Race and identity: 'You're only pretending'

My light tan skin, brown hair and blue eyes—they don’t fit one complete profile. Why can’t somebody look at me and say my name instead of judging my skin tone? Or ethnicity? Or race? Or appearance as if it’s supposed to perfectly coordinate with what they think I should be?

If you’ve ever moved away from your childhood home, you might know what it’s like to see a familiar place yet feel like you no longer belong.

For instance, you might walk past the house you grew up in and see new people living in it, or notice that the wallpaper from your bedroom has been torn off and replaced with beige paint.

As a Native American, I feel alien in my own land. Some of my peers, along with adults who I’ve just met, make me feel like I don’t belong. I’m sure it’s the same for other people and races, but I feel like this all the time.

I am Native American. Native to this country. My father is as close to being a full-blooded Ojibwe Native as you get in his generation, and I consider myself Native because of the way we carry out our daily lives.

We respect the music, dance and food. We follow the same rituals of our ancestors. Whether attending powwows, dancing, singing, smudging (cleansing one’s body with smoke from sage) or going to lodge, we pride ourselves on being very traditional.

Yet I’m always asking myself why I feel like I don’t belong. Why I feel so different.

I don’t fit in with the typical “white girl” group. My skin isn’t light enough, I’m not a blonde cheerleader-type, and I don’t use the same off-putting slang as my peers.

But I also don’t fit in with the “true Native” group since my skin and hair are too light for them. Because appearance is so important, I always feel compelled to hide my face or tell Natives I meet for the first time that, yes, I am one of them. That way, they don’t get the chance to decide for themselves.

So what am I?

Both sides tell me that I don’t belong and I should stick with “the other side.” Yet I’m also not allowed to call myself Native or white since I don’t fully fit the general “being” of either title.

When they look at me, they say that I am something other than what I am. Why can’t I just be?

It’s all confusing to me. How should I act when walking to my job on Lake Street in Minneapolis? I feel eyes on me, judging: “She’s white.” “She’s not white.”

How should I speak when I’m at school? “She only calls herself Native to get attention.” “She doesn’t use ‘Rez English.’ She’s not one of us.”

How should I respond to my peers? “She just wants to be better than us, which she isn’t. She’s just white like the rest of us.”

Being Native offends whites, being white offends Natives. I can’t win.

I remember an incident from fourth grade during show and tell when I decided to highlight my moccasins, which were very important to me. When it was my turn to share, I put them on, played Native music and proudly began to dance. But after I started, another girl in my class began mocking the music. The teacher repeatedly asked her to stop, but she replied, “What? I’m only pretending, like she is.”

I hated it so much. She thought I was “just pretending” to be Native.

It works the other way, too. My dad always talks about how the Native community is accepting of others but hard on its own. Though elders say that he is true Native, the majority of his peers criticize the way he speaks, what he does for a living and judges the fact that he married my mother, who is white. He’s “American”—or at least is trying too hard to be.

Yet our family accepts and follows Native traditions. We smudge. We go to lodge. We pray to the creator.

But those traditions aren’t enough. We are still outcasts because of ethnic factors beyond our control.

My light tan skin, brown hair and blue eyes—they don’t fit one complete profile. Why can’t somebody look at me and say my name instead of judging my skin tone? Or ethnicity? Or race? Or appearance as if it’s supposed to perfectly coordinate with what they think I should be?

There shouldn’t be one defining characteristic of a mixed race teen. Why can’t we all just be who we are and say what we want to be? Why do we have to fit neatly in the same group as determined by someone else?

Especially with our generation, since interracial marriage is only going to increase. Pretty soon there won’t be a person alive who belongs to a singular race.

So let’s stop trying to force everyone into one.

MORE FROM THE RACE ISSUE

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 21 students participated in a ThreeSixty multimedia project centered on microaggressions—or as defined by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “the daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile or negative racial slights toward people of color.” Check our our photo display here.

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