That being said, I want to reflect on my usage of the word “seeming” or “coded”. Too often the addition of these modifiers is done to distance ourselves from fully acknowledging our whiteness. I think my focus on these modifiers in the beginning of this essay came from a place of insecurity, and frankly – not being comfortable enough in myself to acknowledge what I now do – I look white. I don’t think it’s fair to try modify that or soften the blow just because I may wish it wasn’t true. Instead of focusing solely on all the ways I’m not a “real” white person because of my ethnicity, it’s important for me to name it and then move on. There are productive things I can be doing with this privilege, rather than trying to distance myself from it.
I find this piece somewhat cringey and uncomfortable to read now, and I was considering not sharing it anymore, but I know a lot of people value it and erasing it is only erasing what was a part of my journey. Here it is, in its unedited form]:
Before I delve into this massive and somewhat controversial topic, I need to clarify a word choice throughout the essay. While doing some research, I came across a master’s thesis written by Adrian Downey, titled Speaking in Circles: Indigenous Identity and White Privilege. In this thesis, Downey explains his preference for the words “white-seeming” over “white-passing”. I’ve always said I was “white-passing”, without considering the weight of the word “passing”. When “passing” for another ethnicity is mentioned, names like Rachel Dolezal come to mind; people that are actively trying to dupe others to convince them they are a member of a group they are not.
Downey says, “If passing is indeed an act of presenting oneself as different than one is, I am in no way passing. Yet people see me as white until I gently correct them, reminding them that I am a proud Indigenous person” (Downey, 2017, pp. 77–78). After reading these words, I realized I am not white-“passing”, I am, as he defines in his thesis, white-“seeming”. I am in no way attempting to pass as a white person; it is only white-people’s perception of myself as “one of them” that allows me to navigate the world in this way. So instead of talking about “white-passing Indigenous people”, I’ll be using the terminology “white-seeming Indigenous people” (WSIP).
Being a white-seeming Indigenous person (WSIP) is a topic that hasn’t been the subject of much research, but it is something that conjures a wide variety of feelings among other WSIPs and Indigenous people of color (IPOC). A lot of WSIPs are caught in the middle, feeling lost as they try to navigate a world in which their outward appearance is in combat with their own internal image.
I fully intend to cover all aspects of white-seeming Indigenous people from all angles and viewpoints. That being said, I am white-seeming, so bear in mind my own biases and experiences are going to come into play. This is something deeply personal to me, so trying to remove myself from the topic is near — if not — impossible.
As a WSIP, I have always struggled with feeling as though it was never my right to take up space that would be better occupied by IPOC whom have important things to say. I felt like because I wasn’t raised on a reserve, and I grew up without the traditions of my culture, that I was undeserving of claiming that part of my identity. Similarly, in his thesis, Downey explains that, despite knowing his heritage, being light-skinned and not growing up on a reserve or speaking his ancestors language — which were things he considered important markers of one’s status as an Indigenous person — he felt as though he didn’t belong or couldn’t speak about that part of his history (Downey, 2017). Just like Downey in his thesis, I realized, as an Indigenous person, I had an obligation to not deny that part of myself (Downey, 2017). To deny my Indigeneity was to erase all of the ancestors and family members I am so proud to be related to. I realized that my own denial of my ancestry was a form of internalized colonialism.
The main goal of colonialism is assimilation. Settlers made it near impossible to be Indigenous and continue to practice our traditions and speak our languages. Ceremonies were outlawed and languages were banned. Assimilation was enforced, and in many cases, it was one of the only ways Indigenous people learned how to survive. Instead of facing further abuse, humiliation, and degradation, many Indigenous people internalized colonial ideas about being First Nations and felt it would be better to assimilate and save themselves from further struggle. Residential schools and Indian* hospitals are but a small example of the racist institutions meant to force Indigenous people to succumb to assimilation. A sinister, invisible effect of assimilation is the shame and self-loathing involved with being a member of a group you were taught to hate. Many residential school survivors still face internalized racism and struggle with the effects of their assimilation. Many continue to deny their own indigeneity as a means of survival; it’s easier to accept who you are supposed to be than to deal with the trauma and pain of reclaiming the identity that was stolen from you.
