving, or other Native American crafts. She was proud, you could tell, but it was always very private for her. I suspect it was because she derived it from her father, who died when she was seven. So her Native American heritage was cherished, but painful for her. I didn't even know that my mother's real dad existed until I was about 12. I had always assumed that my Grandmother's other husband [who also died before I was born] was my Grandfather, it was that sore a subject. It was really never talked about.

So, growing up, I've been surrounded by the art and culture of Native Americans, but it's always been an internal and personal identification. I'm pretty pale-skinned [though with dark hair and eyes], and so I've been treated white by society. But when I go to museums and see Native American pottery, there are parts of me that just see it as mine. When people appropriate the religious or tribal clothes or patterns, I feel personally offended. I know this doesn't make much sense, It's kind of like your sexuality and gender, it's just something deep inside that you feel is right. It belongs. That's how I feel about my ethnicity.

But there's this personal conflict with letting myself really, truly identify, because it's a history steeped in violence and imperialism and struggle. And I have been subjected to none of that. I'm pale enough to be treated as white. I've known none of the struggle of the people. And that just doesn't sit right with me. I don't want to be another white person appropriating a minority culture.

Is there anyone else out there who has been through this? Are you, yourself, Native American? Indian? Dominican? Any other minority race? How does this feel for you- as a minority?
posted by FirstMateKate to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
While not exactly the same as your experience, Gregory Williams' Life on the Color Line may be of interest to you.
posted by googly at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2012

Are you in touch with the actual Seminole community? Is there someone you can reach out to who is not a family member? I knew quite a few Native Americans in Montana who struggled with their identity (whether they passed as white, Latino or were clearly Native). One of my good friends told everyone he was Brazilian, which made me sad. The ones that were happy were the ones who were true to themselves, whether that meant leaving their hair long or not.

I think that most of the white people who appropriate Native culture aren't really involved in that culture. They just buy stuff at the roadside stands and wear feathers in their hair and hang a dreamcatcher from their rear view mirror. I am not in a position to judge them, but I bet the vast majority don't actually identify as Native. If it became cool to appropriate Asian motifs, they'd probably do that instead.

If you're sincere about your identification, then talk to people. Surely they have meetings and events and so forth. If you're in school, perhaps there's a student group for Native Americans. I don't think you need to go out of your way convince them that you're the real deal. I wouldn't show up in head to toe native garb - no one does that anyway except for ceremonial events - but just be yourself, and be confident, and people will accept you.

(I don't know about Seminoles, but Cherokees and other tribes who had early contact with Europeans tend to have intermarried with whites at much greater rates than tribes further west, so I am certain that your situation is not unusual at all.)
posted by desjardins at 11:01 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Both Passing: Identity and Interpretation and Crossing the Racial Line: Racial Passing in 20th Century US and Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are are good books to read.

As you get more involved with your Native American heritage, you will likely confront an unfortunate hierarchy of authenticity among Native Americans who, say, grew up on the res and dealt with the poverty and the limited options that are the legacy of American imperialism and colonization. Many will probably see you as part of a much larger phenomenon of white people appropriating "their" traditional art and culture as a means to gain self-understanding while having also enjoyed a lifetime of white privilege.

I'm not saying this is an accurate or fair assessment, but I'd seriously avoid telling someone who grew up with this childhood that you see parts of yourself in their artwork, at least until you've proved that you respect their culture as more than just a badge.

As someone who grew up in North Carolina Cherokee territory (I'm not Indian in heritage, though), it's extremely common for "real" American Indians to put up walls against white people who claim to feel a kinship with American Indian heritage. It's also galling because, thanks to obvious reasons, that heritage is frequently a shell of its former glory, so white people enthusiastically participating in a drum circle is just rubbing salt in the wound. American Indians have seen some of the worst examples of lazy appropriations of their culture; not just people who think tomahawks are cool, but those who apply to the tribal roster in hopes that they can check off "American Indian" on their college application forms.

