All my life I have struggled with my identity, my racial identity in particular. In what is supposedly a post racial society there are no clear answers to my questions. Cultural and racial identity are more important than ever in The United States as we seem to be losing civil rights. The only answer I have found in my identity hunt is “neurodivergent/disabled.”
My awareness of my otherness began at a very young age. I am biracial, mixed white and Native American Indian. The first memories of my outsider status are from when I was in preschool. At that time, I lived in a very small rural town, full of farms that employ migrant workers. Most of the migrant workers were hispanic (primarily Mexican). My mother has black hair and is very tan as she is ½ Native American, and I tan very well in the summer and I have very dark brown hair. My preschool teacher saw my mother and automatically assumed I was Mexican. As I progressed in my education, standardized testing confirmed my outsider status; there was never a “bubble” for me. I do not fit any of their classifications. As I got older and began thinking critically about Native American culture and I had the realization that I knew nothing about who I am.
I had always been aware of my otherness and its effects, but all I knew the absence of an identity. It had taken me 18 years to realize that while I could recite my father’s family tree for four generations, I had no knowledge of my mother’s father. My maternal grandfather was Native American, but because of racist attitudes held in the 1950s, the hospital staff felt it would be best if my grandfather’s name be left off of my mother’s birth certificate. In the 1950s, Native Americans were treated like second class citizens and were discriminated against like all minorities. My grandmother agreed to leave his name off, after it was explained to her how difficult the life of a non-white child would be. My mother was told to pass for white if she could and to never admit to being ½ Native American. As a result of the racist culture my mother was raised in she, unknowingly taught me to “pass.”
The sense of otherness that I have had since childhood has stayed with me and probably always will. During my young childhood years I was aware of it on a macro level; in elementary school I was curious about Native American culture. By high school, I was going through the motions of “passing”; I wore the same clothes as the white girls and styled my hair the same way. I always felt like an outsider. For example, my friends talked about tanning at the beach. For them it was a tedious long process. I was tan in three days of good sun (I have had exactly one sunburn in my life). At my after school job I worked first as a bagger and then in produce. Everyone assumed I was Mexican (even people I had known all my life). I lived in a town of about 1000 people, and went to the same school K-12. People still made blanket assumptions about my racial & cultural identity.
When I was fourteen, my mother decided to pursue tribal registration for my brother and I. My elder brother was graduating from high school that year, and he needed college tuition. Applying for tribal membership was difficult for mom. She had been brought up to eschew that part of herself, and now she had to acknowledge it for the future of her children. The application was immediately denied, her father was not listed on her birth certificate. So, even though genetic testing would prove that we are respectively ½ and ¼ Native American, it didn’t matter.
The racist tactics the doctors used to influence my grandmother not to have my grandfather’s name listed on the birth certificate had closed the door to tribal membership. I was disappointed at this refusal not because of the monetary aspect, but because I had hoped that this would help me find my identity. I was now an intruder into their culture; it seemed like I no longer had the right to identify with the Native American part of myself. Today, because I do not belong to a tribe explaining what race I am is usually very difficult. I have to explain that I am a combination of white and Native American (without tribal recognition). This is an awkward conversation to have when meeting people or when rude people would ask me at work.
Most people are familiar with the concept of blood quantum, or the one drop rule, and many people still view race that way. This means I have to explain why I am not in a tribe (as I am ¼ Native American). People do not want to know about the different ways that racism affected ALL groups and what the fallout from such racism is. I know exactly what tribe I am from, where my grandfather was from and what band he belonged to, but I know nothing of my Native American heritage. The racism of the 1950s is still alive, it still takes on many forms and is in many actions.
Fortunately I am a grown woman now, and I finally know who I am. Disabled, neurodivergent, female, bi-racial and atheist are parts of my identity. It is still difficult to talk about being Native American as part of my identity, but it slowly becomes easier as I discuss the intersection of the other parts of myself, with it and with each other.
Liz C. is a new co-blogger here at Shaping Clay. She is the writer of the original Big-Tent Neurodiversity post, she is an artist, and she will be sharing her perspective on multiple social justice and neurodivergence topics in the coming weeks and months.