The reason I bring up assimilation is that, for many WSIPs, our relatives and ancestors chose to marry white partners as a form of survival. It was a way to cope with the abuses being committed against our people, and it is but one of the ways colonization affects us, to this day. Our ancestors survival tactics are worn on our skin.
Being a WSIP, I have mentioned my own struggles with identifying as Indigenous and using my voice to take up space. Internalizing colonialism and believing its categorization and separation of Indigenous people led me to doubt myself and my place in this world. I felt like I was exempt from learning about and practicing my cultural traditions. However, I also had no connection to “white” culture. I have never read a bible, I have only been inside a church a handful of times, and feel no connection to them or their “God” whatsoever. I have yearned for and searched for something more meaningful, but my own internalized ideas about being white-seeming prevented me from learning about my people and looking for my community. I spent a lot of my late-teens and early-to-mid twenties feeling lost. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I was actually thinking about myself as the settlers *wanted* me to. By my own self-doubt, I was giving in to the cultural genocide of my people. By denying my own Indigenous history, I was actively erasing my ancestors and doing the settler’s work for them. It was this realization that changed something within me.
I realized that being Indigenous is so much more than the color of our skin. I’m not talking family trees, blood quantum, or other colonial ways of separating and categorizing us. I am talking about how it feels to be Indigenous. To feel the connection to your ancestors, and know that they are with you. To know that their blood runs through your veins, and you are continuing on with their legacy. To acknowledge the interconnectedness of all living things, and the gratitude and respect that comes from that knowledge. To hear the music and songs of our people and feel it so deeply in your soul. In his thesis, Downey describes conversations with the wind, and that it “showed [him] that being Indigenous wasn’t about [his] skin or about having suffered at the hands of colonization. It was about how you felt inside and how you intended to carry on the work of your ancestors” (Downey, 2017, p. 34).
Reclaiming your cultural identity, your traditions, learning your ancestral language, artforms, techniques, and histories is an act of decolonization. It is a method of fighting against the system that oppressed us and our ancestors in the first place. In a country that actively tries to destroy every aspect of our culture, reclaiming these important vessels, and learning and sharing them is an act of resistance.
The very idea of there being one native “skin color” is inherently racist and feeds into outdated and dehumanizing stereotypes. Being a WSIP and being proud and outspoken about your ancestry is an act of resistance, especially around white people; it refutes their idea of “whiteness” and normalcy. Many Canadians have little to no contact with Indigenous people, yet because of pervasive stereotypes, caricatures, and appropriated images, skin-color is something that permeats their ideas about us as a people. Downey explains that “[w]hile attributes of other chromatic typologies of race, such as blackness, nativeness, or asianness, are prominently displayed in media as being other, different, or bad, whiteness is often presented as normal or not presented at all” (Downey, 2017, p. 75), so when you ‘seem’ white, your ethnicity and cultural background isn’t questioned. It is just assumed that you are white, because that is “normal”. This phenomena of normalization can also be seen with heteronormativity, or the belief that being heterosexual is normal and natural, and anything else is bad, different, or weird.
Despite criticizing the idea of “whiteness”, its power in our society can’t be ignored. White-privilege is a very real thing. It is the reason that white people almost entirely have better jobs, better housing, better healthcare, better access to programs, better funding, better lives in general, than POC.
For that reason, it is important to acknowledge the benefit and burden that comes with being a WSIP: white-seeming-privilege. It is in this way that is our outward appearance is both a “lifelong “shield” against casual racial harassment and a… “barrier””, which makes us ““both winner and loser, abuser and victim”” (Bethune, 2019, p. 4).
It cannot be denied that as white-seeming individuals, we are free from the same racism IPOC face on a daily basis. There are barriers involved with having darker skin in a white-supremacist society. Indigenous people are over-represented in homelessness, incarcerations, murders, and acts of violence around the country. White-seeming individuals do not have to overcome these barriers.
In a personal essay, Misty Ellingburg explains it simply: “It all comes down to colorism: people of color with lighter skin are treated better in a white supremacist society, plain and simple. None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone, I have access to better healthcare, better education, and higher-paying jobs” (Ellingburg, 2015). Even in the MMWIG inquiry, it was proven that ‘white-passing’ appearance changes the response of the police and the opinions of the public. In a news story for the Globe and Mail, family members of a 26-year old Inuk woman who was murdered explained that they were “pulled over by the Halifax police several years earlier” and “they were treated differently because of their white features” (Tutton, 2017). They also explained that prior to her murder, the victim had talked to her sister about “the phenomenon of “white-passing privilege,” where people who appear white, but are not, are treated favourably” (Tutton, 2017).
