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Race, Heritage, & Reality

Back in 2009, I wrote a post about race & self-identification and how being Black & X is treated differently than any other form of being multiracial. (The comments were special & filled with wank from someone determined to insist that being multiracial in America is just one overarching experience.) At the time I was specifically discussing being Black & White, but really that whole thing about the One Drop Rule & being visibly of African descent applies to being Black & Anything. Case in point this discussion of the Freedmen, the Dawes Roll, & why so many activists are rushing to insist that Freedmen = All Black with no Cherokee ties because somehow the blood of black slaves nullifies any Cherokee blood that would have been present. There were plenty of people born from the same set of parents, who found themselves sorted onto a different list from their siblings after slavery was over.

Want to guess who was most likely to be sorted onto the Freedmen list regardless of parentage? If you said the people who looked Black? Chances are excellent that you’re right. Now, a basic biology lesson about phenotypes vs. genotypes could be inserted here, but I’m going to assume my readers already know that appearance doesn’t really indicate ancestry. After all, being able to pass or not doesn’t nullify mixed race parentage. Really, you can have a white parent and still be darker than a paper bag. My great grandmother (listed as Blackfoot, but given that she was in Arkansas probably Choctaw) passed as a light skinned black woman to her neighbors. It’s anyone’s guess what she was running from when she married my great grandfather, but the reality is that her children didn’t lose that NDN blood just because they came out darker than a paper bag.

To deny heritage based on phenotype is already offensive as fuck, without then turning around and pretending history didn’t happen. It’s past time the cultural & social baggage of imbibed racism was addressed. Everyone wants to call black activists (especially black female activists) on the carpet for being too loud & not being inclusive enough to be silent. Welp, pretending that you get to turn to us for support, and then engage in bigotry against us and it is a-okay isn’t going to work out. We see you, we know this dance (we’ve already done it with white feminists, LGBT folks, black men etc.), and we’re not going to have our humanity or our heritage denied because you still want to act like blackness taints. And yes, I know you have a cousin, a nephew, a niece, or even a child that is of black heritage so you can’t be racist. That’s what makes this whole argument a sin and a shame. You’ve decided that modern black blood is okay (maybe), but the blood of slave women is not. The history of slavery is uncomfortable for everyone (after all there were some black slave owners too), but coming to terms with it won’t happen as long as people try to pretend that it didn’t have an impact on every aspect of this country.

18 thoughts on “Race, Heritage, & Reality”

  1. Tatyanna Wilkinson says:

    Thank you for expressing what parallels my own thoughts about the Freedman issue and much more. My father is Black and Powhatan Indian, mother is Irish. My Black ancestor’s were slaves. My Indian ancestor’s were murdered for the most part. I could pass but was raised otherwise by my white mother and have had to defend my decision to be so vocal about who I am to several folks over the years. I eat, sleep, live, breath my heritage and my Black sisters see no separation in me. White folks and Indian’s…well that’s another matter. I am way lighter than a paper bag and even I have been treated as tainted by ignorant fearful folks. Ignorance, fear, co-opted mirrored actions of the oppressors, etc, etc. In the Native American community I have seen that those who are too light are often suspect and those who are too brown are suspect as well. My partner is a Sundancer, Creole and Creek, a caramel black man with native heritage and he has had his blackness noted by Medicine Men and Elders and had to prove himself in our spiritual community.

    Again…thank you for your words.

  2. Mist says:

    I agree with everything you said here. My parents, and therefore myself, are of mixed descent: black, Irish, NA (Choctaw!). But because I look black (less so my mom, but still), it’s not just that I can’t identify in any other way, but that I can’t even mention that I have any ancestors that aren’t “just black.” Or I’m self-hating, so say blacks and whites and random strangers. Though the same white people that give you funny looks like to note how they are 1/42 , 1/3 Swedish, 1/4 Italian, 3/78 Elf, 56/429 dolphin, etc. But don’t actually want to learn anything about their heritage (if it’s not white), just wear a headband and whatnot.

    1. Delux says:

      OK that dolphin bit made me LOL. Well said.

  3. Layogenic says:

    I’ve only recently been informed of my native (Cheyenne) ancestry, and up to then I was just white. I don’t bear any non-caucasian racial markers, I’ve definitely never been subject to any of the oppression inherent in them. But I was asked by my grandmother, who did the informing (the ancestry’s on my grandfather’s side), if I was going to apply to the government for aid based on this information. I was like…what?

    Cool story, bro, I know, but I mean to convey that when white is mixed with native blood, we see no reason not to gobble up the aid, the bitching rights, the feigned exclusion, because what have we really got to lose by accepting it? While being, as you say, “tainted” with black blood, as one of my cousin’s sons, is a source of shame and taboo (and makes my cousin morally suspect). It’s not like we didn’t systematically drown out native culture and regard them as lesser creatures, but even that much prejudice doesn’t quite match up with the distaste we have for black culture/history/grief.

