I am a white person, and I write a lot about race/ethnicity and even colonialism, the social construction of race, and doing things to subvert my racial privileges as a white person and my settler privileges as a person who is a transplant to the land on which I have lived all my life. Though I write about these things from my own perspective (and re-blog posts from other authors when my words would fall significantly short of adequate), my perspective is more often than not informed by the experiences of people unlike myself, which I read about or listen to in their own words, and reflect upon in this blog. I also guest-post on an irregular basis on a blog that seeks to draw issues of racial privilege into the light of the great big atheism/skepticism movement, which is dominated by white heteronormative cisgendered men. I sat down one day and thought about how to communicate some of what I write about here, but in a condensed format, over there. This post is what I came up with at the time — Race/Ethnicity Just Isn’t Simple attempts to explore, although concisely, where the lines become blurred for people of colour who pass as another race. The post you are now reading is going to attempt to explore the complications of being a white person passing for someone who isn’t white.
Conditional White Privilege
White privilege is systemic. This is a direct result of systemic racism, and that result also maintains systemic racism in a vicious cycle of inequality and abuse. What this means for white people (or people of colour who conditionally pass as white) is that by the simple matter of chance, or what amounts to a birth lottery windfall in terms of artificially constructed race (and often in terms of settler privilege as well), they inherit a specific location of social privilege through no fault or hard work of their own. That birth lottery windfall happened to me, and I happened to have been born on a continent where my blood is not indigenous to the land. I am Danish and English on one side of my family; and Russian, Polish, and Jewish on the other (though until fairly recently, my Polish and Jewish background had been withheld from me). I grew up in a home inhabited by racist white parents with a chip on their shoulder about their social standing in terms of class (people I am perfectly comfortable calling rednecks, white trash, or honkies), and though the odds were stacked against the possibility that I would ever become the socially conscious person I am today, by matter of chance and a lot of hard work, here I am. I have frequently been acutely aware of what it feels like to be racially privileged. I have also frequently made mistakes that reinforce that privilege, but I work on a regular basis through direct action to make up for it in abundance. The work that I do is not motivated by guilt, however; it is motivated by a continually strengthening sense of where I come from, an even stronger sense of justice, and a desire to see a more just world in my lifetime. Unfortunately, many white people are motivated by guilt.
Though white privilege is systemic, and though I have inherited it as a matter of pure chance in the birth lottery, there are certain contexts in which that social privilege is entirely conditional. For people of colour who are frequently socially read as white (e.g., fair-skinned people of mixed racial/ethnic heritage), or who can at times socially pass as white (with added emphasis on context-dependence — this can be intentional or not), this is an example of conditional white privilege. In other words, as long as no one perceiving them thinks they are an appropriate target at which to hurl racial prejudice, discriminate against, or perpetrate other racially motivated abuses, they will experience being socially read as a white person. This can change on a moment’s notice by virtue of particularly telling body language alone (even if it is subtle) or by virtue of spoken words, both of which have the power to turn the perceiver’s attitude towards the perceived a full 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Many of my friends have experienced this and shared what it is like for them in the moment, in conversations during which I’ve picked apart the social construction of whiteness out loud. White people picking whiteness apart is still a relatively rare event by my observation, but a relatively frequent exercise of mine, and one of the ways I personally use my social privileges as a white person to diffuse and subvert my own privileges. It’s work that I genuinely believe all white anti-racist allies need to do, of their own volition, in order to be continually effective as allies.
What I didn’t realize last year when I first began speaking these ideas out loud (rather than exclusively in writing) was that I, too, have conditional white privilege. Though it’s not nearly as sensitive or high-risk for me as it is for anyone who is a person of colour passing as a white person, it is nevertheless there. And because I actually am a white person, this creates several complications. There are times when I am a white person passing for an indigenous person until I acknowledge that I’m white. There are also times that I am a white person passing for a white person trying but failing to pass as an indigenous person, until I openly acknowledge that I know where I come from and do not think of myself as the next Grey Owl in line. These episodes happen in all mediums of human interaction, and are happening to me in face-to-face interactions with increasing frequency. Part of this is the way I dress, but an enormous part of it is the way that I speak and carry myself. And I’m still in the process of learning just how often this is actually the case, but part of this increasingly frequent experience of mine is even something as simple as selective attention to details on the part of the people perceiving me as not-white—people who weren’t paying attention through any of the umteen times I talked about my heritage as a white person while I am directly in their presence; or when I’ve talked about how I am connecting to my ancestors’ traditional ways (in a metaphorical way) by learning about the traditional ways of the indigenous peoples here, which in turn is changing my relationship as a settler here to the indigenous peoples (although I will always be a settler, I don’t have to live in a colonial mindset).
White Passing for Red Passing as White
It’s actually shocking to me how little it has taken me to start passing unintentionally as an indigenous person until I declare myself otherwise. It started quite some time ago, simply by virtue of the way that I talk or write, and what I choose to talk or write about. Gradually, as I have been learning and applying more skills that have been passed on from generation to generation since time immemorial; such as cedar weaving, beadwork, and leather work, it’s been happening with dramatically increased frequency. While I’ve been learning these skills, of course, I have also been developing insight into a specific spiritual ceremony, and a greater sense of spirituality manifesting in my day-to-day life. I have been on this journey since as far back as I can remember, but I have only relatively recently received teachings directly from indigenous elders, because I was still walking on a different road until last Summer. In that sense, I have been adrift between two worlds for a majority of my life, but when things began to change, I finally became anchored to one of them. And while I don’t want to sound cliché, the road I became anchored to through the events of last Summer, Fall, and Winter, is the path I am walking now. Along that path, I have picked up a few things that I wear every day (e.g., a medicine bag), that are very likely contributing to my increasingly frequent experience of racial ambiguity. But there’s something else going on that distinguishes me from white people who just blatantly appropriate these things. I cannot deny that this shows in the way I carry myself, learn skills and bits and pieces of indigenous languages, and apply those skills and teachings that I have received. This is all very likely contributing just as much if not more so to people mistaking me for an indigenous person until I say otherwise. And make no mistake—when someone asks me where I’m from, asks me what nation I’m from, or tells me that they thought I was an indigenous person (and people of all races say these things to me), I tell them the full truth of my ethnic heritage. I don’t pretend I’m someone I’m not.