As a WSIP, it is important to understand that while you may feel pride in your Indigeneity, and you should, you also have to accept the fact you look like our oppressors. As I began to speak out about my Indigeneity, I have had family members and loved ones warn me that some IPOC do not accept Metis or WSIP into their community. I have been warned that I may be met with prejudice and hostility. There is a lot of discussion around the exclusion of WSIP from community safe-spaces. It is easy, as a WSIP, to think ‘but I’m just like you, we’re all the same and we all have been affected by colonialism’, but this isn’t actually true. We definitely benefit from our light-skin. However, I also implore other WSIPs to think about our image from the perspective of an IPOC.
In an article for Everyday Feminsim, Nico Dacumos opens with the statement:
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could get all the cool stuff that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) get? Like…
- Richly artistic cultures that have been setting trends in music, dance, art, and fashion for hundreds of years
- Ancient and powerful cultural and spiritual practices passed down through generations
- Seasoned food
Without all the problems like…
- Disproportionate incarceration and extrajudicial murder
- Higher incidence of low self-esteem, depression, and suicide
- Decreased life expectancy
There is a way to get lots of the good stuff and avoid lots (but not all) of the bad stuff!
It’s called being light-skinned or white-passing!” (Dacumos, 2017).While this is definitely tongue-in-cheek, it is a great outline of the ways in which we benefit from both our culture and our skin-tone.
Dacumos questions a WSIPs right to be allowed to join in all Indigenous safe spaces all the time. There are some aspects of being a visible minority that white-seeming people will never understand or experience, and IPOC have a right to meet and discuss these issues without the presence of their oppressor, even in the presence of their skin tone.
For one, it “must be very frustrating to know that someone of the same race as you can enjoy benefits that you cannot access and to know that they never have to worry about things that you worry about every day simply because of the lightness of their skin” (Dacumos, 2017). I definitely feel that this inequality is unjust and wrong. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations that neither party has any control over. As Dacumos mentions, WSIPs do not have the ability to snap our fingers and erase colorism, nor can we return the privilege we have for a more “accurate” outward appearance (Dacumos, 2017). Another example she uses is the discomfort of entering a space that advertises itself as a safe-space for IPOC, only to see a white-seeming person sitting at a table across from you. As a WSIP, these are moments when we may be asked about our background and ancestry. When questioned, it can feel hurtful and responding defensively is a knee-jerk reaction, but in these moments, please consider the other persons experience.
It would be like entering a safe-space for salmon and seeing a bear sitting there. The initial interaction would be very threatening and uncomfortable. Maybe after asking a couple of questions you learn that the bear is a vegetarian, and one of its parents was a salmon. It identifies as a salmon, and it technically is half-salmon, but when the outward image reads “bear”, other salmon have the right to get uncomfortable, just as the bear… bears the burden of having to explain itself to other salmon. Maybe after much discussion and learning, the bear is welcomed by the other salmon as a member of their community, but a bear should know better than to storm into a school of salmon and expect to be welcomed with open arms.
When it comes to wanting to be a part of these safe spaces, it’s important to consider why you, as a WSIP, feel this way. In a similar vein to my article about cultural appropriation, it has a lot to do with the movtiation behind your desire for inclusion. So when a WSIP is looking to enter a safe space for IPOC, it’s important to look at the motivation behind your visit.
Dacumos asks some perfect questions:
- “Is it solely to be accepted, to be reassured by other BIPOC that I belong?
- Is it to build community with the loved ones and inner circles of people who constitute the spaces in which we might have the most impact in our work to change the world?
- Is it to hold space and compassion for the anger and resentment that darker-skinned …Indigenous people might have as a result of bearing the brunt of white supremacy’s abuses?
- Is it to build solidarity with BIPOC communities so that we can fight injustice together?
- Is it to move back by not dominating discussions and not rushing to take on leadership roles that could be filled by darker-skinned people?
- Is it to humbly ask what we can contribute to the struggle?
- Is it to strategize around how we can use our perceived proximity to whiteness in order to destabilize white supremacy?” (Dacumos, 2017)
These questions bring me to the final point of my essay, which is utilizing our white-seeming-privilege as a way to empower IPOC in our community and beyond.