Echoing desjardins, I would recommend volunteering at a nearby reservation or cultural facility, depending on where you live. Though mores vary dramatically between tribes (see Two Spirit), your personal experience of working through problems with your sexuality might be of particular use to at-risk American Indian teens who feel that their community won't accept their own sexual identities.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:23 AM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also echoing desjardins, most Crow I know are deeply offended by people who claim tribal member status but haven't actually had the experience--and that's not just folks still living in Crow Agency, but also professionals who no longer live in Montana, but grew up on the reservation.

I understand the need to belong and claim an identity is important to many people, and your 20s are a time to figure out who you are. But to be honest, if you've not been living the actual life, no matter how many pots you have in the house, is it really so important to you that you be identified as Seminole? I think it's possible to appreciate the heritage and cherish the culture without having to have a label on oneself. I'm aware this isn't a popular opinion.

(And you're Seminole, but Navajo pottery speaks to you? Maybe you're just an art lover.)
posted by Ideefixe at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

As far as being identified with injustice in the past, hasn't every ethnicity been subject to that? It is not nearly as straightforward a picture as we are led to believe. If you go back in history someone is always on the losing side and someone is always on the winning side, even for people identified as 'white' in the current USA. How many different groups invaded England and oppressed the people already there? (our known history of western Europe pretty much begins with the Romans coming in and oppressing the Celts and goes on from there). Most current residents in North America have at least some kind of native american in their ancestry and most people from the south have more than a little 'black' ancestry as well. And most people you would identify as 'black' have more than a little white ancestry, most of it acquired...non-voluntarily. My point in all this is noone group hands are clean. Native american groups kept slaves, fought wars of conquest with their neighbors and pretty much behaved as...well human beings always have. Chances are the symbols of your ethnic group are a hole amalgamation of symbols from all kinds of previous groups that would not at all identify as seminole. And lastly noone gets a vote in their ancestry. I am no more responsible or guilty of my ancestors crimes than you gain any virtue from those crimes being committed on your ancestors (or vice versa-like I said above noone hands are clean). You do get to chose the kind of person you are today, and who your ancestors were, and what the did or what was done to them is done and gone and cant be changed. Dont let that define who you are-let you define who you are, and what you make of your own life.
posted by bartonlong at 11:36 AM on March 8, 2012

I also nth the suggestion of getting in touch with the Semiole community. Even if they don't consider you authentic, if you have a personal family tie, no one can take that away from you. But you can still get involved with the Semiole community while being sensitive of the specificity of your background and privilege (e.g. you can't claim various struggles as your own, but you can be an ally. Be understanding of the realities/truths that other people share, people are the authority of their own truths and not white academics/publishers. When you read books by outsiders, take it with a grain of salt, etc) . Get to know people and see if you could work on some projects together, volunteer, etc. You'll get a richer understanding of both your family and ethnicity.
posted by Hawk V at 11:40 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Phoenix Rising: A Question of Cultural Marginality

I had my first experience in my lifetime recently of being treated as white for a few weeks. I was very glad when that was over.
posted by infini at 12:04 PM on March 8, 2012

How do you see yourself "claiming" your native american heritage? What more do you feel you can do to self-identify your ethnicity? You feel a personal connection to this culture but have no true cultural or experiential ties; there's your identity. What else do you need? If you're interested in the culture then dive in but it's not "your" culture. To what end would you be proclaiming your native status? You said very early 20s, are you in college? Taking anthro classes? I feel like these kinds of questions are to anthro/sociology courses as medical student syndrome is to med school.
posted by Katine at 12:12 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harsh, people. If your mother was native, then you are part native. (Ideefixe, she did not say "Navajo.") If you grew up with cultural artifacts in your home, and a mother who was proud of her heritage, then of course you want to know more about that part of who you are. Living in your home with your mother made you who you are. Don't let others dismiss your feelings and tell you that you have no right to your history just because you look white.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:41 PM on March 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I pass as white and was mostly raised by white people, although I have more direct exposure to non-white culture than you do (via my father and his family).

Being mixed is an identity, too. You don't have to pick one or the other.

It can be complicated and a bit lonely to pass, but realistically it comes with a shit ton of privilege (passing privilege, I've heard it called) and we need to be aware of that.