Less often in person (to date, anyway), but no less surprising and often radically more abusive, is when I am mistaken as an indigenous person in a medium that is not face-to-face. Due to how much more complex that gets, because I still don’t hide behind a false narrative of who I am, even in that context, I am going to address that in a separate section of this blog post. First, there are further complications I’ve already obliquely referred to above, about being white passing as red (see immediately below).
White Passing for White Trying & Failing to Pass as Red
Grey Owl was a white man who was born in England to white parents, and long story short, came to live in the indigenous way in Ojibwa territory and convinced everyone (including his own wife, of Ojibwa heritage herself) that he’s part Apache until two years before his death. He had become world-famous and a frequent performer of indigeneity in the public sphere—particularly of the kind of sideshow Pan-Indian version of indigeneity that interested and entertained white people whose only contact with the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island was through dramatic colonial narratives that were (and still are) horrifically racist and misogynistic. Though Grey Owl accomplished a lot for a white guy passing himself fraudulently as an indigenous man, his legacy does not exist removed from a far greater legacy of European colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and cultural genocide. It is my firm opinion that what this man did with his life until he came clean about his identity was an extremely severe violation of one of the core principles of the people he was so entranced by. In other words, he should have just told people the truth, and the fact that he didn’t takes away from what he accomplished in terms of raising awareness about indigenous peoples’ relationship to land (and in turn, settlers’ relationship to land).
Similarly, I do not exist removed from a far greater legacy of European colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and cultural genocide. I do not exist removed from the legacy of Grey Owl, either. I am acutely aware that my very existence, in the way that I carry myself and the teachings and skills I have received, may seem suspicious at first to a lot of people (and again, that’s applicable to people of all races). White people who don’t appear to understand anything deeper than superficial facts about indigenous cultures borrowed from European anthropologists, are actually the only people who have ever vocalized in words, their suspicions of my continually developing relationship to land and culture as a settler where I sit. As I recall, one such white person even directly accused me of pretending to be Grey Owl, even after I had already stated the facts of my Eurasian heritage (it’s that selective attention thing I mentioned above). But there are also indigenous people who don’t appear to have an active connection to their cultural traditions, or who have never had the opportunity to foster those connections in any meaningful way, due to forced displacement either through residential schooling or the foster care system, who have expressed their suspicions about me. However, these interactions have been primarily (but not exclusively) through body language, and again, I have been honest about my heritage. What surprises me is that other white people seem to get more offended, and experience a more enduring sensation of offence, than indigenous peoples who bear the same suspicions towards me, and who are clearly tied more closely to the issue due to their relationship to the history within the perceived offence itself. Whereas indigenous people will tend to process their emotions internally after they learn that I not only know I am not indigenous but am also actively not trying to pass myself off as though I was, white people tend to get even angrier and more aggressive. This is that further complication I mentioned above, that I said I would be addressing further down.
White Loyalty Card
Being a white person, I am expected by other white people — whether they are aware of it or not — to do everything I can to maintain the status quo to our mutual or collective benefit. Since all us white people have it so good, I’m ruining the fun for everyone else if I challenge that status quo. And since white people are socially privileged above people of colour (and settlers above indigenous peoples), my eager solidarity with other white people (and fellow settlers here) is assumed, as if it were contractually obligated. Thus, when I challenge the status quo, or do things to diffuse and subvert my white (and settler) privileges and encourage (or even challenge) others to do the same, I’m perceived as being disloyal to my own kind and to the people who are most entitled to my everlasting loyalty, even though they have literally never done anything to earn it over the course of history or my lifetime. In other words, what I call my White Loyalty Card is officially revoked the moment I’m perceived as a traitor to “my own people” (who are not defined by my real life relationships, but are decided for me by other white people on the basis of my skin colour).
I have often said in conversations about race/ethnicity and anti-colonialism that I feel it is completely legitimate for people of colour to feel suspicious of, defensive towards, or even angry at white people in my position; and that conversely, it is completely illegitimate for white people to feel this way. And I say this because of the divergent social locations inherited by people of colour and white people in relation to racial privilege. But really, the reason why it’s particularly illegitimate for white people to react with aggression or violence towards a white person in my position is because of this White Loyalty Card idea. When I first began becoming increasingly vocal against racism, and especially against colonialism, I essentially surrendered all loyalty to white people with the notable exception of white people who are also making the same sacrifices to be allies to indigenous peoples and people of colour. I did so knowing exactly what I was doing, and anticipating some of what has come as a result. It is fundamentally absurd for white people to get angry at me for being disloyal towards them as though this was a sudden or unexpected shift in the climate that is in no way justifiable. Of course it’s justifiable. We’re talking about fucking genocide, here, for fuck’s sake. And I have, in fact, been consistently disloyal to them for quite some time already, and I am prepared to continue on this way without sparing their feelings. This is part of how I became anchored to the spiritual path I now walk upon, which unintentionally conveys racial ambiguity to other people.
And you know what? I’m ok with that. I just think other people (but especially white people) need to start openly acknowledging conditional white privilege as well as enduring white privilege. It doesn’t mean racism is suddenly conditional too. It means your relationship to racism can turn on a dime, and so can someone else’s.