Having white skin allows us the (mis)fortune of being involved in white conversations, which sometimes delve into bigotry, racism, prejudice, stereotypes, and cruelty. As uncomfortable as it may be, it is important to speak up and fight back against these beliefs. Stand up for your fellow Indigenous folx. Vocalize your contempt for bigots. Explain how outdated their views are and educate them on the history of these ideas. Correct them when they make generalizations about the Indian Act or free gas or taxes. It may sound like a lot of emotional labour, but as a WSIP, you have most likely avoided the majority of the racism that targets IPOC, which means the energy saved from not being a target can be utilized to educate white people and stand up for IPOC. If you are willing to call yourself Indigenous, and take pride in your ancestry, then you can take up the fights IPOC will never be a part of. It is one of the burdens of being white-seeming — to be considered a fellow “white”, and be privy to the “white” things some people talk about. Unfortunately, living in a white-supremacist society means it is common for white people to ignore the voices of BIPOC, so if they once saw you as “one of them”, perhaps they will be more inclined to listen to what you have to say. I believe strongly it is our duty as WSIP to stand up against them. Tell them you are Indigenous. Situate yourself in opposition to these white ideas. Educate the ignorant.
Furthermore, as most white and white-seeming people have more money than IPOC, due to systemic racism and the power of “whiteness”, if you have money to spare, donate it to charities that benefit our people. Especially our people that are the most at-risk and the most in-need: Elders, youth, two-spirit/trans folx, homeless, people struggling with addiction/alcoholism, victims of abuse, etc. So many organizations are so desperate for financial help, as their need is so great, that even receiving a donation of $20 is going to make a difference.
If you aren’t in a position to donate money, a second option would be to donate food. Unfortunately, many of our people live in poverty, so donating food to local organizations that work exclusively with Indigenous people is a great way to share some of your privilege with the rest of our community.
If neither of these are possible for you, you can always donate your time. It is a relatively inexpensive resource that tremendously benefits our communities. There are many organizations looking for volunteers, with a variety of programs that benefit youth, families, and/or elders. We are a society convinced there is never enough time. While I do understand and empathize with those of us that work themselves to the bone just to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables, there are many of us who work one regular, full-time job. We tell our friends and family members that we don’t have enough time for them, but the reality is, our free time is spent doing the things we prioritize. While I personally understand the importance of prioritizing down-time and alone-time, setting aside an hour or two once a week or once a month or once every six months is definitelypossible, it just depends on your priorities and where they lie. As WSIPs, we should prioritize using our white-seeming-privilege to help those IPOC who don’t have it as easy as we do, just because their skin is a shade or two darker than ours. If our time is the only thing we can offer, then we must do it. Volunteering for local organizations not only benefits our people, but it also allows us as WSIPs to create connections to our community and meet other Indigenous people. Nothing is going to change if all WSIPs isolate themselves from IPOC, and vice versa.
What I do want to clarify, though, that there is a stark difference between white-privilege and white-seeming privilege. In a youtube video, Maria Watanabe discusses the difference. She states that white-seeming privilege is always superficial and conditional; it is based off of a person’s perceived “whiteness” and has nothing to do with their actual ethnicity (Watanabe, 2015). She takes this one step further, and explains that just because some people believe you are part of a normalized group doesn’t mean that you don’t lack representation, your culture is never made fun of around you, or that you didn’t grow up internalizing stereotypes about your identity (Watanabe, 2015). White-seeming people are still affected by all of these problems, where as white people with white-privilege are not (Watanabe, 2015).
Therefore, in order to fully understand white-seeming privilege, one must understand settler colonialism as well. If an Indigenous person is unintentionally seen as “white”, this also means they are seen as a “settler” by IPOC, which, in both situations, erases their Indigneous identity. On one hand, WSIP benefit from the systemic privileges of having light-skin in a white-supremacist society; however, as Downey explains in his thesis, there is “one situation in which it often does not is interacting with other Indigenous people” (Downey, 2017, p. 128).
