Race, Ethnicity and My Face


As a woman of Cherokee, Lenape, Seneca, German descent, I came of age understanding that I'm not totally Native nor am I totally white. I'm a border woman dwelling between the boundaries. 

I have light skin, light enough that some people think I’m a white person. My dad, a Native man, and my mother, a white woman, had me when they were teenagers in 1953. I grew up in Compton, California, a mixed race suburb of Los Angeles. The family next door was Bolivian and they loved me like a daughter. My best friend was Japanese and Mexican. Still, when I was 10 years-old, my dad sat me down to have “the talk” with me about race. He told me about how to navigate the streets, about how to stay safe. He wanted to make sure I understood that in order to be accepted by certain white people it mattered who your friends were. 

By that point, however, I already knew. 

I had discovered that when I went to play at the houses of my white friends after school I needed to be aware of how I was holding myself at all times. I learned to stay alert and watch for clues: sometimes there might be an older brother who pulled his eyes in an upward slant and said something mean about Chinese people; or a father that casually spouted racial slurs at people of color. When this happened, I knew I had to make an excuse to go home and I’d never go back. Sometimes I’d make up stories when asked about my darker skinned, mixed-race family in order to protect them. But if the mothers of my white friends didn’t feel satisfied with my answers, I wouldn’t be allowed to stay at their houses for long. 

Things would be different when I went over the houses of my friends of color. Their mothers would always take me in without hesitation. And if there was a grandmother at home who spoke English with an accent, or didn’t speak English at all I could usually be certain they wouldn’t ask me if my daddy had a job. In their homes, I felt safe. 
 
As a child I had things all figured out. But when I reached my late teens and early twenties it became more complicated. 

Hanging out with my friends of color meant witnessing them get treated poorly and face multiple instances of discrimination by white people. Being out with my white friends, however, meant that we could expect to be given preferential treatment no matter where we went. When I began dating and went out with Native boys or other boys of color in my community, I was considered “white trash” by white America. I could even expect to have a white man point to my date and ask me what I thought I was doing being with the likes of someone like him. But when I dated the first guy that was white, I was allowed to be white by association and had access to the privileges of white America because of that. In stores or restaurants, we were always served or seated first, before people of color. When we acted up or got into mischief in public, it was laughed off as opposed to being taken seriously with the assumption that we were up to no good like it had been for other teens of color. 
 
My early adulthood was charged with decisions to make: Should I mention my Native identity? Should I let white people I don’t know well and may not ever want to become close friends with, assume I’m white? Keep my racial identity private from employers and others who would discriminate against me if they knew I’m a mixedblood Native American woman? With dark skinned family members and dark skin friends? With strong ties to Native America and rooted within a community of color? 
 
Then, at age twenty-three, I suddenly found myself employed full-time in a company that was predominantly white. So white, that my intuition told me if my boss had known I was anything other than white, I would have probably not been hired. My white co-workers seemed to only accept people of color who adhered to white social norms and didn’t challenge their biases. They could not accept how vastly different the culture values, thought processes, and social norms of ethnic people were from white America. 

I wear the face of a woman with light skin privilege. While keenly aware of the advantage it has given me over my friends and family who are not able to pass, I always make the decision to disclose my Native identity to anyone who asks. I never try to pass. Passing would mean turning my back on my Native family, friends and community. Following my experiences working in a predominantly-white company at 23, I began to make sure that at each interview I had for a new job, I’d take a “racial temperature check” to ensure that people of color who looked like my friends and family were always welcomed. And I’d proudly list all the positions I’ve held within American Indian and Asian-American organizations on my resume. 
 
Later on in my life, I married a man who was white and we had a daughter together, before adopting two Korean children. Two of our kids had apparent ethnic features and their black hair and darker skin often caused people to mistakenly assume they were Native American. I knew that blending into white society would never be an option for them. So it was always a toss on whether they would be able to ride on the wings of my white privilege, or be subject to the racism that ruled America when they were out on their own. In turn, I did my best to connect them with their Korean roots by becoming deeply involved with the Korean community in our town. For thirty years, my heart and soul was shaped by my connection to this community for which I am grateful to be a part of. 
 
Now, as I near age 70, my gray hair and wrinkled face reveal the many years I have lived. Yet what has not changed is what most cannot see: I am still a border woman. Borders are set up to define or to separate, but I am neither part white, nor part Native. My blood is a mix between two worlds, Native and white merging together to form a third: a woman dwelling between the boundaries. 
 
A border woman—that is me.

First published in Santa Clara Review.