The very fact that you feel like you can choose, instead of being pushed into a "non-white" category by society is an enormous privilege. The vast majority of people do not get to choose.

Ethnicity also comes with shared culture, shared language or vernacular, shared experiences. I really don't think that you can just decide to be an ethnicity. Nor do I believe that having the "blood" of an ethnicity automatically makes you able be just as much of that ethnicity as people who actually have the shared culture.

It is sad that so many people grew up without that access to their family's culture in a way that, say, Irish-Americans don't. It's a legacy of genocide and colonialism and systematic destruction of culture. Plus racism that motivated anyone who passed to be as "white" as they could (my grandmother could rival Betty Draper for WASP-y dressing and hairstyle...).

Also, please keep in mind that "Native American" is a very broad category that contains multiple ethnicities so when you say that you see "Native American" stuff and feel connected to it, it's...not offensive, just confusing about what exactly you feel connected to. I love the blankets that were handed down to me through my great-grandfather and the turquoise and silver jewelry made by my great uncle, but I don't think I'd really feel connected something Seminole. They're pretty different.

That's not to say that beautiful art can't move you. It certainly can; I'm not arguing with the genuine-ness of your feelings, just with the idea that only people who are of certain ethnicities are moved by beautiful things. I don't think that's the case.

Good luck figuring all this stuff out, I know it's complicated.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:50 PM on March 8, 2012 [12 favorites]

I would encourage you to see if it is possible for you to pursue tribal enrollment or affiliation. If I understand your post correctly, your mother's father (whom you did not know) identified as Seminole and your mother identified as Seminole? If your grandfather was listed on the 1957 Tribal Roll, you can pursue enrollment with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma requires genealogical proof that enrollees are descended from someone identified as Seminole on the 1906 Dawes Roll.

Of course, many people of Native descent don't fall within the genealogical or blood quantum requirements necessary for formal enrollment or affiliation with their ancestors' tribes or nations. There's a fairly good book called Invisible Indians by David Arv Bragi that presents interviews with people in those situations. You might find it relevant to your experience as well.

A Native scholar and activist who is himself not tribally enrolled or affiliated, Dr. Alton Carroll, has a lot of insightful things to say about the challenges of honoring one's Native heritage without the support of a tribal affiliation. He's currently a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and his faculty email is on the web.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:57 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't want to be another white person appropriating a minority culture.

Jesus Christ FirstMateKate. Clear your head of this foolish notion.

Appropriating is not the same thing as embracing. When you appropriate you take something that isn't yours to take; embracing what is yours and making it your own is not appropriation. There is nothing false about embracing a part of you that is, in fact, a part of you. Love it, hug it, own it like you own it, and if you do this sincerely and completely who can question you?

Don't let other people dictate who you are or who you choose to be.
posted by three blind mice at 1:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You are what you are. Here's the thing: the notion of your "blood" or whatever is pretty much just bunk. Instead, it all comes down to what you identify with - in other words, what resonates with you and who you are.

I've been through this myself. My dad is white (maybe scots-irish he says) while my mom is "half" puerto rican and "half" jewish. She identifies as puerto rican. Because I look white and am treated white, I tended to identify that way throughout childhood, but I always felt like I was caught between either turning my back on my mother and the culture that makes her who she is (and, therefore, also part of what makes me who I am) or being called out as a pretender.

In the end, I realized that the real choice was between being who I am or being who people wanted me to be. Our society really likes to be able to put people into neat, discreet boxes. White or Black. Anglo or Latino. First American or Colonist. Group 1 or Group 2. The real world isn't always kept so neat. In reality, Native American can mean as many different things as white because not all Native Americans are alike and not all white people are alike.

In the end, when we think of ourselves as having an identify problem, we're just buying into society's insistence that we align ourselves with one of its simple, pre-made boxes. For me, this realization, and my decision to reject it, is what allowed me to say that I'm white and puerto rican regardless of any unfounded assumptions people make about me. This has not only allowed me to accept who I am, but it has given me a direction in which to grow. Since I've come to terms with my own racial/ethnic identity, I've given myself permission to enjoy learning more about puerto rican foods, music, etc. that have, in turn, contributed to the further development of my identity.

