Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Red, White and Blue

By Christy Rogers, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Early in my academic career, I was greatly interested in how race was defined and demarcated among whites, blacks, and Native Americans in the 19th Century. I was giving a paper on this topic at Harvard and staying with my cousin’s family in Boston. My uncle asked me how I became so interested in Native American history. He asked, “Is it because your maternal great-grandmother was Native American?” I almost slipped from my chair. No one had mentioned this to me before, ever. He said this was something my grandmother had confided to him in her ailing years. I didn’t know what to do. I got really excited. I ran up the stairs. I ran down the stairs. I ran up the stairs again. This—blood—made ME Native American. Suddenly, so many things about myself made sense. My attachment to the land. My acuity about people that some friends nervously characterized as clairvoyance. I couldn’t wait to talk to my mom.

“Utter nonsense,” my mother retorted, firmly. Now I wasn’t Native American. My enlarged sense of identity collapsed. Then I realized that I had, running excitedly up and down the stairs, briefly considered that race, identity, and cultural belonging could be transferred by blood alone, despite the fact that I had not been raised with one tiny jot of Native American culture or conscience. I considered doing genealogical research; I knew about DNA testing, but I finally thought: no. I’m white. I was raised white, I have benefited from white privilege for so long that I can’t retroactively “un-do” my whiteness and claim membership with a people violently oppressed for centuries.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was from an African-American roommate, about 15 years ago. Walking down the street with me, she suddenly said, “you know, you’re not really white, you know. I mean, you’re white, obviously, but you’re not really white. Do you know what I mean?” And I’m sticking with that as the best I can do: white, of course—but not really. But the “not really” has to be earned by my work and by my commitments—not given by blood.

1 comment:

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