    So I see it, even from the outside, and that’s saying something.

  4. Woman says:

    I am actually one of those people who got expunged. Myself and my mother and my whole maternal line up to my great-grandparents (my grandmother was a brass ankle, and my grandfather was Cherokee). For what it’s worth, of course everything you say here is right, but this is a pretty complicated issue that I know a bit about because my mother’s family has been tracking this debate (it’s not new at all) for years.

    I don’t know if you remember this, but when Obama ran, there was a big to-do made over the Crow tribe endorsing him. He made some promises to protect Native services which was popular, because there was a lot of worry about how the Recession would affect them. White people only seemed to see that more brown people were endorsing Obama without understanding (or caring) why. But there were cuts anyway, and many of the tribes (including the Nation) made cuts of their own, and particularly in the South where there are many, many families like mine and many people of color who were hit hardest by the Recession, the burden on these services grew exponentially. Basically the Nation was faced with either not being able to provide for their tribe members, or having to thin out the numbers of the tribe… I’m guessing you can do the rest of the math here. So, yeah, there’s definitely racism in play, but it is very tied up with economic reasons that sort of magnified a debate that has been going on for years in many tribes. It’s bad enough being cut out of your heritage, but the meat of the issue is being cut out of services (health care, land grants, college loans, etc.) that your family has relied upon for years. That’s of more immediate concern to a lot of people who are struggling in this economy.

  5. Woman says:

    By the way, above it should say that my great-grandmother/grandfather were the ancestors who married, not just plain grandmother/grandfather. Sorry for any confusion.

    This was very common, as you probably know, especially in the Carolinas (where my maternal family lives, for the most part — I’m in Texas). My great-grandfather freed my great-grandmother and married her. I know very little else about them (also common) except that she didn’t live very long after having 3 children, and after she died, my great-grandfather remarried another Cherokee woman. This divided my family into two branches — one that got kicked off, and one that didn’t. So you can imagine how complicated this is when you start to take into account intergenerational wealth transfer that involves land grants and such. It’s a hot mess.

  6. Woman says:

    Sorry for the multiple posts (you don’t have to post this one), but I realized too late that you may not have been talking about this story: I just assumed you were, but you didn’t make a link to it, so my comments might not make any sense without that context. Okay, this is the last comment now, promise. :D

  7. Delux says:

    Ever since some one told me that if i was really part white I would be blonder (?) I’ve just stopped even bothering trying to explain to people that you can be dark skinned and mixed race. Its not worth it.

  8. Rebecca A says:

    I know on my father’s side that I am most likely all African because he came to the states from Nigeria and his family has over ten generations of family history there. On my mother’s, it gets more blurry. My grandmother was 3/4 Native Americans so her family tree is mostly mixed with Natives and black people. my grandfather is probably the only connection I’d have to a pure African American blood line. I’m not sure because they never really kept records or remembers.

    My mom and all her sisters, you could tell where mixed with something. They were all caramel skinned growing up and had that soft naps that were beautiful and grew down instead of up. Still, they only recognized their African american side because of defining facial features associated with the black race.

    I think that skin color has less to do with what people think you race is than facial features. People can be almost ‘white’ in color but you will still know that they are or have African American in them because of nose shape, lips size, face structure. Another sign is the hair. You could always tell the differences between natural naps and curls. Either way. I like and agree the article.

    1. Witchsistah says:

      They were all caramel skinned growing up and had that soft naps that were beautiful and grew down instead of up.

      Do you realize what a hot mess of WTF you just typed here?

  9. Maureen O'Danu says:

    Yay, yay and yay. My oldest son’s paternal grandfather is ‘pure’ Cherokee, registered to the tribe in Oklahoma, but that hair (that has been transmitted to my son as a ‘white boy fro’, as he phenotypes as white) is clearly not Asiatic, and clearly came from some Freedman ancestry.

    Phenotype and genotype blend interestingly in both my son’s, both of who are completely and unambiguously phenotyped as white (my youngest blond and blue eyed), but both of whom have recent African heritage in their genotypes as well as my older son’s Native blood.

    My husband’s family, the maternal line of which was founded by a black woman who ‘passed’, is openly and viciously racist, in a stunning display of self-hatred that is extremely difficult for me to watch.

    We have raised both our sons to be proud of all their heritages (including my Western and Northern European Irish/mutt blend) and as anti-racist allies. It makes navigating holidays at the homestead difficult at best, but we think its worth it on every level.

  10. Maureen O'Danu says:

    … and in response to Layogenic and the absolutely justified objection to white phenotyped Natives gobbling up Native benefits, I wholeheartedly agree. My oldest son has tribal membership, but he does not have a personal history of oppression, or a personal history of ties to the tribe. As such, I have strongly discouraged him from applying for benefits, since we (and especially his paternal grandparents) are sufficiently privileged to be able to pay for his college.