If you feel like you'd like to do the same with your Native American heritage the only thing you need to consider is what rings true to you. So you're intrigued by the art? Dive in and learn about it. What are the stories that the art tells? What are the techniques it uses. If you're fascinated by the history then learn all you can about it and look for the themes and strengths that are mirrored in your own life. This isn't to say that you have to conform to Native American standards all the sudden. Maybe there are aspects of the culture that don't resonate with you. You're under no obligation to adopt those aspects just like you're not required to be any more "white" than you want to be.

The real goal isn't to be one race or another, it's to be authentic and true to your own values. The trick is to differentiate between times when you're truly not being authentic and times when those around you insist that you're not being true to their prejudices. Be prepared for some people to question this - people are always uncomfortable when others don't do what they expect.

Sorry for the rambling nature of the answer. I've got to go and I don't have time to edit, but I wanted to give you some encouragement. Good luck!
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 1:10 PM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do you identify with one ethnicity over another, even though both are in your lineage?

I just wanted to specifically reply to this. I don't identify with one or the other. If you think about it, do white people ever feel forced to pick German or Irish? No, they don't. It's the racism of our society that demands that you pick between white and not-white when the reality is that you have aspects of both.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:16 PM on March 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You should read anything by Vine Deloria, Jr., but I'd recommend starting with God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. He writes about being Native American Indian in the most amazing and beautiful way. I suggest this because much of his work deals heavily with themes that you mention such as self-identification and cultural appropriation.


I was born in Colombia. My biological parents were Mestizo (father) and Amerindian (mother). I was adopted by a white American couple and was raised in America. People are so perplexed by my family. I could never, ever, pass for white and my parents are 100% white people. When I was a child strangers would come up to us (me, mom, and dad) and flat out ask really intrusive/offensive questions about our family structure. People ask me all the time what my race or ethnicity is because I "sound so white." I guess where I live, if you're brown, you're supposed to have an accent of some kind.

I understand where you are coming from with this. I feel a deep spiritual connection with the indigenous peoples of North and South American. It's not rational or something I can explain, but I feel it all the way to by bones. But I would never, ever, identify myself as one because while I share many of the physical traits, I don't share their culture. You don't have the feel this way, and I'm not saying you should, but I would feel wrong telling people that I'm Indian. So to fill the part of me that feels empty without a chance to identify as such I am actively involved with groups that support the rights of indigenous people all over the world. If you're interested in exploring this (I think you should, I think everyone should) I would start with The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs.

On a very primal level I am offended by people who pass as white claiming they are a person of color (because they haven't lived a life where people react to them as a POC/minority, and it's not always a good or pleasant reaction AKA "you don't know my pain"). On an intellectual level I think you should be able to call yourself whatever you want. I struggle with reconciling these diametrically opposed views. Some days I lean primal, some days I lean intellectual.

Anyway, I just wanted to offer you another perspective on this complicated subject.
posted by OsoMeaty at 2:37 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't even know that my mother's real dad existed until I was about 12. I had always assumed that my Grandmother's other husband [who also died before I was born] was my Grandfather, it was that sore a subject. It was really never talked about.

This part really stood out to me. Do you have any relatives or family friends who you could talk to/interview about this? I think that, if you understand how your Native heritage impacts and enters your family history, it might help you have a better idea of how you want to incorporate it into your personal identity. And, while you're right that you haven't experienced the same level of marginalization and ongoing systematic racism and violence that Native people have, the issue of assimilation and the erasure/denial of Native heritage is a real issue, and one that can affect a family for a long time, and it's okay to acknowledge that this has affected your life while still keeping in mind that your passing privilege has protected you against other, worse harms.

I'm mixed-race. I also come from a family with a few buried secrets--none (that I'm aware of) regarding ethnicity, but definitely several of the "We don't talk about how Grandma had a first husband who was Uncle Wes's real father," variety. Either of these things can be difficult and confusing to really understand and process; having them intertwined is even more complex.

