For some odd and stupid reason many of us continue to be color struck. I really think most of us are ignorant or at the very least forgetful. Black people who look “white” is not a new phenomenon. In the United States, anyone with a trace of African blood, no matter how remote, has been considered black. Following the centuries-long evolution of Eurocentrism, a concept geared to protecting white racial purity and social privilege, race has been constructed and regulated by the “one-drop” rule (i.e., hypodescent), which obligated individuals to identify as black or white, in effect erasing mixed-race individuals from the social landscape. Walter Plecker, first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving from 1912 to 1946, had brought racial policies to blood and bone level.
Now, deep into the 21st century, the socially constructed racial ladder continues to keep people of color, including individuals of mixed race, from enjoying the same privileges as Euro-Americans. Moreover, as we try to march forward with new members of a new multiracial movement pointing the way toward equality, those who have been discriminated against are now becoming the discriminators.
For example, black Indians, people of mixed African, African-American and Native American heritage, have strong ties to Native American culture. Their stories of struggle for freedom, identity and equality is slowly being accepted into mainstream Indian history and culture as well as various print media, academic journals and documentaries. However, most media and journal outlets showcase “dark-skinned” Indians. “Light-skinned” Indians (who also have African ancestry) are seldom seen or discussed.
In my own personal experiences, I wasn’t black enough to qualify as a black Indian. I was told I lacked dark skin and the same racial experiences, while white- skinned Indians told me they can see Indian features, and not black. So, why tell anyone?
Although individuals appear to have choices in how they create identities, these identities are actually claimed in light of how others perceive, understand, and presume them to be. In an essay by Gerald Torres and Kathryn Milun’s on “Translating Yonnondio by Precedent and Evidence: The Mashpee Indian Case (2005),” “White Americans influence the socially agreed-upon meanings and the inclusion criteria of racial minority groups more than racial minority groups influence the socially agreed-upon meaning of White American identity. The dominant White American group has the power to create group-identity for their own group (socially, institutionally and legally), which makes it more difficult for marginalized racial groups to claim identities associated with the group who created access to rights or privileges.”
As black Indians we have created the same black/white binary amongst ourselves as inclusion criteria. We are creating cultural schizophrenia as a result of external/social polarization within our own societies. I have also seen many Black Indians relax their curly hair or wear wigs wanting to look “more” Indian. Our curly hair and black, brown, olive to white skin tone is a far more interesting story and needs to be interwoven into the history of Native America.
Vincent Redstar (Apache/Navajo- Cherokee) says, “I always hated the terms ‘Afro Native’ or ‘Black Native,’ just because there is no such thing as a ‘White native.’” He continues, “All my full-blooded people just say we are ‘Native’ end of story—more chance for people to ostracize you. However, I always mention my mother is black and I honor her all the time.”
In an on-going documentary, Afro Native Narratives by Macha Rose (Anishinaabe), Michael Santiago, and in partnership with Adrian Heckstall of I Love Ancestry, seek to expand the discourse and presentation on the very real issue of Black Indian Identity. Rose asserts, “Many individuals may not actually appreciate whiteness within the tribe, and others may favor it over blackness. When talking with a woman who worked on the Paiute reservation in California she said that Natives mixed with white no one really said anything about it, but Natives mixed with Mexican, Black (the primary surrounding groups) were continually challenged on their ‘Nativeness’, even when they lived on the reservation.” She continues, “I think it’s a vestige of the imposed idea of blood quantum, legislation enacted in the United States to define membership in Native American tribes or nations. In order to gain any resources, a person had to meet a certain criteria originally set up by the government and not Natives.” Unfortunately we are using the same criteria perpetuating the “divide and control” agenda against ourselves. Rose Davis, a Seminole lecturer and activist affirms, “It’s not about race it’s about culture.” It is the transmission of customs and beliefs passed down from generation to generation without having to sacrifice or feel ashamed of who you are.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.