White Privilege is Not Just a White Thing
It is sometimes given to those who don't want it.
When I first started talking about writing this article, I was immediately hit with several white people wanting to argue that there is no such thing as white privilege, even questioning what its definition is. This piece is not about whether or what it is, but the fact that Non Black People of Color (NB POC) often are recipients of it, whether they want to be, or not. Often without even realizing it.
First, let me explain my own racial identity; not just my identity, but my legal identity and citizenship. I am a Native American, albeit a mixed-blood Native American. People often ask why, since I appear to be white, do I choose to call myself a Native American? I mean almost everybody you run into these days is Cherokee, right? Then I explain to them that they are not aware of what constitutes a Native American.
Being a mixed-blood also indicates that I am also part something else …. Those somethings are lots of things, not even all white. I am also 1/8 black – but I don’t claim to be black because I do not know anything about the black culture, the community, or anything else that would identify me as a black person. The remaining white portions – Irish, French, English, Scottish – do not qualify me to say I am any one of those, either. I am not French, as I am not a French citizen so I don’t tell them what to do as far as politics, their language, current events, or anything else. I only have French heritage and ancestry. But I AM Native American.
I have been issued a “Certificate of Degree of Blood” from the United States Bureau of the Interior (often called a ‘white card,’ ironically) which all people who are legally Native Americans have to carry just as a Jewish person had a number and a yellow star in Germany. Without that card, I am not legally a Native American. I also have dual citizenship in that I am a citizen of a tribal nation, a sovereign with a government-to-government relationship with the United States. I am legally a Native American. I am also culturally a Native American – I participated in spiritual ceremonies for many years, can read and write and somewhat speak the language, and know how to cook the foods. I know our traditional stories and customs.
So now that you know what an actual Native American is, you will realize that most of the people who say they are - probably aren’t, although they may well have the heritage and ancestry.
But, like thousands of others who are citizens of my tribe, I am a mixed blood and have auburn hair and green eyes – a trademark in our tribe. My skin is also very light, another common thing to see in our tribal citizens. That makes me fair game and an unknowing recipient of White Privilege.
I first realized this when traveling with a small group of fullblood friends and family, and we stopped in Tennessee for some dinner. The waitress finally approached our table to take our order, and took mine first. When I was finished, she looked at me and queried, “What do THEY want?” I felt horrible, but the rest of the journey was full of laughter and me being teased about being their ‘spokesman.’ That was the first time I realized that I must be the ‘victim’ of White Privilege every day. My white grandparents made sure I was. They took me from the other side of my family and raised me as a white kid, even telling me that my ‘grandma looked like she walked off the reservation,’ followed by -a few days later – ‘those Indians are no better than n****s.’ They tried to make me ashamed that I was Native American. But it didn’t work.
And while we’re on the subject of being ‘ashamed’ of being Native American, I just want to put that notion to rest right now, right here. What an awful thing to say! If your family was Native American, they were NOT ashamed, but rather, they were illegals. If they did not stay with their tribe and move to reservations assigned to them by the US Government but stayed or moved somewhere else, they were illegals as Native Americans were not US citizens until 1924.
But I digress, in the name of education.
I am, unfortunately, the ‘victim’ of White Privilege all of the time. I do not have to be concerned walking into an ‘all white’ situation, don’t need to worry about being served, not called ‘squaw,’ and am automatically classified as ‘white’ in any setting that asks for racial identity. I am seated in the order of arrival, not followed around in stores by clerks or guards, asked my opinion in groups, being able to expect my favorite brand or flavor to be in stock and if not, not being detained because I asked why they don’t have it (I’ve seen this happen first handed), can fall asleep in the library without being considered homeless, and any number of things that make up White Privilege. As Katherine Duff Smith stated, “A downside of that very real privilege is that people say racist things to you/in front of you because they think you are white, and that white equals racist.”
Social Privilege is not something that can be ‘attained,’ nor is it a goal to reach. It is something that automatically happens by society towards the group of people that are considered ‘normal.’ Those who are not ‘normal’ in the environment they are in are treated differently. If a white person does not know what it feels like, I’d like to invite them to hitchhike through an Indian Reservation, or get a flat tire at night in the inner city. Would they feel uncomfortable? I’m not saying anything bad would happen to them, but would they feel uncomfortable? Probably. At least everyone I have asked has admitted they would.
Have you ever gone into a grocery store and not been able to find any food that is familiar? Have you had to worry about your children going to school and only learning the history of another group of people and not their own? Have you been told to go back to where you came from, even though you are NATIVE American? These are real concerns for my people. And while it is finally ‘not cool’ to call certain races such as black, Chinese, even Mexican by derogatory names, the white culture still thinks its ok to have Indian mascots and call rivers, streams, mountains and valleys by a derogatory term for a woman’s genitals (squaw).
If another Trail of Tears were to happen, I would have to go. I would have to walk at gunpoint, possibly being raped several times if not killed, because I have my ‘white card’ and my tribal citizenship BUT ….. if the soldiers simply SAW me, they wouldn’t force me to go, thinking I am white. Those who have simply Native American heritage wouldn’t either, they would have White Privilege because of the color of their skin. What would I do? I would do the same as I do everyday – I would pull out my card, and clarify that I am Native American. And I would go, with my people.
Being Native American and a citizen of my tribe affects what laws apply should I be victim of a crime, what license tag I have on my car, what doctor and hospital I go to, and other legal things. But if I’m just out in a store or walking down the street, I am treated with White Privilege.
THAT is what I am ashamed of.
About the author
Lisa LaRue-Baker has been reading and writing since a young age. She has authored, edited and been a consultant on hundreds of articles, handouts and books. She is a tribal historian, musician, and registered natural health practitioner.