You sound like a pretty self-aware person, and your comments on wanting to identify with your heritage while acknowledging your own privilege is sound. I also usually pass as white/benefit from white privilege, so I can relate; I generally identify as mixed-race as if I'm asked, or "other" if that's not a permitted option; in the last few years though, I've noticed most demographics questions/forms actually allow you to choose more than one box, which is still something that gives me an unexpected moment of relief when it happens. As the young rope-rider points out, the idea that everyone will identify primarily as one ethnicity, or that one's relationship to different cultures/heritages won't change over time is itself a fiction.
posted by kagredon at 2:56 PM on March 8, 2012

Best answer: I haven't read the other comments but I just popped in to say that I'm a Native American that passes as white. My full blooded grandmother married a Scott and my half Cherokee mother then married an Irishman, so aside from my high cheekbones I don't really look Cherokee even though I'm a quarter and on the tribal rolls. When I was growing up I knew we were NA but we didn't really do much with it but as an adult I got in contact with the Cherokee Nation and now go to events and it's actually really cool. In my experience everyone was really happy to see someone "come back" even if I don't look Cherokee. I'm due in a few months with my first and I'm definitely going to teach my little girl about her people. If you want someone to chat with feel free to memail me and I'll help in whatever way I can.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 4:17 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have any personal experience to share, but I thought you might be interested in an academic (ethnographic/qualitative) account of similar issues.

Anthropologist Circe Sturm has a new book called Becoming Indian about the phenomenon of people who've come to identify as Cherokee:
Part 1 focuses on the stories that racial shifters tell about their lives as they rename themselves and their communities as Cherokee, and part 2 focuses on citizen Cherokees and their perspectives on racial shifting.
– From the first chapter, available as a pdf on the publisher's website.

From what I can tell (I've skimmed this chapter and listened to part of the book as a talk) she's committed to dealing with the political, economic, social and of course cultural details of this issue with nuance. Maybe some of of those details would resonate with you.
posted by col_pogo at 5:18 AM on March 9, 2012

Best answer: I think that there can be room for space between "This is what I feel like/feel affinity towards" and "this is what I will instruct others to see me as."

In the end, anyway, we have little control over the boxes other people put us in. So I think if you focus more on learning about and participating in things that are important to you and less about how your visible or declared identity plays out in social and cultural contexts, you may find that a more fruitful path towards meaning.

There are times when publicly and proudly affirming an otherwise invisible identity is valuable and helpful (to yourself and others), and you can trust yourself to learn more about identifying those times as you learn more about and participate more deeply in this aspect of your heritage - which is yours no matter what anybody else thinks they see when they look at you.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:21 AM on March 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I've given some thought over it, and I feel like what The Young Rope Rider said about having to choose brought a lot of light to how I feel. I've come to recognize, now, that I don't really feel the strong need to identify as Native American. It's more like I have a deeper desire to just simply be connected with that part of my heritage. In a weird way, I feel like it was stolen from me through several events-the death of my grandfather, his existence ignored for so long, being so far away geographically from the seminole people, having the rest of my ethnicity be white-and thereby making me feel like I have to choose one or the other. And now I've realized I don't, because I don't need that identification in my life. Which is good, I guess, because there are times when I love my overwhelmingly Cajun heritage on my father's side [when I can stomach acknowledging being related to him.] Regardless, I'm going to take the suggestions that several of you gave-and try to somehow become active in the Native American communities, hopefully by way of volunteering.

Also, in response to some things some other people have said- I am in no way trying to infiltrate the reservation, for self-advancing purposes or not. How you got that notion from what I posted, I have no idea. I also did not say, or even hinted at, trying to get on the tribal roster, or participate in Native American-specific cultural ceremonies. I am not in any anthropology classes either. It was not just something I heard about in a book and thought was cool. As stated, it was something I grew up around and experienced through my mother. I do not intend to go up to kids who grew up on the res and somehow rub it in their faces, or some other such nonsense. That's not what this was about at all. It was about me, reconciling within myself, how I see myself and how the world sees me.
Thanks for your help, everyone!
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:36 PM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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