  11. Woman says:


    You bring up an interesting point about white people claiming benefits, but there’s another side to that, too. Every once in a while, I’ll hear some obviously white person call into one of those conservative talk shows claiming to have Native heritage, and ranting about how they preferred to boot-strap themselves and not take advantage of “government handouts” even though they are “a minority”, and this is always — ALWAYS — meant as a dog-whistle to beat on black folk. Since most white people who claim Native heritage have never bothered to prove it, saying that they could have claimed benefits, but didn’t because they didn’t need it, has always struck me as just a self-congratulatory way of interjecting themselves in the conversation about things that aren’t their business. Unless you have a certificate (like your son does), it wasn’t really possible to claim benefits in the first place.

    That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone who passes white but has Native ancestry applying for benefits. After all, intergenerational wealth transfer is of issue here, and chances are high that your Native side of your family was poorer on average, because of what happened to them. That’s what the benefits are there for, and while passing white confers a lot of privilege, there are still economic disparities that can’t be solved in one generation of looking white. I’m not trying to argue you out of discouraging your son from taking advantage of benefits if he doesn’t need them, but I did want to point out the other side of that sentiment that is often used by racists in a sort of roundabout way to attack black folks and Native descendants who do use the system the way it’s intended.

    Also, I was nodding my head as I read your comments about your family’s self-hate, thinking of part of my family who acts the same way. This kind of horizontal hostility racism has been going on for a long time in the Nation, but the conservatives have made more political headway than they would have otherwise had in better times for the same reasons the Tea Party has gotten big. If you rely upon the treaty terms for, say, your business model for example, and the white-dominant culture starts making noises about how Natives don’t deserve this-and-that because “hasn’t it been long enough?”, and funds are being cut to programs and so on, you are more likely to listen to conservatives in the tribe who say that Freedmen descendants aren’t really Natives, and thus don’t deserve to benefit, because it means less competition over existing resources while simultaneously making you feel superior.

    This is depressing all around the block, but what gets me is that the tribal conservatives think that by cozying up to white supremacist ideas and distancing themselves from black folks, they’ll curry favor among white people and be spared the rod. But that only benefits white people, who then don’t have to trouble themselves with oppressing black people directly in this case, because Natives are paying it forward. Then white people will say, “Who are we to stop the Natives from deciding who belongs in their tribe? It really isn’t our business.” But it won’t stop them from saying, “Will you look at that casino! It’s just criminal the way Natives get all these benefits. You know they are all alcoholics…”

  12. John P. says:

    Okay… wow.
    I really wish I could add to the conversation but…
    My ancestry is clear and defined, my family on both sides go back to purely English and Scottish roots. So I can in no way relate to this with personal experience or family history. As for being excluded from my genetic and/or cultural ancestors, also completely void of any experience or history that could relate to that.

    As for a culture unique to my people well there’s the Episcopal Church, but that church is not exclusive anymore. My grandfather’s generation was almost entirely Anglo. But my generation is much more diverse culturally and racially. There are many people however in all generations that want to the church to be exclusive. Some of my family are among them. So I guess I’m more on the giving end then receiving end of this issue.

    But then again those who wish for the church to be exclusive don’t focus on the racial division lines and more on sexual orientation and gender lines. So entirely different subject all together. Never mind me then.

  13. osiyo says:

    My mom is white. My father is Native NDN. It’s a crap shoot, when it comes to skin color or outward appearance. My brother has dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. My daughter has blonde hair, green eyes and darker olive skin.

    But I look like the poster woman for Irish Spring soap.

  14. Charity says:

    “…being Black & X is treated differently than any other form of being multiracial.” – karnythia

    That’s so true, and is the crux of people calling biracial people black, I believe. Hence President Obama being the first black president rather than the first (black/white) biracial president.

    I’ll never forget seeing a video on YouTube celebrating “Hapas,” defined as people who are half white and half Asian, void of any ‘Blasians’ despite the most popular one — Tiger Woods. Or watching a documentary about biracials and seeing East Indians mixed with white and thinking to myself — that’s just white, socially. They will benefit from whiteness.

    What’s rejected and subjected to racism are those visibly mixed with black.

  15. KalleyC says:

    You are absolutely correct. This country has such a hard time dealing with all aspects of slavery, that we don’t even want to face it. It is a very uncomfortable subject, but the way that we are dealing with it is just wrong. Schools don’t really cover it, and if they do, they treat it like an isolated incident; as if it was only something that occurred in the south. Hate to break the news to everyone, but slavery existed everywhere in this country, including Brooklyn NY.

    My one hope for this country is for us to finally come to terms with it, and face it head on. If we can’t acknowledge the sins of this country, then we will forever be going backwards.

  16. blackerberry says:

    I am new to your blog and very pleased to find it. I appreciate the candor, insight and passion of the contributors. Beautiful writing. I will bookmark and visit often.

    Peace & blessings

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