Friday, May 16, 2008

Musings on identity: How do we define ethnicity? (by Suzie)

           My mother’s biological father was American Indian, but we rarely spoke of it. I wrote my grandparents almost every week, starting when I was a kid, but I never told them that I knew the shameful secret: that Grandma had gotten pregnant by another man before she knew Grandpa, and that Grandpa later adopted Mom.
           I didn’t think of this other man as my grandfather, and I didn’t dwell on his being Indian. With green eyes and red hair, Mom looked Irish, and that's how she identified. Mom was staunchly antiracist. I don’t think she denied her Indian heritage out of bigotry, but rather out of fear that she would be exposed as a bastard, and reveal family secrets. 
           Mom told me that Grandma had mentioned the man was Cherokee, but I have no idea if Grandma really knew. The man had an Anglicized, common name. In Cherokee, N.C., I looked at the rolls for the Eastern Band, but couldn’t find his name.
            This is one of many things in my life that has made me wonder about ethnicity and identity. If this man had acknowledged Mom as his child, if Mom had had a birth certificate listing him as her father, if he had been enrolled as a tribal member, I might have been considered Native American.
            The day that I found out about my grandfather, did I become Indian? A quarter Indian? Because I wasn’t raised in any sort of indigenous culture, I’ve never identified as such. Sometimes, on a U.S. reservation or among indigenous people in Latin America, I’ve wanted to blurt out, “We are not so far apart. I’m not as white as you might think.” But, of course, we are far apart. I have all the privileges of whiteness. I gain only an advantage from having Indian heritage among liberal friends who consider whiteness an original sin. The oppression, in regard to being Indian, was experienced by my biological grandfather and those who came before and after him who were seen as Indian.
        Maybe he was a great guy who really cared about my grandmother but abandoned her and their child only because he had suffered much hardship and wanted to spare them. Maybe if he hadn’t been so poor, he would have claimed my mother as his child. Oppression doesn’t necessarily ennoble people, though. Maybe he was a jerk who preyed on my grandmother because she was innocent, and then abandoned Mom as a nuisance. I’ll never know.
            My Irish-American grandmother, who put down every ethnic group except Irish, had a large portrait of me. In a loving tone, she would remark how Irish I looked. Seeing the Irish in me – and not seeing anything else – helped her love me.
           No one else looks at me and thinks I'm Irish. Perhaps that's why I don't identify strongly as Irish. Instead, I’m much more likely to identify as Jewish. (Yes, yes, I know there are Irish Jews, and I know Judaism is a religion, but for many Jews, it also is a cultural and ethnic identity.) My father was a Russian Jewish atheist, in the great tradition. My mother didn’t convert – to either Judaism or atheism. Because Judaism is matrilineal, most Jews would not consider me Jewish. Nevertheless, I have a Jewish last name, and my dark hair and eyes, high cheekbones and long nose seem to fit a Jewish stereotype. Jews have embraced me, if not as one of their own, well, at least close enough in the South.
               My parents married during World War II, when Jews were not considered quite white. Some white kids taunted me for my looks when I was growing up, and later, some men found me “darkly” attractive or “exotic.” (This was Texas, OK?) I understand that I have white privilege, compared with people of color. Within the broad category of “white,” however, there are many advantages and disadvantages, just as is true for the broad category of “people of color.”
               Like a lot of people, I have lived my life as part this and that. Multiples make up my identity. Who I think I am, and how others perceive me, may change with time and place.