My skin is rosy and slightly tan. I have short, dark brown hair and common brown eyes. I have a slight accent but America is the melting pot of languages, so who would notice how I say my “G”s and “A”s? You would meet me and just assume that I’m white. But that’s not exactly true. I’m half white, but my other half is Native American. My Zuni mom is so dark that on her best day her skin looks like the really good potting soil. My dad, by contrast, was so white he wouldn’t tan -- he would get red blotches. Most mixed kids come out of that situation with a noticeable pigment. Most mixed kids, you can usually tell that there’s something other than white in their heritage. But for my sister and I, we ended up with white skin.
It’s weird being white-passing, mostly because I never feel completely whole in either culture. But it’s not that uncommon. Even kids who are full-blooded Native can be born looking white. I know many who are born with lighter skin and sometimes they aren’t even mixed raced. I knew a full-blooded Navajo girl who came out looking yellow like a barbie doll. And it’s not just in the Native American community. I’ve known Hispanics, African Americans and Asians who could pass for white.I’m sure everyone has met a person who could pass for white but aren't. But what you may not know is how differently these white-passing kids are treated. So here are some things only white-passing people would understand.
1. You’re in between cultures.
There are the people you look like and the people you identify as but neither feel quite right. For the longest time I felt like an outsider in my own culture. But it's more because society tells me I can't belong to a people I don't look like.
2. You have to remind people of your ethnicity
Sometimes people ask. A girl recently asked my sister what her ethnicity was because she couldn't tell just from appearances. Personally, I think it shouldn't matter what you are. But it doesn't hurt to ask so you don't offend anyone.
3. White privilege has never been more obvious.
Teachers, police and strangers definitely treat me better because I'm white-passing. I wish I could believe they treat me better because I'm a nice person, but I'm not that naive.
4. You experience racism first hand.
Racist people who think you're white will treat you nicely but then they make an offensive joke, and you fall silent. You tell them what you are and they look at you with an expression you just can't describe. Some of the nicer people will try and explain themselves. Like, "Oh...I didn't mean. If I had known, I never would have said..." Sure, you might not have said it to me but you'd still be thinking it.
5. It’s not just white people who treat you differently.
I think the worst kind of racism comes from your own people. In the Native American community there's a kind of solidarity against white people, which is definitely racism when you get right down to it. But even my family on my Zuni side looks at me with a mix of distance and hidden disgust.
6. People won’t believe you’ve experienced racism or hardship.
Just because I'm white-passing doesn't exclude me from my culture or the racism that comes along with it. I'm not making up my heritage and I'm not denying the white part of me either. And no, I'm not making up the persecution I've went through to get sympathy; this stuff really happens.
7. You’re obligated to "act white."
I have to speak eloquently without the accent that comes with my culture. Seriously, my white relatives used to criticize my Zuni accent until I sounded more white.
I don't have to learn my culture's language or care about its history. My mom never told me any of the old stories. She didn't teach me the language even though I wanted to learn. But she's teaching my full-blooded nephew the language.
I have to be smart and succeed in life because my white skin color is a blessing I need to take advantage of. I have to be politically active in order to get my culture's needs met because it's impossible for anyone of color to get noticed. People expect so much of me because they think I can do more as a white person.
These are some of the things I've experienced as a white-passing girl in the Native American community, but I'm sure people in other cultures experience similar treatment. People are the same everywhere.
I'm not writing to get sympathy and these stupid racist moments don't consume my life, it's just an interesting thing to think about.