I titled this essay, “You Don’t Look Native”, because whether that statement is coming from a white person or an IPOC, there are underlying personal issues brought forward by the statement. If a white person says it, what they are really saying is that they have a very limited view of what native people look like, and this viewpoint is usually the direct result of systemic racism, terrible representation and harmful stereotypes, and from never interacting with Indigenous people. If an Indigenous person says it, the underlying message is that they believe we are either trying to appropriate their culture or pass as native as though we are not. Downey explains this sentiment can “be seen as a disruption of someone’s attempts at racial passing or as an attempt to protect their culture from imposters” (Downey, 2017, p. 128). He also mentions that, “while these challenges are difficult to accept and have caused… a great deal of emotional turmoil over the years, I respect them” (Downey, 2017, p. 128). In a time of Rachel Dolezal’s and “pretendians”, I understand and respect the desire to protect our culture from imposters as well.
The purpose of this article is not only to explain what white-seeming-privilege is and how it works, but also to explain the responsibility we have to our people, as WSIP. I think it is important for us to consider the implications our skin color has, not only in terms of our own privileges and lives, but also how it can be potentially threatening to IPOC who have no knowledge of our ancestry or story. Being open to listening to IPOC, answering their questions without being defensive, and understanding potential apprehension on their behalf, is something we all must strive to do. Alternately, it’s important for IPOC to recognize that we too suffer the effects of colonialism, and are also affected by it, albeit in very different ways.
In conclusion, the overarching message of this essay is the importance of decolonization, an aspect of which is the reclamation of the part of your culture and history that has been stolen from you, and finding pride in it. Elliot states that “to say that I am Native means that is my afﬁliation, my nation, the group I have allegiance to. It doesn’t conflict to say I’m both Native and white-passing, or that I had to come to the culture later in life because of family circumstances. Those are things a lot of people who are Indigenous have to deal with” (Betthune, 2017).
However, and let me be very clear: I am not advocating for white people to get on Ancestry.ca, take a DNA test, and claim they are WSIPs just because the results told them they have a small percentage of Indigenous DNA. There is a huge difference between having a connection to living, breathing Indigenous relatives and hearing their stories, or knowing your family has native ancestry that they choose not to acknowledge because of trauma and the effects of systemic racism, and claiming native ancestry just because your great-great-great-grandmother’s second husband was Indigenous. This is a definite no-no, and further discredits WSIPs and undermines our ability to be accepted in Indigenous communities and by IPOC.
Another aspect of decolonization that is necessary is to break down the barriers that the Indian Act and colonialism have built between our people. While status and non-status Indians*, Inuit, and Metis are different, we do have much in common, and would benefit immensely from listening to each other’s stories, histories, and experiences.
By remaining divided and isolated, it is harder for Indigenous people to mobilize. It is harder to organize protests and marches and teach-ins. By alienating Indigenous people from one another, colonialism is preventing us from utilizing our strength and resilience to fight back against the system that wronged us in the first place. Let’s see what happens when we work together — I guarantee we’ll be unstoppable.
Bethune, Brian. (27 March 2017) Alicia Elliot on the spectacular Indigenous Renaissance in Canadian Arts. Macleans. Retreived 18 June, 2019 from https://www.macleans.ca/society/alicia-elliott-on-the-spectacular-indigenous-renaissance-in-canadian-arts/
Dacumos, Nico. (2 August 2017). Should Light-Skinned People of Color Voluntarily Exclude Ourselves from People of Color Spaces? Everyday Feminism. Retrieved 16 June 2019 from https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/08/light-skinned-poc-spaces/
Downey, Adrian. (March 2017). Speaking in Circles: Indigenous Identity and White Privilege. Mount Saint Vincent University. Halifax, Nova Scotia. Retreived 17 June 2019 from http://dc.msvu.ca:8080/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10587/1800/AdrianDowneyMAEdThesis2017.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Ellingburg, Misty. (24 July 2015). I am a Native American Woman with White-Privilege. WordPress blog. Retrieved 16 June 2019 from https://mfaconfessions.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/i-am-a-native-american-woman-with-white-privilege/
Tutton, Michael. (30 October 2017). Missing, murdered Indigenous women inquiry hears ‘white-passing’ appearance changes police response. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 17 June 2019 from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/missing-murdered-indigenous-women-inquiry-to-hold-hearings-in-nova-scotia/article36764310/
Watanabe, Maria. (2015). Do “White Passing” PoC Have Privilege? | Feminist Fridays. Retrieved June 18, 2019. from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPLjYd9dlew
originally published on Medium.com, 2019